Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Don't get it right the first time

How much of your novel have you written? Do you keep starting it and never finishing it? Do you have half a dozen projects in your filing cabinet or on your hard drive, all abandoned? Wonder if you'll ever join the sea of published writers? Well, quit hesitating on the edge of the diving board and dive in!

Beginners tend to want, in fact they expect, to get it right the first time. They think a real writer is supposed to produce perfect prose from the word 'go'. They read their own pathetic first pages and either abandon them — or frantically begin rewriting. The first, abandonment, is like throwing away the clay model because it doesn't look like Michelangelo's David; the second is like painting the walls of the house while they're still going up.

You have to write the novel first before you're allowed to be discouraged or to panic. You have to write the whole novel first. So do it. Plunge in, write hell for leather, gallop from page one to 'The End' without a revision, pause, or reconsideration. Get gripped by your story. If you write with pen and paper, buy stitched notebooks so you can't tear out a page. If you write on screen, tape a note above it that says 'Looking back causes gangrene'. And write.

Write hard, write fast. Take your idea, roughed out into a plotline (don't even dream of beginning a novel without some sort of storyline or plot map; you're not supposed to be that reckless! Although read Plot or No Plot for my extended thoughts on this) and get as excited about the story as you want your readers to be. Don't feel pressured to pad it out. Don't worry about length. Just write all the absolutely necessary scenes. Don't fret about bridging them with connecting passages. Just put 'The following day...' or 'A year later...' or even 'Meanwhile, back at the ranch...' Sure they're clichés. That's what rewriting is for. Your first draft is to tell the story. Let your characters form themselves, let the story unfold itself. So what if your country boy starts out talking like a college graduate and you only find his true voice 30,000 words in? That's what rewriting is for! So what if you realise that you should have planted a massive foreshadowing about word 50,000? Guess what! That's what rewriting is for. Scribble a note to yourself in the margin and keep writing.

What about all those writing manuals that tell you to read and amend what you wrote yesterday before beginning new words today? Well, that didn't work for you, did it? There are many ways to write a novel, and if one method doesn't get you to 'The End' you have to try another.

The only thing you can't do is plunge in without some idea of where you're going. But don't allow yourself to be stalled because you don't have a detailed story-plan or plot outline. I know a wannabe writer who spent so long crafting and revising his plot outline that he never actually wrote the novel. If you burn to write because you have a brilliant opening scene, ask yourself 'What happens after this scene?' and then 'Where do these characters all end up?' Jot down the logical actions that will take you from your first to your second question and you'll have enough of a plot outline to begin writing to. Pin it up where you can see it and start writing.

When you write through from beginning to end without pause, you'll discover several things. First, you'll find you have the pace and discipline that always arrives when you apply the seat of the trousers to the chair over weeks and months. It's in the long haul that real writers are formed, and you aren't a real writer until you've gone through that baptism of sustained work.

Second, your brain will start making amazing connections. You'll see where to fit in sub-plots, you'll find imagery and motifs rising into the structure as if by magic, and your characters will begin to take on real, surprising, personalities.

Third, you'll find yourself growing more sure of how to say what you want to say, and the right words will come to you more fluently.

Lastly, you'll find (if you're the real thing) that you love it. You really love writing. All that fussing and procrastination and worry that you were not producing perfect prose first time will fade away. You'll know at last what you always suspected: that writing is what you were born for.