Sunday 1 December 2013

The Vomit Draft

Too many people don’t start writing – or give up on their writing – because they think that what comes out won’t be “good enough” or what they do manage to get onto paper or screen isn’t quite what they expected.  But here’s a massive writerly not-such-a-secret.  The first draft is usually crap!

I initially became aware of “Shitty First Drafts” thanks to Anne Lamott in her excellent book on writing “Bird By Bird”.  This idea was reinforced at Swanwick this year when James Moran (a successful screenwriter) talked about Draft Zero or the Vomit Draft.  Melvin Burgess at Arvon, also referred to a similar phenomenon.

What comes out when you first start writing a book is just raw material.  But it’s essential to get it out, so that it’s there, ready to be crafted and improved.  “Shitty first drafts” is an obvious expression, but James Moran’s Draft Zero is all the more revealing and informative.  The first draft is often so awful that it can’t even be counted as a first draft.  Draft Zero is for no one’s eyes other than your own.  The first draft usually isn’t either.

The analogy I use when thinking about my writing process is comparing it to making a clay pot.  The first draft is just throwing a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel.  The second draft is when it starts to take some shape.  Subsequent drafts add more detail and definition.

And the Vomit Draft.  Sounds a bit gross, right?  I’ll try not to take the analogy too far, in case you’re feeling a bit queasy :-)  Basically, it means you just spew out the story, the plot, the events, the characters, without a massive amount of editing or even care, as you go.

You don’t worry if it seems long-winded.  You ignore concerns about it not being the most perfectly formed piece of prose or a short-hand clichéd description.  You just write.  You get the story, the plot, the characters, the action, out onto the page.  Perfecting it comes later…in the endless editing.

Having finished B4 and started submitting it to agents (more on that next time), in the last month I’ve found myself writing the vomit draft for a new story.  Despite to-ing and fro-ing over several weeks about which YA story to pursue, I have finally settled on CAF.  Wanting to use what I learnt on the Arvon course to the max and realising that CAF is a massive story (potentially trilogy), I was keen to crack on with it as quickly as possible.  So, seeing as it was perfect timing, I decided to use the principles of November’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to help me.

The idea of this initiative is exactly that of a vomit draft – you write 50,000 words of a novel in a month (roughly 1,667 words a day).  The emphasis is on quantity, not quality.  You just need to get words on the page.

Choosing an image for this post was challenging - be grateful I settled on this one ;-)

I haven’t done NaNoWriMo officially as I didn’t want to upload my work to the site at the end of the month and I already had 10,000 words of CAF (although I didn’t get going until a few days in, but you’re supposed to start from nothing).  Instead I just set myself the target of writing 1,500 words a day (45,000 words by the end of November).

Now, I’ll be honest with you.  I didn’t think I’d be able to do it.  Not, at least, without having to play massive catch-up on my scheduled writing days.  I was also dubious because there was so much that I still didn’t know about the story, and I’d always felt that I needed to before I could possibly start writing it.

But, do you know what?  It’s been fan-flipping-tastic!  I HAVE written 1,500 most days (and always caught up within a day when I haven’t).  Scenes, characters, relationships and conversations have flowed and developed easily as I’ve typed.  Yesterday, at the official end of NaNoWriMo, I'm stoked to be able to tell you that I have indeed hit my self-imposed target of 45,000 words, hurray :-)

Taking the pressure off myself to write something “good” has been highly beneficial.  Sometimes the prose hasn’t been very good, but sometimes it actually has!  Everything I've written has helped the story progress in my thinking, regardless of whether or not it makes the final cut.  And in that I think I’m a better editor than writer, at least I now have something to work with.

When I stop writing, that is.  Which isn’t gonna be for awhile.  I have a huge amount more to explore in this story and potentially another 200,000+ words to write!  Having had such a positive result with them, I’m going to work to NaNoWriMo targets again in January.  In the words of the great philosopher Dory, I’ll just keep spewing, just keep spewing, spewing, spewing…. ;-)

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