First draft, how to set a word count target and stick to it.

As well as trying to amuse and educate you with my etiquette blogs, I do have other writing priorities such as writing novels. My ‘proper job’ if you like. Novel number three should be out in early July and I’ve been slaving away on number four recently.

Today marked one of the major milestones in the process, completion of the first draft. A quick check shows that I started the physical process of writing it on 25th January so that’s just under ten weeks to produce a first draft. Not bad.

I brought it in a week ahead of schedule although I had set myself a very achievable word count target of 1500 words a day. The date for the deadline was chosen as an arbitrary line in the sand as it was the day before my birthday. The 1500 words target may have been stumbled upon but it felt like just the right amount.

I could no doubt write a lot more in a day, as I did many times. Some days I was finished my word count by 9am but if I’d set the target any higher, I was more likely to fail, lose momentum and lose inspiration.

Getting the word count out of the way in the morning also left me free to do other stuff such as blogs, prepare for workshops, social media updates and afternoon naps.

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The vast majority of writing was done at home but I allowed myself the luxury of taking it out on the road for the final five hundred words. I parked myself in Holmeside Coffee, home of the writing group I am a member of.

It seemed fitting to finish it off in the venue that has given me the most inspiration in my writing career.

Any writer will tell you that the first draft is merely the start. The lump of clay that you are going to mould your masterpiece from. I wouldn’t dream of showing the first draft to anyone as, to be quite honest, it is rubbish.

This isn’t something that concerns me. I know that the hard work is ahead of me as I tackle each chapter and hone it into something worthwhile.

As I was writing it I knew there were parts that didn’t work and needed a boost but I made a little note in Evernote and ploughed on. At this stage, the word count was all that mattered.

Towards the end I began to think one character wasn’t needed but I continued on with her story as I might have a different view when I come to revise it.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I’ve used a different approach to each novel, each with their pros and cons. This time around I read the excellent book ‘Save The Cat’ by Blake Snyder. It’s aimed at screenwriters but there are a lot of valuable lessons for writers of prose.

I set my Scrivener project up with folders matching each item on his beat sheet and worked out approximately where each ‘beat’ should be in the word count. I then set up chapters in each folder with headings for what would happen in that chapter. Each chapter equated to one thousand words.

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It’s important to note that the end product may not have eighty chapters, each one may be a lot more than one thousand words but for planning purposes, this was ideal.

Each day I knew exactly what I was going to write, there were no writer’s block issues as I had a prompt for each chapter. Admittedly some chapters were easier than others. The last ten thousand words were a breeze as I’d been looking forward to writing them throughout.

A little tip that every writer knows but often forgets is to back up each day. Scrivener saves automatically but after each session I clicked on the ‘Back up to’ item on the menu and saved it to Dropbox. A good habit to get into early on.

Similar to the Snowflake Method I used in novel number three, the ‘Save the Cat’ method allows you to plot out your novel and identify gaps before you do the hard work of writing it out. Much easier than having to change half your novel after it is written.

Whilst I believe that each chapter will need major improvement, I am confident that my plot won’t need to change much. During the planning stage I made quite a dramatic change to the protagonist’s character arc. I believe this improved the story but time will tell.

The major downside to this approach is that it doesn’t allow much spontaneity. My books are known for their humour and at this stage, there isn’t enough of it. My approach to Leg It was to write a number of funny passages then try to weave them into a coherent plot. Idle Threats was a lot more structured but I still went off piste a lot.

I’m confident that the humour will be there in the end product but it’s something I will have to work on within the confines of the plot. This also meant that whilst it was easy to hit the word count, it was still a bit of a slog and not as enjoyable to write as my other novels.

So what next for novel number four (tentatively named Troll Life if you are interested)? It’s going to be put away in a  virtual drawer for a couple of months whilst I put the finishing touches to number three.

When I come back to it with fresh eyes I am confident that I can make it into the novel it needs to be.

Until then it is full steam ahead with number three (provisionally named Counterbalance) and you never know, maybe the odd amusing blog.


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