How I Write: Step 4 – The Rough Draft

Now for the part of being an author that most authors thought was the only part of being an author before they got started: Writing. In an ideal world, this is what you would spend most of your time doing. In the real world, a high writing-to-other stuff ratio is best, but unless you’ve got “people” to handle all of the other stuff and you’re a pure pantser, then you’re probably going to have to slice out chunks of your schedule for the nuts and bolts of being an author. But those are the other chapters. Let’s get to the good stuff.

The Hardware

There’s not really anything new, hardware-wise, for this step. You’ve got your keyboard, you’ve got your monitor. You’ve got your comfy chair. That’s all you need. I like to keep a pad and pen around for keeping track of things that pop into my head, but you should already have that as well, so we’re all set.

The Software

Again, there’s nothing here that we haven’t covered elsewhere, but rather than leave this space blank, let me throw in a recommendation for an optional but very useful add-on.

If you’ve gotten this far, and particularly if you get much further than this, you should probably think about getting a decent backup option to make sure you don’t suffer a catastrophic hard drive failure and end up losing all of your hard work. You can pull this off in a number of ways, including regular backups to thumb drives or spare hard drives, a nice backup server, emailing things to yourself (don’t laugh, I’ve done it as a last ditch method of recovering older items). My personal favorite method is the cloud drive. There are a few options—Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox—but they are indispensable parts of my infrastructure now. If you have a cloud drive and an internet connection, your computer can burst into flames in the morning and by the afternoon you could be on a loaner laptop, back to work, with nary a single word lost. The free version of any of those I mentioned is more than enough to keep your most important files backed up. I coughed up the couple bucks a month for extra storage so I could keep all my art and other book-related stuff there as well.

The Content

The content of the rough draft is your entire story. If you’ve followed the previous steps, then you’ll have everything you need to be relatively certain what needs to be written in any given writing session, so from this point forward it’s all up to your imagination. That said, there are a few techniques I’ve found useful.

First, if you’re like me, keeping the flow going is the best way to get a heap of writing done in a day. The first step to doing this is keeping track of how much writing you’re actually doing. To this end, I like to hit Ctrl+, in Scrivener and set myself some project goals. The total word count is a nice thing to set, I guess. I’ve yet to come anywhere close to my estimates, routinely overshooting by a multiple and rarely undershooting by tens of thousands of words. But hey, it’s nice to keep track of your overall progress. More valuable to me is the session word count. This thing zeroes out every time you close the program and keeps track of every word you’ve typed since you re-opened it. When I talk about “hitting my word quota,” this is the harsh taskmaster that I’m talking about.

This screen will be calling the shots for the next few weeks
This screen will be calling the shots for the next few weeks

I’m a full-time author, so anything less than 3,000 words a day feels a little thin to me. Many of my peers are boasting averages in the 5,000 to 7,000 word range, and some routinely surpass the 10,000 word threshold. Those people fill me with a burning, vicious envy. One day, people. One day… But that’s just me. If you’re part time, getting any words in on a given day can be a triumph. So think of it this way. There are 365 days in 2017. Let’s say you average 300 words a day. At the end of the year, that’s over 100,000 words. More than enough for a novel. And how much is 300 words? Well, from the beginning of this section to the end of this paragraph is 375 words. That means writing three little paragraphs a day will get you 140,000+ words. That’s one healthy novel or two lean ones. If you play your cards right and have a little bit of luck, that’ll pay the bills for you. This is doable, trust me.

Once you’ve set your daily goal, work toward that goal. I like to wake up, clear out my email, burn a few minutes on social media, then dig into the writing and finish my quota before lunch. That’s what I like to do. What I usually do is wake up, clear out my email, burn a few hours on social media, watch a bunch of Youtube, eat lunch, then start writing. But however you do it, do it. Something that helps to keep me writing is to set a mini-milestone any time I get the urge to do something else. “I’d like a snack. … I’ve got 1,124 words written. No snack until I hit 1,500 words.” It’s a small thing, but it squeezes a few more paragraphs out of me before I goof off.

Once you start writing, try to avoid breaking your rhythm. And you’d be surprised at how easy it is to put the breaks on a writing groove under the auspices of a necessary activity. Forget checking your email or stopping to watch some cat videos. There are writerly things that could wreck your flow.

  • “Oh, I need to go check this from an earlier chapter.”
  • “I should really do some research and see if I’m writing this correctly.”
  • “Hey, this is a good idea, let me go back and fix it so it flows better.”

Every one of these thoughts is a good thought. And you should do every one of them. Later. Don’t interrupt a good writing session in the middle to indulge these thoughts. I’ve lost whole afternoons because I thought it was a good idea to stop mid-sentence to figure out what happens when you try to boil water in space. (It’s really cool, by the way.) Here’s what I’ve learned to do. When you have a thought that would otherwise derail you from the current scene, put an easily searchable sequence of text right where you are that details the thought you had, then keep writing. I use “***” on either end of just such a note. This works in any word processor, and makes it easy to go back at the end of the day or the end of the week or whenever and find your notes. Better yet, it’ll leave it right in context of when you thought it. Handy. I use this for things as complex as ***GO BACK AND REMOVE ALL REFERENCES TO THIS CHARACTER, FROM THIS POINT FORWARD WE’LL CONSIDER HIM TO BE PART OF THE OTHER THREAD. GO BACK AND ADD HIM TO IT*** to as simple as ***VILLAIN NAME*** or ***CITY NAME*** for person/place I’ve either neglected to name yet or can’t remember the name of. I plop it down, forget about it for now, and go blasting through to the next paragraph. If it’s a big change, act as though simply writing that line down implemented the change and move forward as though it’s been done. If it’s a small change or a little piece of information, treat the placeholder as the info until its replaced. It won’t take you any more time to fix that later instead of now, and you’ll end up with more words at the end of the session if you don’t interrupt yourself.

One possible interruption you might consider, and only if you do it quickly, is to make a note of the minor characters you conjure up that you’d not included in your outline.

Naturally you can’t always do this. Sometimes failing to do the research now will mean that almost everything you write for the rest of the day will need to be rewritten. (Honestly, this isn’t the end of the world. I’ve done it.) So, what do you do if you can’t move forward without a major interruption? If you’re writing multiple threads, jump to another thread. This is also a decent way to get unstuck when you’re not sure how to finish/start a certain scene.  It isn’t perfect, in the best case it can make it difficult to line your threads back up. In the worst case, it can lead to you writing all of the easy/fun scenes first and getting stuck with the hard stuff at the end, which is a great way to never finish a book. But if it’s the difference between writing something in a day and writing nothing in a day, it’s an easy decision.

A few other things to watch out for. I don’t recommend editing as you go. It really slows things down. Instead, at the beginning of the writing session I prefer to re-read the last two or three paragraphs I wrote, to reset my context. If I find an error or fix a phrasing while doing that, so be it. Then I start writing. All the rest of the fixing can be done in the edit.

Sometimes, in writing a story, I’ll realize one of my blocked-out scenes is way too big, or requires a division that’s too jarring to be in a single scene. In scrivener, I hit Ctrl+K, which splits the scene at the current point, and start writing the next scene. Later this may or may not need to be slid around, but again, that’s for later. (I find when writing that most of the big decisions I have to make are deciding what exactly “Future Jo” is going to have to deal with.)

And that’s it. Do this for however many days, weeks, months are necessary and eventually you’ll have a rough draft! And once you get a story that far, finishing it is pretty simple!

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