On Writing: Rule No. 1


Let’s go back to the Semi-Autobiographical First Novel. We left it with me staring aghast at Steve’s wilfulness in proposing to fall in love before he was supposed to, and how thrown I was by that. Eventually, I decided to go with Steve’s instincts, but before I reached that point, I turned back to what I had already written and started to revise it.
Cardinal Rule No. 1 – DO NOT DO THIS!
If I have one unbreakable rule when writing, it is this one, and I urge it on you. Once you have started your First Draft, stick to it. You may break off for shorter or longer periods (though I don’t advise this, not before your fourth book, at least) but whatever else you do, do not go back. Don’t revise, rewrite, reconsider, re-anything with what you have written so far. Save that sort of thing for the Second Draft. It’s what it’s for.
The First Draft is to get it all out of you. Get it down on paper, or on screen, whatever your chosen format. Draw it forth, lay it down, get it outside of your head, do everything you possibly can to give it a shape, give it parameters, give it borders, but do not reverse yourself and start picking at it until there is something to pick at. Until everything you’ve thought of that has to go into this story has been turned into pencil, ink or pixels.
Sometimes, your First Draft is going to be a bit rough. There may be inconsistencies, some bits don’t work, others work too well, there are all sorts of things you are going to have to do to it to make it remotely into what you want to have presenting your name on a bookshelf somewhere.
But that’s what the Second Draft is for.
That’s where you start to revisit and revise, to polish and plane and tighten and expand. To cut down and to build. To slightly alter that conversation in Chapter Two to subtly foreshadow that thing in Chapter Sixteen that you didn’t know was going to happen. To eliminate that blind alley that you originally thought was going to be important.
The Second Draft may well be where you suddenly realise that you overlooked a glaring implication, and that to account for that failure to see what the reader is bound to see, you have to re-write about half the book, expanding it by about 20,000 words along the way.
But don’t do this whilst you’re writing your First Draft. Because the Second Draft is where you revise, and you can’t revise the Second Draft without a First Draft, and you’ll never have one of those until you finish that First Draft, and you’ll never do that if you’re fretting about that sequence in Chapter Three where you don’t know if you really captured the nuance you were after BUT DON’T BE SO BLOODY PRECIOUS ABOUT IT! Get that First Draft finished, spill it all out, and then you can tinker with nuance to your heart’s delight.
Cardinal Rule No. 1 – write it all out. Then you can piss around with it.

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