This is the third in a series of blogs inspired by book clubs’ asking me questions about my writing process. As I said in the first entry, I am not one of those writers who prepares a complete outline before starting a rough draft, but neither am I a writer who just sits down and starts writing to see what will happen. I fall somewhere in between. I have a general idea of where I am going and whom I am going with when I sit down to start that first full draft, but a lot of the details, and sometimes even some major plot points, are discovered along the way.
I write first drafts fairly quickly. The Bookman’s Tale took me about 3–4 months, First Impressions about 2 ½. That being said, when I am working on a rough draft it is my full time job. Ideally, I like to be able to mark out two to three months on the calendar to work on a rough draft—months with no major trips (or at least not too many) and as few additional commitments as possible. When working on the first draft of my new novel (I wrote the last 60,000 words between Christmas and February 10), I turned down invitations and requests that would interfere with my time before about 2 p.m. any day. Writing the first draft for me means heading straight to my office as soon as I get up and sometimes realizing that it’s 2 p.m. and I have neither eaten lunch nor gotten dressed. Those are the good days, the days when I am lost in the story and churning out scenes. On other days I stare at the screen and try to figure out what will happen next. But whatever sort of day I am having, when I’m working on the first draft, I write 2000 words per day at least five days a week.
Some writers have told me that they set a goal for daily word count, but I do not use the word “goal.” For me that 2000 word mark is not a goal; it is a requirement. My job that day is to write 2000 words. If my job were to go to a school and teach four classes, I wouldn’t say it was my “goal” to teach those classes. It would simply be my job. I look at the word count the same way. This slight shift in language actually makes it a lot easier to keep on track. Sometimes I have my 2000 words done by 11 a.m.; sometimes it takes until late in the afternoon.
One reason for the variety in time is research. If I am writing a long scene of dialogue between two characters that I know well and I know where the scene is going, I can write pretty quickly. But sometimes I have to stop and look things up and one sentence can end up taking an hour and a half. This is especially true in historical sections. In First Impressions, I started to write a scene in which Jane Austen takes a horse-drawn conveyance from a manor house to the rectory. But what should that conveyance be called? It took me an hour or so to decide on “gig” and then I went on with the scene.
The first draft of The Bookman’s Tale was almost 120,000 words long. By the time the book was published it had been trimmed to about 100,000. As it turns out, my subconscious is a quick learner. Both First Impressions and my newest novel had first drafts of almost exactly 100,000 words. In both cases there were days during the process when I thought either, “This is going to be much too long,” or “This isn’t going to be nearly long enough,” but eventually I learned to ignore that voice and just write. Just tell my story. And after the first draft is done, it’s time to see exactly what that story is.