The First Draft is the Hardest, or my reasons for using NaNoWriMo

Hey Potential Participants of Introduction to Novel Writing,

We all know that we can research and plan a novel to death, but that the difference between a great idea and a great novel is writing it.

I should know.

While I pumped out a novel first draft when I was 19, and finished another first draft of another novel when I was 29, I had plenty of problems along the way–especially on the second one.

When I was 17, I had a teacher in Bledsoe, Texas who taught me creative writing for the first time. She was dedicated and I was her only student–outside of the two junior high students she taught Math, English, social studies, etc, the rest of the school day. We worked on my novel. I wrote like crazy every day one summer and every week we would meet and discuss two chapters and I would give her two chapters to review. I finished that novel. It was not a pretty novel: 6 main characters who meet their 6 adult selves–so 12 main characters in a convoluted plot that would have taken a team of cave rescue people to pull a reader out of. But that’s okay. It got a finished draft.

The second novel I worked on for three or four years. I returned again and again to the first few chapters, always tinkering with them. That is, until a good friend of mine set up a system where we each turned in chapters to each other, and through her, I nearly finished that novel—only to discover that I had some major problems.

The third novel–which I haven’t mentioned–has been a wonderful idea. I wrote 52 first chapters. I got as far as chapter three, but I did have it nearly completely plotted out. I felt like there was so much more research I needed to do before I finished it. Blah, blah, blah (the excuses, you’ve heard them, you may have made them. )

Barb Dunlop, a successful romance novelist with many, many books to her credit, told me and others that the main ingredient to writing was “getting your butt in the chair” and writing. I feel like this is the MAIN point to learning how to write. It is a skill. It is a craft. But it is not about knowledge, anymore than cooking is about reading a good cookbook and memorizing recipes. It is about cooking and screwing up and throwing away what you cooked, or eating what you cooked and realizing–hmmm, I forgot salt. It is developing a skill and craft, and that can only be accomplished by doing it.

National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) is a tool whereby people can push out of them a novel that’s been waiting to be finished, that you’ve piddled around on for years, that you’ve researched and researched, outlined and developed. It exists as a set of notes–not a novel. NaNoWriMo–if used well–can get that novel born. The “used well” part is what I’m adding in this course: instruction on how to write a novel, planning the novel, analyzing successful novels, and creating a supportive group.

My succesful writing experiences had three things in common: a supportive person waiting for the next chapter, reading it, ready for it; very little criticism in the first draft stages; deadlines.

The first semester of Introduction to Novel Writing is a semester where you are encouraged to write your novel, given everything you need to write–tool wise–and set in front of a computer and allowed to write. The first semester is low on criticism of your first draft, high on criticism of successful novels (and some stinkers–wait till I show you the Nazi Werewolf novel I once read), and focused on method and productivity.

NEXT semester, we’ll begin workshopping your novel, if you want, and continuing to hone your craft. But you can’t really critique much in the first draft…. the first draft you must self-critique AFTER it is out of you. Because before it comes out, you don’t know what you have. You just have to write and write.

So, I ask you to come to class excited that this will be the year that you finish a complete draft of your novel. It may be ugly, broken up, unruly and wild, but it will be a finished draft and then you can see what you have. I am so proud of my broken, ugly first drafts because–in the end–I know I completed an idea and got a product. I get to choose what happens now, but at least I know what I have.

Come join us this semester and come home with your “idea” on paper!

2 thoughts on “The First Draft is the Hardest, or my reasons for using NaNoWriMo

  1. awalkabout September 19, 2008 / 9:59

    Oh I absolutely agree. The real craft of a novel is in the editing, and you have nothing to edit unless you have a first draft! NaNoWriMo is excellent for this purpose. Get SOMETHING on paper, then you have places to go. 🙂 Hope to see you there!

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