Monday, November 9, 2009

Driving Without Headlights

Since I finished GPL, I've plunged into my next project, an adult fantasy called The Weight of Souls. My aim has been to finish the first draft by the end of the year, giving me a target of 1000 words a day between now and then. As of tonight, I'm sitting at 23,000 words, a bit under where I need to be seeing as I ended up taking a couple of (desperately needed) weeks off.

My approach to writing this draft has been similar to that advocated by NaNoWriMo, as well as most of the authors whose blogs I follow. I call it the "Driving Without Headlights" approach. The aim is to sit down and write, with only a minimal outline and just a cursory idea of where the story is going to end up. You never go back and revise, and you don't stop to read what you've written. You keep ploughing on until you reach the end of the first draft, at which point you sink your teeth into what will almost definitely be an enormous amount of revision, if not a near-total rewrite.

The philosophy behind this approach, I think, is that too many people get bogged down in editing or preparation, and end up never getting the book finished or, sometimes, even started. Characters and situations also have a bad habit of doing their own thing, bouncing off each other in such a way as to make any planning and outlining null and void. I can testify to this, because I've seen it happen in everything I've written, and it's certainly happening in my current work in progress.

It's the first time I've used this approach, and I see it as an experiment as much as an exercise in producing another novel. At the moment, I'm not convinced it's the best way to write a book. Sure, using this approach will help you get the draft finished. Sure, it will avoid wasting time planning something that's unlikely to go in the expected direction anyway. But I'm wondering whether the end result will be little more than an elaborate outline that took several months to write and, when you sit down to do the editing, will only have to be replaced by a 'proper' draft. I've even seen authors refer to this first, pell-mell draft as "draft 0", knowing it won't be good enough to be graced with a number "1".

At times, when I'm writing the Weight of Souls, I'm totally clueless as to where it's going or what's supposed to be happening, though I have a string of loosely associated ideas in my mind for what I want to occur. Because I'm not reading back over it, I'm worried that, when I do, I'll shake my head at the absolute morass of dead ends and dragging narrative, loosely cobbled together with the ragged remnants of what once seemed such a good idea, and I'll have to start over totally.

Of course, I could be wrong, and I'll end up being pleasantly surprised. It's definitely an experiment worth carrying out, if only to find out whether this style works (or doesn't work) for me.


  1. Well I'm so glad you're posting on your blog again! ;-)

    That's an interesting idea, and I wrote my first novel like that, just writing it out without going back and revising. It didn't work well for me, but I've heard other writers swear by the method. I think each of us eventually finds the writing method that works best for us.

    I applaud your willingness to experiment, Peter. I'm also looking forward to seeing you post The Weight of Souls on OWW! ;-)


  2. I love NANO, but...

    I watched a fantastic interview with John Irving, who writes all his first drafts in longhand; one of the reasons is to purposefully slow the process. The physical act of writing is not a fast activity, and I pondered that notion, as I love pen and paper.

    However, I'm not fond of typing from a written draft. But maybe someday. Great word count and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the NANO method after completion.

  3. Hi Teresa - yes, I took a bit of a break over the last few weeks, I felt like I was a bit burned out after the last editing effort on GPL! I'm glad to get back into things.

    Anna - that's an interesting point about writing slowly. Part of my problem is I'm a very fast typist, so it only takes me half an hour or so to type 1000 words. What that means for the quality is anybody's guess, and that's what I'll have to wait and see!

    I will definitely post the results of the experiment around Jan time :-)

  4. Hey Peter- I'm definately a "let's see what happens" writer. I started with a basic idea, I knew my main character (not as well as I do now, but she's still the same person), but I went through several tries of the first few chapters before I hit the right one (and the right POV) and it took off. Nearly every word is being rewritten, but only a few scenes have been added/deleted, so I think that's just the refiner's fire for me. I love that "Ooooh! That's what happens" feeling. May you feel it often.

    I'll bet your first draft will be plenty respectable, though.

    I hope you had a nice break:) Good luck! -Kelly

  5. What kind of fantasy will it be? Modern? Historic? On Earth or something in your own world?

    I never revise until I've got a first draft done. I'm not a big outliner either (sometimes I do one, but the story inevitably deviates by the third chapter), though I've learned I need to have a good idea of how the novel will end before I get started, or I'll wander off into some deadend.

    It sounds like you've got quite a bit knocked out already. I'm looking forward to seeing new stuff on the OWW after you finish your draft. :)

  6. Hi Kelly,

    Thanks! I have found that "that's what happens" feeling, and you're right, it's a very big plus for this style of writing. I, too, know my main character well, which has given the story at least "some" guidance. It's certainly a fun experiment.

    Hi Lindsay,

    It's set in Pangaea, the same world as GPL, though most of the action happens in Noria and it's set nearly 50 years before GPL. It's also first person, which I've never done before.

    I wanted to try something totally different to third-person YA, so I could stretch my writing muscles a bit more.

    I really hope I can get some of it on OWW before too long!

  7. Hi Peter!

    It's been a while since I've checked out your blog. Now, I know what you've been up to lately! Writing that story you told me about, but I remember you telling me it would be about 100 years before GPL. Either way, I'm looking forward to reading it!!!

    You'll have to let me know how this writing experiment goes for you. I might try it myself. :)

    Happy writing!

    -Sandy G.

  8. You have a good memory, Sandy :-)

    It originally was 100 years, but then I realised (as I was typing the above comment, actually) that Hallegat would be about ten years old, so I brought the timeline back.

    I'm still not sure about this experiment. I'm leaning strongly towards saying it's a complete waste of time, but I won't say that for absolute certain until Jan.

    stay tuned :-)