So, I heard a multitude of heads following off when I posted Chris Priest's admonition to print off the first draft and delete all electronic copies...
I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only...?" Er, I mean, "Is that the way you write, John?"
All right, I told my friend it was a good idea, but... No. I do not delete my first draft.
However, my second or my third draft is physically a rewrite: I don't amend much of the existing text; I write new stuff at the top of the screen and delete away the older version as I work. No sentence from the first draft survives unless it works so well that I retyped it during the rewrite. But I type very fast - usually I can reproduce an entire sentence faster than moving the cursor to the correct position to, say, delete a word - and the main thing is that the very first words you wrote need to be re-examined.
Not everyone does this, and I'll add caveats in a bit, but...
Steve Barnes has worked with many writers, and from looking at his website, he has identified a specific problem that trips up writers, preventing them from entering or staying in the writing flow-state. He found that it's almost always due to mixing up the otherwise distinct processes of first-draft writing from subsequent-draft writing.
Or to put it another way: if the story's not flowing, give yourself permission to write anything to move it along, knowing that only the good stuff survives.
So, the caveats. When you're working on the first draft of a novel, you're normally picking up from where you left it yesterday. Some writers find that tweaking the final few paragraphs of what they did yesterday to be a useful way to glide into continuing the story today. Others want to revisit everything they wrote yesterday, while still others (I think most, but I wouldn't swear to it) want to dive straight in.
Philip Pullman, who writes with pen and paper, makes sure never to end a day's work at the bottom of a page - if he's about to finish, he'll write one more line on a new page... Some writers actually leave an unfinished sentence, just begging for those extra words which kickstart the next day's work. (Leigh Kennedy first gave me the tip; she got it from someone else, but I can't remember who it was.)
Such considerations aside, the basic idea of first draft is to write down what you're seeing/hearing/feeling in your mind as the story unfolds. If it's well-crafted, great; but if it isn't, that's fine too. In the second draft you can tidy up the language, delete the things that don't work or slow the story down, and so on.
Debugging code requires a different mindset than writing it or designing it.
[Aside #1: my diary this week. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: wrote 2 additional first-draft chapters for a new book proposal (my agent having said I needed to extend what I'd written already) and tweaked the outline; Thursday: stared into space for somewhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours, then wrote for 12 hours straight to produce a complete 10 - 12000 word story (using pen and paper out of pure whim, since we've been talking about varied writing methods); Friday: received and worked through galleys for next book in one 9-hour session.]
[Aside #2: I write novels in two different ways. If I've outlined it rigorously, the 2nd draft is 10-15% shorter than the 1st through normal polishing. Other times I've meandered through a first draft, discovering as I've gone along, but when I take this to the extreme, I get a 1st draft that is 1 hamilton in length, and a second draft that is 0.5h or less. Both ways work. Most writers tend towards one or the other, though rarely with a 50% drop in final length. I'm on my own again...]
[Aside #3: another extreme was Dick Francis (some people would say it was Mary Francis, but who knows?), who by dint of writing very slowly and thoughtfully, produced first draft that allegedly needed no revising. This is so unusual that if you work this way, well, carry on like this only if you get excellent feedback from your readers! (And not just your mum or best mate down the pub.)]
Even before the first draft begins per se, there's whatever happens in the writer's mind to begin constructing a book. So I pick up the side-point I signalled in Swirling(1) about knowing the ending in advance.
As Charlie said before, there's more than one way of doing things, but knowing what most writers do sort of similarly and what varies widely (like outlining and knowing the ending) will help you know whether you're really doing something, er, unique.
(I once talked to someone who was trying to write by dictating to his voice-recognition software... I was the only person, apparently that didn't tell him he was doomed. (I mentioned Voltaire dictating to his secretary.) But I wouldn't recommend it, either.)
To recall Terry Pratchett's boxing metaphor: if you're a beginning boxer, and you think you've a better way to throw punches than everybody else, and some secret method of gaining strength endurance that only you know about... then good luck: you're on your own. Anyone who thinks they're an undiscovered genius is probably right... about the undiscovered part.
But "most writers" is not the same as all.
However, when you begin the first draft, whether you know the ending in detail, have a fuzzy idea of it, or total ignorance... is just fine. John Irving begins by writing the final page of the first draft; only then does he go back to the beginning. J.K. Rowling famously wrote the ending (I think it was the final chapter) of Deathly Hallows before commencing The Philosopher's Stone. Stephen King, as I pretty much began by saying, sets up the initial situation and discovers the ending as he writes. Likewise, I believe, the late Robert B. Parker.
As a reader, any or all of the above might write books you don't like... but remember, other people do. Just as a writer loading their novel with visual words is going to appeal to certain readers (the ones who can't get on with Isaac Asimov or Elmore Leonard), likewise, I suspect, the difference between aiming for a specific resolution and embarking on a voyage of unpredicted discovery results in different core readerships for each.
(And some are sensitive to the poetry and rhythm of each sentence and paragraph, to the richness of metaphor, while others just want the bare bones to move the story along.)
I'm reminded of something here. I've taught analysis and design to many different corporate groups (in several countries), one of the key distinctions being between trainee business analysts and experienced hardcore software engineers. When getting newbie BAs to perform some modelling in case studies (rather than totally trivial toy examples, though lots simpler than Real Life), some would either have difficulty getting started or when we compared different people's approaches.
In particular, some were perturbed by the notion that there can be more than one correct solution. I soon learned to preface exercises by pointing out there is a finite number of legitimate models and an infinite number of wrong 'uns.
Maybe I should volunteer to write Head First Writing.
So, is there a generality I can abstract out from first-draft writing that applies equally to those who know the ending in advance and those who don't? Well, I think so, and it has significant ramifications...
Everything is hard work from time to time, but putting that aside: are you enjoying the actual story you're uncovering day by day? It's like a year-long archaeological dig... the story better excite you, cos if you're not excited, why should anyone else be? The craft of subsequent-draft rewriting and polishing works only when there's something fine to be polished. So enjoy the story.
Self-belief - or rather, belief in the story - is the absolute number one ingredient. I think that New York agent Don Maass pointed this out in his book The Career Novelist. Usually, editors and agents speaking at conventions talk about researching the market and so on. This is misleading... You can only write what sets your mind on fire. If space opera isn't selling right now but it's all you want to write, then I don't think you've any choice but to go for it.
Besides which, if you're just starting out and it takes you fifteen years to get published, today's market conditions are hardly going to apply when you make that first sale - when the publisher says: "And I can expect a second book in twelve months, right?" When the real pressure starts.
Where market research does apply is having current knowledge of your chosen (sub)genre. My agents receive wannabe first novels of wildly disparate lengths, from far too short to far too long. It's possible for a publisher to sell a million copies of a title and make a loss because the page-count exceeded a threshold - some of the production costs are as quantized as electrons' orbital transitions. (Charlie wrote about book lengths here.)
If you're writing sword & sorcery, you'd better have read Joe Abercrombie as well as Tolkien.
Any exceptions to that rule? Well, I can only think of one, but we're talking major talent here: James Lee Burke, having won the Pulitzer Prize for lit'ry fiction, returned after a years-long hiatus with the first Robicheaux mystery (or crime novel as we Brits prefer to say) that was terrific. He wasn't steeped in the genre, but he did have a background of working with the types of people that feature in his excellent books.
Hmm. It also occurs to me that Iain Rankin wrote his first book without assigning it a genre: it was simply a novel that featured a guy called Inspector Rebus.
Anyway, my subjective experience has little to do with market considerations; it feels as if the novel chooses me, not the other way around. (And for all I know it could be literally true: Cthulhu channelling Cthulhu-thoughts via the cats into our fingers on the keyboard. Say it ain't so,
Joe Charlie...) No other options.
Speaking of Don Maass, as I did earlier, he has a list of risk factors for novelists, and one of them is writing cross-genre books. [Insert gulping sound here.] If I write a police procedural set in a quasi-dark-fantasy world that is really hard SF, I'm hoping for a readership that comprises the union of three sets; in practice, I'll be lucky to reach the intersection of the three sets.
Which is one reason why Stephen King is such a powerful role model for a professional writer, regardless of whether you love, loathe or just sort of like his books. He writes in a genre called Stuff By Steve. Horror, SF (which you might or might not think of as SF-for-people-who-don't-really-read-SF) and (Rita Hayworth and) the Shawshank Redemption, all to the same standard.
To the extent that anything I've said so far constitutes definite advice, think of it as techniques or strategies that are worth trying, with genuine effort - in the hope that some will be right for you, and if they're not, that's fine. I've tried to deconstruct other writers' experience, not just mine.
[But here is strong advice: do read Stephen King's On Writing. Really. If ya wanna write, read it.]
But here's a little psychological adventure that's all my own. Well, me and Steve Barnes - he's also a hypnotist, and recommends this as a useful experience for all writers. For my part, I'd already written five (possibly six) books when I tried this out. It worked for me. It was also a weird experience.
Bear in mind that trance states are neurological phenomena that show up even under quite ordinary EEG scans.
Don't do this at home; but if you really wanted to, you'd need a trained hypnotist, or to have learned to perform true autohypnotic inductions (for example, the Betty Erickson induction). I did it at a training seminar, knowing that the opportunity might crop up, which meant (unlike the other delegates) I was prepared.
It's really method acting with added mesmerism, and it's called Deep Trance Identification. As the Deep Trance bit indicates, you need to immerse yourself in this for it work; a quit-smoking session with a therapist, for example, probably wouldn't drop you that deep inside.
In trance you "convince" yourself that you are that other person - or in my case, that I Was Stephen King. Some people get a bit whimsical in their choice of person (and in a seminar environment, a large percentage decline to do the exercise); but taken seriously, with a specific real individual, it helps to have at least seen them in Real Life. In this case, I'd attended a charity gig in Radio City Musical Hall (called Harry, Carrie and Garp) where Stephen King, John Irving and J.K. Rowling read from their work and chatted; plus I'd seen clips of his interviews; and I'd read his highly autobiographical On Writing.
Most weird, the result. My facial muscles pulled into a different shape - more wide-mouthed than usual - and my eyesight blurred to the point where I had to pop on my glasses that I wear for driving, and my voice, according to the guy who did the hypnotic induction, was pure New England. Plus, when asked about what I was working on, I came out with a horror-novel idea that had sprung from nowhere.
But what was oddest was the feeling that the architecture of my mind had shifted around inside my head, and I was operating with sound (more than sight) in new ways, while the core me was relegated to an observer. Really, really odd. (I did this for twice the length of time of other participants, and then I had to go away and sit in a graveyard for an hour to reset the contents of my head. (Interesting choice of location, John, you might mutter.))
Afterwards, I think I had new skills to add to my usual writing; but that'll be for others to judge.
But in a level-headed, rational way, every writer performs a mild version of this as they progress. You've internalized the rhythms and the structures of all the books you've ever read, and (with varying degrees of conscious awareness) you emulate the writers you like best, and slowly, slowly accumulate and aggregate to develop a new blend; because the world doesn't need another King, Rowling, Irving, Heinlein, Herbert, Banks or even Charlie Stross: it needs you.
Stephen King wrote that every time a writer makes a sudden jump to a new level, there's almost always an element of adopting and adapting some part of another writer's way of performing their craft.
Little did he suspect, when he wrote that, that one day I would pluck his soul from three thousand miles away and swirl it round inside my head for an hour or so before I sent it back to him...