Exciting news! I finished the first draft of my novel. After a year of cycle time and six months of effort, a full draft is sitting on my desk. It’s a thriller that follows a timid young professional who binges self-help podcasts and gets involved with man-eating plants. I thought those plants might eat me after I printed all 276 pages at Office Depot. Months of typing into my computer now manifest in the physical world. Lots of paper, ink, and words. I didn’t know if they were good but holding them gave me a sort of validation. My effort produced something.
After a weekend of breathing room, I began to read. Palms sweaty, I braced myself for the worst. For flat characters. Meandering scenes. Stilted prose. Garbled dialogue. Or, worst of all, a boring story. By some miracle, this wasn’t the case. Maybe I had the affliction of new parents, blind to the ugliness of their newborn child, but I was pleased to find a halfway decent story. Don’t get me wrong: This first draft’s a mess—a hideous, deformed atrocity—but it has good bones. Some need strengthening. Some realignment. And others straight-up amputation. But I’m proud of it.
However, I’m not nearly as proud of the product as I am of the process that produced it. I’ve tried to write novels for a decade, but I’ve consistently failed. Because my process was anything but consistent. I chalked that up to a lack of willpower. To not having time. To not being the right person. To not knowing enough. While each excuse was just that—an excuse—they each held a smidge of truth.
There are thousands of books about how to write the first draft. All of them were written by greater writers than me. Yet most of them can be summarized as “write every day” and “don’t wait for inspiration.” Although valid, this simplicity neglects the mechanics that make it possible. The tools to override excuses. For a long-time procrastinator like myself, these mechanics were the difference between a blank page and a 137,743-word draft.
So, in the hope that someone finds this useful or interesting, I chose to write ten posts for the ten things I’ve learned writing draft one. Here’s my first learning.
#1: Go Big
November is National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo): A thirty-day challenge to write a fifty-thousand-word novel. Thousands of writers put their pen to the grindstone and crank out 1667 words per night. It’s a suffer-fest. Red-eyed and drained, a writer flops into December with a big, nasty puddle of word vomit. Calling this puddle “a novel” is generous, but it’s fifty-thousand words they didn’t have a month ago.
That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo. It’s not short-story season or limerick week. It’s a challenge that’s big enough to mean something. For that reason, I believe NaNoWriMo is a great way to start a novel. This is counterintuitive because most advice for pursuing goals boils down to achievable ambitions. Take baby steps, be reasonable, target appropriate objectives, don’t bite off more than you can chew.
This is funny because most people come into this world thinking big. As a kid, I had huge dreams. They led me to ignorantly self-publish a 450-page science-fiction novel one summer in high school. That’s big book energy! Since then, I have tumbled into the “achievable” valley. I adopted the bad habits of small thinking. I let the thrill of writing get suppressed by a pretentious desire to create important works of literature. Thinking small, I spent a couple of years writing short stories. Although the faster iterations helped me learn and the variety was enjoyable, the pursuit lacked vision.
In 2020, I craved something big. Something to help me unlearn the curse of small thinking. As if reading my mind (or my data), the algorithms put a podcast in my ears. An interview with Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art and several novels. When asked about writing goals, he advised: “Don’t piss off the Muse.” Don’t waste her time with pithy goals. She won’t be inspired to inspire if the writer’s punching at or below their weight class.
David Schwartz shared a similar sentiment in The Magic of Thinking Big: “Big ideas and big plans are often easier—certainly no more difficult—than small ideas and small plans.” Although counterintuitive, big swings are easier than small swings. There’s more momentum, more excitement, and maybe even some mystical intervention to support the mission. In my case, writing a novel was big. And the intensity of NaNoWriMo was what I needed to kickstart that project.
The logo for NaNoWriMo is a horned Viking hat. It’s a totem to inspire writers during the dark November of the soul. To me, the Viking hat symbolizes big thinking. Vikings don’t pillage one village. They aim to pillage the world.
Don’t piss off the Muse with pithy goals. Embrace Viking energy and GO BIG!