The first time I tried to write a novel I got an old notebook and pen and just wrote. I had a vague idea and some characters, plot elements would pop into my head as I wrote and I had a fuzzy idea what I wanted the end to be. I got bogged down and never finished that one but still started and finished my second novel the same way. That novel was such a mess I never even bothered to fix it.
Even so, there is a certain joy and wild abandon that goes with putting words on a page and having no idea where it’s leading or what will happen next, and now and then I get the urge to write another novel in that way. I don’t want to to write a novel that is so bad I don’t want to fix it, though. I also don’t want to get bogged down, lost, and lose interest in finishing.
If I write another novel by the seat of my pants what are some things that would ensure that it was the best first draft it could be?
1. Speed up
Part of the problem with those first novels is I wrote them over a long period. I forgot what I had already written and there were threads that went nowhere and I repeated some elements. I could solve some of these issues by writing the first draft as quickly as possible, so there is less time to forget. Being immersed in the story would make it less likely that I would lose threads.
Writing fast might also help solve the problem of getting bogged down. Just get it done, as fast as possible and without worrying.
It would definitely help with the problem I sometimes have where I think I’m taking way too long to finish something. Even if the rewrite took longer than a well-planned novel, I might have more patience because the first draft didn’t take long.
2. Slow down
Then again, sometimes if you’re just following the old muse around she’s just going to be feeding you cliches and tired story lines. There are tons of stories in your (and my!) subconscious and if you’re not taking time to think things through, you may just be writing something you’ve heard before.
Plus, If you take time to think about things you might recognize plot holes, things that don’t make sense, and inconsistent characters before they have time to take root. Taking the time at regular intervals to pause, think through what you’ve written, think about what you like about it and what you don’t might allow you to stop major problems before they become entrenched.
3. Keep good notes
Remember what I said about forgetting what I wrote? Yeah, maybe you don’t have this problem but me? I’ll have one character give another character some magic toenail clippers and then forgetting about all about it. I even do it when I’ve plotted my book out. (Sneaky details sneaking in when I’m not looking.) I know what I intend to write but when I sit down to write… toe nail clippers! Then I forget and later when I’m revising I don’t know what to do with damn things. I like them and want to keep them but they did nothing for the story, and so I’m trying to make them relevant and sometimes it doesn’t work. Darn it.
But, If I had good notes about odd things that happened I might remember to weave them in when I’m writing or take them out before I get too attached.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Take. Good. Notes. At the least, when you finish a scene, make sure you know what happened in the scene, what subplots you introduced or continued, any characters you introduced, and anything weird that happened (Toenail. Clippers.) so you don’t forget to do something with it later.
You might also want to keep a file for details. You may not know some details when you start your novel but as soon as you give a character backstory or an eye color make a note somewhere that is easy to locate and retrieve.
4. Read what you’ve written
I always hated doing this because I’d read what I’d written and see how bad it was, so when I’m writing I rarely go back and read what I’ve written until it’s done. However, reading what you’ve done helps get you back in the story’s flow. As writers, we were all readers first. This is how we learned story but we read faster than we write. Our brains process stories at the pace we read. When we are writing it’s hard to get a sense of how things are flowing and if the pacing is on point. When you experience your story the way you usually experience stories, you can get a better sense of pace and flow.
Reading as you go along also helps with the forgetting things, especially if you didn’t take notes. Ahem
5. Know what makes a good story
The more you internalize what makes a good story, the easier it will be for it to come out on the page without planning it. There are a lot of good writing books out there with different theories on what makes a good story and those are good starting places. Writing books are only a starting place though.
If you want to write an amazing book, you need to know what makes a good book for YOU. To figure this out, you need to read as a writer from time to time. When you are reading a book pause now and then and ask yourself some questions. Write down the answers.
If you like the book ask yourself
- What’s keeping me reading?
- Why do I want to stop reading
- Why is it easy to put down?
- Or not put down?
- What do I skip or skim?
- What made me laugh?
- What made me cry?
The last idea I have on how I could write a better first draft as a panster is simple. The more you write, the more you find out what works for you. The most important learning comes when you read what you’ve written and figure out what you did well and where you need improvement. When you evaluate what you’ve written you’ll internalize the lessons and you’ll begin to recognize and course correct while you are writing.
Will I ever try to write a novel by the seat of my pants again? Maybe. I love trying new things and experimenting. I think that’s an adventure I would like to go on again someday. How about you?