I’m a fan of daily word counts when I’m writing a first draft of a novel. It helps me focus on my goal of simply getting it down on paper, allowing revisions to come later. As novelist Jane Smiley wrote, “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”
Recently, I’ve made a change to my word-count technique that’s working well. Usually, I set a count of anywhere from 500 to 1500 new words on my work-in-progress per writing session, depending on how much time I have to write. Now, I’ve changed that to include new words about my work-in-progress.
Here’s how it works: If I have half a day to write, I might decide I have to write a minimum of 500 new words of my manuscript or 1000 new words about my story. I always double the number of words that are about my story, since they are messier and tend to wander.
I’m finding this new technique is a useful way to write through blocks and challenges because I’m spending my writing time gaining insights about my story instead of writing a bunch of manuscript words that I’ll probably throw out later. I also find that I’m less distracted during writing sessions because I always have a measurable task to focus on. It satisfies me to be able to measure my progress, and I like to proudly announce to my family each evening how much I wrote.
What might I write about my story? Here are some options.
Write About Characters
I write character notes before I start writing a first draft, but those notes aren’t always thorough enough. Let me explain using an example.
On my current work-in-progress, I had two more first-draft chapters to write, but I was stuck. Depending on what one of my secondary characters did next, my plot could resolve in a few different ways. I realized that I didn’t know enough about this minor character who had suddenly developed a larger role in the story. I wrote character notes about her and asked myself questions about her current state:
- How does she feel right now?
- What does she notice about her world?
- How does she view my protagonist and the other characters?
- What details from her personal history might be triggered right now?
- What secrets might she be keeping?
- What’s her goal in this chapter?
Write About Plot
I write a synopsis before I start writing a first draft, but I also allow it to evolve organically.
Continuing with my example, now that I understood this secondary character better, I could begin to image her next steps. I decided to write about my plot by brainstorming alternative ideas, depending on how this character might behave and how my protagonist might react to her.
The result was a change in plot from my original synopsis. I discovered that the big moment I’d been writing toward wasn’t the true heart of my story. A new destination had emerged—one that better suited my novel.
Write from a Different Point of View
Now I knew my secondary character’s next steps. However, I discovered that I still didn’t have the whole picture. I only knew broad strokes, rather than details of her actions.
I decided to write the chapter from her point of view—detailed scenes that would never appear in the book. It forced me to develop every nuance of her thought-process, motivations and actions. When I began writing my first draft again, I knew exactly what this secondary character felt and thought. Her dialogue and deeds came to life on the page, and my protagonist and I could get on with the story.
Journal About the Story
Finally, I might write a journal entry about my story. I use this technique when I need to sort out my feelings about it. Maybe I’m afraid that the novel isn’t working or that I’ll never create a readable story. I write about my fears, trying to turn them into positive ways forward:
- Why am I afraid the story isn’t working?
- What revision notes can I make that will improve the story?
- In what ways is the story succeeding?
After I’ve written about my story, I’m ready to write my actual manuscript again. When I do, my first-draft words are more targeted, with richer characters and better plot intricacies.
For me, it’s a win-win. I move my story forward, and I have a measurable result after each writing session. Even better, I eventually end up with a finished first draft to celebrate.
Hopefully, this technique will help you finish your first draft too.