This Writer’s Life by Drusilla Campbell
If you had to have a colonoscopy and a root canal on the same day, that’s how I feel about writing the first draft of a novel. First day, page one, I’m nearly flattened by the task before me, and I can’t stop yawning. Five pages take me three grueling hours. What I like is the second draft and even more, I love the third. Ask me to juggle scenes and rewrite transitions and I’m on it! But to get to that point… I learned early that I had to cut through the rind to get to the juice of the process.
Five “rules” do it for me. You might find them useful. Or not. Everyone’s process is different, but here goes.
- I know where I’m going before I begin to write. I leave myself lots of room for inspiration, but I don’t start writing until I know a lot about my characters goals and aspirations; what the through line is; what’s at stake; what’s the threat?
- I’m gentle with myself and set reasonable goals. Five pages a day and in just over two months I have a 350 page first draft. I could go faster or slower but this pace suits me. On a given day I can always write more, but never less. And I don’t worry if I’ve used clichés and stale metaphors. Style and grace and depth are not my concern at this point.
- I keep a running list of ideas and images that come to me as I write, ideas that I will weave in when I start to have fun with the second draft. If I try to go back and fit them into the first draft, I’ll never finish. I know lots of wonderful writers whose novels never get beyond the midpoint because – to my way of thinking – they try to do too much, too soon. I love my list. The longer it gets, the more I love it.
- At the first draft stage, I spend more time thinking about my book than I do actually writing it. I can write 5 pages in a couple of hours because I’ve been planning those pages and creating characters in my head while I exercise and wash dishes and clean up after the dogs. In the evening I appear to be watching t.v. and I am – with a third of my concentration. The other 2/3 is working on the book. As I drive up Interstate 5, I look to other motorists like a woman talking on the phone, but really I’m chatting with my characters. Talking to myself is the most fun part of writing novels.
- All the time I’m writing, a wretched little fanged creature sits on my shoulder and whispers bad things in my ear. “This book is crap!” “Dumb metaphor.” “No one will ever want to read this!” I don’t waste energy trying to silence Fang. She and I have been intimately acquainted now for more than twenty years and I know there is no way to shut her up. Instead I acknowledge her and tell her how glad I am to know she’s still on her perch where I’ll really need her to be for the fourth and sixth and eighth draft. Interesting thing about Fang. She still grumbles but not so loud. She pretty much settles down and lets me write the clumsy, clichéd, confusing first draft.
The reason these five “rules” work for me is that I’ve been writing novels for long enough to understand my process. You might say I’ve learned to be kind to myself and productive at the same time. Your process is similar to mine or entirely different. Except for one thing we all have in common. We have to write to figure out how we write. Every day for two hours or fifteen minutes. Pencil, pen or keyboard. I don’t know of any way to be a writer that doesn’t involve writing. And there’s no way to write a final draft that doesn’t involve writing a first.
Drusilla Campbell is Board President of San Diego Writers, Ink. Before settling in San Diego, she lived and worked in Australia, London, Central America, California and Appalachia. After receiving her MA she worked for WAMU-FM, the NPR affiliate in Washington, DC where she was an on-air personality. She’s published more than sixteen novels including the best selling Blood Orange and, most recently, The Good Sister. Drusilla is the creator of NovelCram, two day boot camp for aspiring novelists. She frequently speaks at writing conferences and has taught classes in crafting the novel at UC Fullerton, University of California at San Diego, The Writing Center, The Writer’s Room and San Diego Writers, Ink. Drusilla is married to the poet and law professor, Art Campbell. They have two children, two rescued dogs and four horses.