Finished the first draft of my novel!
‘Any teas, coffees, panini, snacks?’ asked one of the flight attendants, smiling wide, holding onto a trolley filled with plastic bags and paper cups. She wore her chestnut-brown hair tied in bun at the back of her head. Her skin was tanned and flawless, her English sprinkled with a mild Spanish accent. A long apron covered her pale yellow shirt and ocean blue skirt.
I shook my head and she moved the mini-bar one row past me. It would be at least an hour before they come back with perfumes and those damn lottery tickets.
Blessed with a window seat, I stared at the vivid azure of the sky above the clouds for a minute before getting back to tapping on my phone. With my wife’s head rested on my shoulder, I was trying not to move too much. She’s fast asleep and I didn’t want to wake her up. The crammed seats sure didn’t make that any easier.
Our plane would be landing at Mallorca in an hour and 40 minutes and that made me nervous. I was meant to be done by now so why the hell was I still working? For the third time I selected the whole last paragraph and deleted it without any idea what to write instead. I was stuck.
This is the story of the first draft of my first novel.
It all started back in December 2015. I’m one of those people who like to take at least a week off around Christmas. But besides celebrating the holidays, I don’t usually do much. As the year comes to an end, I sit back and reflect. I want to see what I’ve missed before it all gets flushed down the drain of history.
I did a lot of disorganised writing in 2015. This year, I wanted to start something new; something with a purpose. I had a hazy story idea in my mind, way too complex for a short story but not developed enough to become a novel. So I though I’d do an online serial: 26 chapters published bi-weekly over the whole year, 3000 words per chapter. If people liked it — great, no big deal if they didn’t. It’d be free on the internet.
When the fireworks launched on New Year’s Eve, I had a basic outline. Many questions and not enough answers. It took one more week of agonising and a number of revisions before I started writing. The story arc was nowhere near ready, but if I were to hit the deadline for the first instalment, I had to dive in.
I wrote the first 500 words on 10 January, another 500 on the 11th and 500 more on the 12th. The words added up and when the deadline was due, I had enough for not one but two instalments. I stayed up late, scrolling through the draft, cup of coffee in hand, struggling to keep my eyes open. The copy was raw and the story too.
How can I do this without knowing exactly what happens next? I thought.
The more I wrote, the more precious the story became to me. The fear of putting something out there that I couldn’t fix later became real. I went to bed without publishing either of the chapters that night.
The next morning, I filed everything I wrote so far in a folder called CHAPTER 1. I set my goal to 80,000 and suddenly, I was writing a novel. The math was pretty simple. Inspired by my previous daily successes — if I wrote 500 words a day, I’d be done by 18 June. That sounded like a plan.
The transition from a pastime activity into a major project put an abrupt end to my epic writing streak. I produced no words on that day or the one after. The resistance had crept on me from behind, unwelcome and unexpected. When I started caring whether it was shit, everything got a lot more difficult.
With mixed success over the following month, I stopped to re-work the outline. Two weeks later I scrapped four of the seven chapters I had written so far and started over, making a promise to myself that this time I’d stick with it till the end. Oh, well.
Wake up, try to write, go to work, try to write, go to bed — my next few months in a nutshell. I moved the novel forward as a snail moves its house; it was slow and frustrating. The thing got heavier and heavier as I filled the manuscript with imperfection.
June arrived earlier than expected. I had just finished chapter 12 and the manuscript sat at around 55,000 words, whooping 25k short of the target. That sucked and I didn’t want to write another word ever again. My writing sessions went on an on, if I wrote anything at all. Four hours in, 117 words done — less than a half a word per minute. I quite literally dragged myself through chapters 13 and 14 until I couldn’t possibly carry on with this excruciating endeavour any longer.
I stopped writing completely in July, 14 chapters and 62,000 words into the manuscript. I barely passed the midpoint and keeping up the same pace, I’d be stuck with this project till Christmas at least.
The problem with first drafts is that they give you the benefit of the doubt. When you quit mid-draft, you’ll never get to see how bad your story really is. Your work goes into a folder of wishful thinking. You could make it awesome if you wanted to, but not now. Failing to finish is very different from finishing and failing. You don’t get to face the reality and never learn from your mistakes.
I had failed to finish too many times before. This time, I wouldn’t have it.
Even in January, I wasn’t naive enough to think that I’d finish by June. But I wanted to get the book done before the beginning of September when I booked my holidays — in exactly 39 days. Out of curiosity, I worked out what would it take to finish the book by then. The calculator showed me a number I didn’t like one bit: just over 1,000 words every day for the entire month.
My daily output at the time averaged at 150 painful words. Doing this for a couple of days? Maybe. But thinking that I could keep writing over seven times that for 40 days straight was an absolutely ludicrous idea.
Luckily, a part of me that I still don’t quite understand said, 'Fuck it. Let’s do this.’
I was in for some serious hustle, every single day, no exceptions. Slip one and miss it. I woke up early and stayed up late, drunk coffee by the litre, adding cans of Red Bull when that would no longer do.
And 39 days later, I found myself three quarters into a flight from London to Palma de Mallorca, still working. The words were stubbornly refusing to leave my head. I saw sea already beneath us. It was exactly the same colour as the flight attendant’s apron. There were three ships floating at the surface, each the size of a grain of sand. The rocky north coast of the island emerged out of the blue shortly after. I forced my eyes away from the beauty, took a deep breath and woke my phone up again.
Bullshit, I’m not stuck. I know how to do this, I thought. I hammered out the last two paragraphs of chapter 26 as the crew wrapped up the perfume trolley and got the cabin ready for landing.
The Boeing 737-800 touched down and my novel was done. 39 days, 44,000 words. The most productive writing streak of my entire life. Commitment and hard work made all the difference.
The whole manuscript is 26 chapters and 109,475 words long. I overshoot the target quite a bit. I can always delete some stuff.
When we disembarked into the heat of late afternoon, I felt calm and relieved. Eight long months of grappling against the resistance came to an end. I was happy; really happy. But it was an entirely different kind of happiness than I had imagined I’d feel when I wrote the first page in January.
Writing the first draft is only one step on the journey from an idea to a finished book. Now that I’ve got all the ingredients in a pot, it’s time to step away and let it brew.
And when the time comes, I can’t wait to start editing.
Thanks for your support; I’ll keep you guys posted.