Friday, July 2, 2010

Git 'Er Done

Last night, a colleague said to me, “I can’t imagine writing a novel. I start things... poems... short stories... But I can’t imagine finishing a novel. How do you git ’er done?”

Well, finishing a novel starts with finishing the first draft. Nothing could be simpler. And nothing could be harder.

Here are five strategies that help me in my daily struggle to git ’er done.

Nic’s Top Five Tips for Gittin’ That First Draft Done

Tip #5: Plan your plot. If the notion of plotting strikes terror in your heart — or boredom in your brain — keep in mind said plan doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed. You can just hit the highlights.
When writing that mystery, romantic suspense, or thriller, listing five turning points keeps me from painting myself into a corner — and wasting time. It can also keep my middle from sagging. Well, my novel’s middle.

A sagging middle in a finished novel can serve as a stoplight for agents and editors. Talk about a time waster! And a heartbreaker.

You can avoid those pitfalls, and finish a first draft, when you plan your plot.

Tip #4: Word count? Forgeddaboutit! Sometimes, at certain stages of a first draft, the words rush from your fingertips, don’t they? But other times? I know: not so much. So set a time limit instead of a word count.

When the going gets tough, I get going in two-hour increments. Don’t have two hours? That’s quite all right. Work with what you’ve got. Just devote time to putting words on the page. It’ll be tempting to tinker with words you’ve already written, but resist! Sure, you’ll eventually need to revise this manuscript. But dedicate time to writing new words.

After all, that’s the only way you’ll reach the end of your draft.

Tip #3: Skip ahead. If that scene just won’t take shape, skip it — for now. Don’t be afraid to type SOMETHING PIVOTAL HAPPENS HERE. Or JOHN PROTAGONIST SAYS SOMETHIING PROFOUND NOW. Highlight the area so you can find it quickly later. And give yourself permission to discover the details as the rest of your story unfolds.

You'll make the most of your time and save yourself some headaches.

Tip #2: If in doubt, throw it out. You know that long, elaborate paragraph that you can’t get quite right? Or that plot twist that will fit if you force it into shape? Beware. You might be trying to shove a square peg through a round hole. So toss it. Let the section rest while you press on.

Now, this tip is difficult for me to follow. But I’ve found when I’ve hung onto the section in question, hammered at it, let it rest, then looked at it again, the prose is always labored. The draft’s pacing is always interrupted. And the Rockville 8 always flags it during critique.

When I’m in doubt? When I throw it out? When I let it rest while I go on? When I come back, I don’t miss it. Because the draft didn’t need it.

Tip #1: Remember the First Draft Rule. Strap on your seatbelt. The following rule may shock you. Here it is: The first draft doesn’t have to be good; it only has to be done.

I’ve heard this rule cited more than once in newsrooms across North America. And it’s one I try to live by. Good will come later. But only if the draft is done first.

Of course you want your best work to sally forth in contests, to agents, and to editors. Worry about perfection in the next draft, though. For now, git ’er done.
So those are my Top Five Tips for finishing a first draft. But I’m always on the lookout for more. When it comes to a first draft, how do you git ’er done?


  1. Nic -- I'm still learning. I'm still figuring out how to get the first draft done. I've "done it" several times now, and every time was different. Just pushing through, without a real plan, took me so far afield I couldn't find my way home. Trying to plan everything out stops me cold. THIS time, I'm trying a hybrid. Know a few major stops, wing it in between. I'll let you know how it goes. :-)

  2. Nicole,
    As a newly created FINISHER, I thought your points were great - and I also thought, wow, you write completely differently than I do! And that is something all aspiring finishers need to know: It doesn't matter how you write, just write.

    As Nicole said, It doesn't matter if it's right, it only matters if it's done.

    Are you intuitive instead of a plotter, that's ok.
    Do you look for your key points/turning points after you've finished the draft? Fine.
    Are you like Dean Koontz and revise EACH and EVERY PAGE until it is perfect before going on to the next? Well, it obviously works well for him.
    Do you write backwards a la Memento? whatever works, babe.
    Cos, really, for Nicole and for myself, we are not going to judge you. Don't use our ways as your excuse for not finishing. Just git'er dun!!

  3. Hey, Yvonne and Marjanna,

    Yep, hybrid may be the name of the game. I'm always amazed at writers who plot every detail, but I know of so many that get bored with that approach... or get bogged down in it.

    I'm glad I could post about the middle-of-the-road method. It seems we don't often get the chance to stop and consider it.

    By the way, can't wait to hear about your results as you write NEW material. Good on ya for gittin' 'er done!

  4. Great words of wisdom, Nic.

    My process seems to be similar to yours. I make a plan then let the words fly.

    I rework the plan as I go. My outline is a "working outline." Always fluid, always subject to change.

    The best thing I've ever done to help me get that first draft done is to give myself permission to write crap. It silences the internal critic or editor. I firmly let her know she'll have her turn during the second draft and every subsequent draft after that first one. She's been happy to take a bit of a break.

    However, she does get a bit mouthy at times from her corner, so I have to appease her with reassurances of all the juicy work she gets to do once I finish the rough draft. It's worked so far. :)

  5. Ah, Nic,

    About that sagging middle...

    Great points, all of them. I'm in revision mode now and have killed a lot of my babies. Sigh. But these babies were a too twee to live so Tip #2 to the rescue!

    I'd like to plot out the next book a wee bit more to save myself not from the sagging middle but from a back end that took a road to nowhere. Had I spent a little better time on Tip #5, I'd have saved some time on this rewrite.

    But I think my fave advice is Tip #1: A first draft is a first draft is a first draft and all writing is rewriting. You can take that to the bank!

  6. Candy, I love the mental pic of Critical Candy banished to a corner! Must say, though, it seems to work for you! You turn out fearless material faster than anyone I know! And that'll get you where you want to be, I'm sure.

    Keely, yes, I've had a sagging middle once or twice... in my fiction at least! Keep on keeping on with those revisions! I'm glad my tips, even the tough one like #2. If I implement that tip, though, I really save myself a lot of revision grief. It can certainly be a struggle!

  7. Being a nail-biting perfectionist, I'd say that allowing yourself to write a nasty first draft has been something that I've had to learn. It has made the process easier - it's exhausting to revise to perfection before I'm done with the rest. And how do you know if that's even going to BE perfection before you're finished? It might turn out being something thrown away later. Also, I've learned to do some beforehand plotting and not just wing it. I plot the big things every so often and then fill in between. That satisfies my simultaneous needs for control and creativity.

  8. I love how you describe that, Lisa! "A balance between creativity and control." I think you hit the nail on the head.