Trekking Through the First Draft

Or, How Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned From Backpacking the Appalachian Trail

In 2004, fresh out of college, I hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail. It was a 2,183-mile hike from Georgia to Maine, and it took from March 8th to August 12th. It is, to date, one of the crazier things I’ve ever done. When I tell people about it, they usually don’t comprehend the logistics at first. “Five months of hiking?” they’ll sometimes ask. “How did you stock up on food? Did you ever take a shower? Wash your clothes?”

And the answer is, yes, I did all three relatively easily… just less often than at home. Because the fact is, I didn’t go on a five month hike. Instead, I went on a long string of three-to-four day hikes, strung out in series over five months. Every few days, I’d hitchhike or walk to the nearest town, and buy food, take a break, eat at a restaurant– and almost always take a shower, wash my clothes, and spend the night somewhere marginally more comfortable than my tent. Then I’d hit the trail again, refreshed, rested, and restocked.

Explaining that probably makes it sound less impressive. But still, string 40 or so of those shorter hikes together, and suddenly you can say “I went on a 2,000-mile hike!” And that’s pretty cool to say, no matter how you slice the details.

Writing a novel has a lot in common with that sort of hike. It’s a long and arduous journey, usually over the course of months, and it takes a hell of a lot of willpower to finish the thing. In both cases, a lot of people say, “Someday, I want to do this” and then never get around to actually doing it, just because the size of the task is so intimidating.

Most of the advice you hear for novel writing is along the lines of Just barrel through the first draft. Keep writing. If you make mistakes, you can always fix them afterward. Various motivational tools, like National Novel Writing Month, are geared around this idea: shut off your internal editor, and sprint your way through the words. Just get that first draft out on paper.

Twice now, I’ve written novels by following that school of thought. In both cases, I haven’t been particularly pleased with the result.

But wait! I hear you say. It’s a first draft! It’s not supposed to be good! You’re supposed to take it and then write a better second draft!

Well, yes, but, in both cases I feel like the first draft sort of fell off the rails, and I find myself questioning whether it’s worth it to revise them, or set them aside and try to improve my craft by writing something new. And while I still plan to revise those novels into something better, in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder: Is there a better way of writing a first draft? If I had hiked the Appalachian Trail the way I wrote those first novels, then I would have just charged into the woods and kept running until I keeled over from exhaustion. It’s certainly a strategy, I’m just not sure it’s the best strategy.

When I went to the Rainforest Writers’ Village this year, I had hoped to come up with a few short stories, but instead I came up with an idea for another novel. And I thought, Hmmm… this is the perfect opportunity to try out a different way of writing.

This time, I’m not barreling through the first draft. Instead, I’m looking at the novel the same way I looked at the Appalachian Trail: don’t worry about getting to the very end. Just complete one piece at a time. In the case of the novel, each piece is a chapter. I’m working on one chapter at a time, working on getting it into good shape, then moving on to the next, almost as though each chapter is its own short story, complete with a little mini-arc (which, really, is how a chapter should be anyway).

But wait! I hear. How do you prevent yourself from getting bogged down by the editing? What’s to keep you from spending months nitpicking and perfecting every chapter?

The answer is simple: Writers’ Group. My writers’ group meets every other week, and one of the rules I’m following is that I have to submit a new chapter for every meeting. This will, hopefully, help me keep the pace up.

So this is my Appalachian-Trail-inspired style of novel writing. Slow and steady. One chapter at a time. There will still, of course, be editing to do at the end of it, but I’m hoping the first draft this method produces will be a lot more satisfying, and that maybe I’ll be inspired, rather than intimidated, when it comes to writing a second draft.

I actually think my chapter-by-chapter method would work for both outliners and discovery writers. To go back to the Appalachian Trail analogy, there are two ways to resupply over the course of the five-month hike: one, you can buy food at stores in towns as you go, or two, you can actually plan ahead of time what you’ll need, and mail boxes of supplies to post offices along the way. The first method is nicely analogous to discovery writing, and the second method to outlining. It boils down to a simple question: How much do you plan ahead?

If you’re an outliner, then when you’re ready to start a new chapter, you pull the next piece from your outline and keep going. If you’re a discovery writing, you keep brainstorming your way down the trail. I always resupplied by buying food along the way, making up my menu as I went– I suspect this is why I’m also more of a discovery writer. I have a difficult time keeping to outlines; I’d rather make things up as I go. And while it’s nice to have a final destination (i.e. an ending) in mind, you have to have fun in the journey, too.

Of course, all this works for me, but I don’t necessarily expect it to work for anybody else. And to be honest, I don’t know even know for sure that it works for me yet– I’ve only written a few chapters, but I’m on schedule, and it’s feeling good so far. I’ll let you know how things go.

NaNoWriMo Day 12: On Outlines and First Drafts

Last night I passed the 30,000 word mark. With November less than half over, I’m making pretty good progress.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. My general goal has been to do 2500 words a day, and sometimes the words come easy, sometimes they don’t. I realize now that I actually didn’t outline nearly as much as I could have (or should have) for a story of the genre and the scope I’m trying to tell. In addition to having to keep the characters straight in my head, and guide the plot to make sure it goes in the general direction I want it to go, I’m also having to make up all the setting details as I go, and I quickly realized how much research I didn’t do.

For example: the first third of the book takes place in a fictional Emperor’s Court with an Eastern Asian motif (similar to the Japanese emperor’s court of feudal times). I knew that, and I knew generally how I wanted their time at court to go, but I didn’t think at all about the hundreds of little details that would also be needed: what they would wear, what the characters’ roles would be (I knew they would be servants, but didn’t think much beyond that), what kind of activities would take up their daily lives, what meetings and social events would be like, what the customs would be, what their living quarters would look like, so on and so forth ad nauseum. For the sake of NaNoWriMo, I’ve been winging it as far as filling in all the little setting details, but in December, once the rough draft is done, I’m going to have to go back and make sure all these details feel like they’re part of the same culture, and that the culture makes sense and “feels” real. Sure, it’s fantasy, and I have a huge amount of freedom in making things up, but if it doesn’t feel real to the reader, or if details conflict with each other, then it’s going to snap them out of the story and they’ll probably put the book down.

This is something I’ve been running into with pretty much every scene, and I’m having enough trouble just getting the character voices to sound right and getting the plot to go where I want it to. So my goal in this draft, I’ve decided, is to primarily focus on two things: character voices and plot framework. If I can do that, then I can go back in future drafts and improve the flow of the writing, get the setting details right, make sure the scenes are in the right order from a storytelling perspective, and a million other little things. I just have to get through this draft of the story first, and remind myself that it’s okay if some of it sucks, if I can just get a few things right.

In a previous blog entry I quoted Kevin J. Anderson for inspiration. Today’s inspirational (albeit somewhat more crass) writing quote comes from the great Ernest Hemingway, who said:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

Or, to phrase it a little less crassly, you can revise a bad draft into a good draft. You can’t revise a blank page into anything but a blank page. Just gotta keep reminding myself of that.