Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. 75,000 to 80,000 words will produce a novel of about 300 pages. I call my unfinished draft, draft zero. When I get to the end, I rename if my first draft. To get to “The End” I’ll write approximately 240,000 words or about a 3 to 1 ratio. For every 3 words I write, 1 of them will actually make it into the first draft.
It gets longer. Depending on how many drafts I do — my average is 3.5 drafts per book — with the half draft at the end being my final extra-careful spelling and grammar check, I will have written, proofread, and edited about 450,000 words.
The most important, the absolutely critical task for draft zero is to finish it. Someone once estimated that out of every 100 people who say they want to write a book, 1 actually starts writing. By getting to draft zero, by writing that first chapter, we have beat the odds. The rest of the odds are that out of every 100 people who start writing a book, 1 actually finishes a complete first draft.
In draft zero – the skeleton draft, anything goes. Some writers are able to include plot elements, character development, and micro-tension management in this draft, but other authors emerge at The End with, literally, bare bones on which to build the story. We do whatever it takes to get us through to the end of the story.
Here are some getting started tips
If we don’t already have one, check out writing software. I know it sounds crazy to try to learn a new computer program while writing draft zero, but it actually works better than it sounds. I’ve learned three writing software programs while writing drafts zero of novels — not all three programs at the same time, of course. The reason this works is that as we write draft zero, questions come up. Is a way to link character notes to a photograph of what I think the character would look like? Can I use key words so that I can quickly find every chapter in which Jason appears? Is there a way to store all my research notes together?
Come up with a question — go to the help function in the writing writing software — find a way to answer your question — try it and see how it works — after a few chapters, tweak the system if necessary. By the time we finish draft zero, we also have the software set up in a way that we like and understand.
Incidentally, the program I’ve stuck with is Scrivener and, more recently, it’s companion program Scapple. And no, I have no links with the company, just abiding gratitude for making it so much easier to write.
Set up the most vanilla format possible
Here are the current industry standards:
- One inch margins all around.
- 1/2 inch indent for the first word in each paragraph. Do not use tabs to indicate the beginning of a new paragraph.
- Double-space everything.
- Control widows and orphans. These are single lines that appear by themselves at the very bottom or very top of a page. Some sources call the widow the line at top of the page; orphans at the bottom. Other sources have this reversed. What is where isn’t important; they both need to go. To make them disappear, go to Format, Paragraph, Line and Page Breaks, and check the box that says Widow/Orphan Control.
- If we use Word and have customized dozens of line and paragraph formats, we should not use them. Set up others specifically for our novel. We need 2: Normal Novel and Chapter Novel. That’s it.
- Select a plain, proportional, serif font, such as Times New Roman as the main text font.
- 12 point used to be the gold standard for size, but many publishers now accept 11 point. Whichever one we choose, the chapter heading should be 2 points bigger, so 14 points if using 12 point, or 13 points if using 11 point.
- Get rid of those pesky additional points that Word helpfully adds to separate paragraphs. 10 points after each paragraph is a common default setting. Change it to zero.
- Force a page break at the end of every chapter. Start every new chapter at the top of the page.
- Set up headers and footers. The header should be right justified. At the minimum it should contain the novel’s name. Some people like to keep track of the date and/or version, so they might have a header like Sing A Song of Sixpence/Draft3/2014-05-22. That’s fine. The advantage of headers is that, when the draft is changed, header information is easily changed. The footer should be centered and contain the page number.
Write forward or rewrite?
There will be a great temptation all through draft zero to go back and rewrite. If possible, resist that temptation. In Chapter 16, we decide that our protagonist has to have a step-sister. That means we’re going to have to rewrite Chapters 4 through 8 in order to bring the sister in as a character. Going back to rewrite chapters over and over is one of the major reasons that 99 people out of 100 never get to the end of draft zero.
If we have to rewrite, we have to. For some people, there is no getting around it. Their brain will not rest until Chapters 4 through 8 have been redone. But if we can, it often helps move forward with more energy if we write ourselves notes, like a note at the top of Chapter 4 – “This is where the sister is introduced,” and a note at the top of Chapter 16, “Assume the sister has been established as a character.” Then keep writing forward.
I hope to see you back nn Thursday, June 5, for a companion piece to this blog. Level Thinking – Getting Finished with Getting Started, or what unique mental challenges does an author face when she starts a novel.
On Tuesday, June 10, Write the Novel – Be on the Lookout for Book Killers – Part 1