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.