As avid word sprinters, we’re all about time-oriented goals. Give us 20 minutes on the clock and a swift kick in the pants, and we’re off to a good few hundred words of fresh writing on any given day. But when it comes to much more long-term goals—such as the first draft of a novel—time limits can be unclear. How long should we take to complete the first draft? How long do we want to take?
Of course, these are questions that only those of us without a publisher’s deadline have the luxury of asking. If you’ve been asked to submit a manuscript by a certain date, then by all means, be on time. Open-ended projects, however, allow for more flexibility on our parts.
The problem with leaving anything open-ended lies in a writer’s best skill and worst habit: procrastination. If you don’t have a hard deadline for your project, why rush it? Why not give it all the time in the world to be the best it can be? Our answer, and that of many accomplished writers, is this: give that project too long to simmer and it may just burn. The longer you take to complete a first draft, the more opportunities you have for other, exciting ideas to take hold and derail you, and the more likely you are to lose interest.
There are a plethora of other problems that can occur, of course. If you’re a discovery writer, for example, you could lose track of where you were going or forget an important detail you wanted to include. Those of us who outline could very well end up following the outline mechanically and disconnecting from the tone of the story. Both pantsers and planners run the risk of losing momentum. Ultimately, it’s best to get the story down while the idea is fresh, which is the sole idea behind writing challenges like NaNoWriMo.
In the Writing Excuses podcast 9.15, entitled “Becoming A Writer – Full Disclosure,” New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson describes interrupting a first draft as “absolutely miserable.” Stephen King recommends taking no longer than 3 months to complete a manuscript in his memoir and writing guide, On Writing. But while it’s always helpful to follow the advice of an accomplished author, writers at all stages in their careers have their own processes. I took to Twitter to see how some of you approach first drafts, and was genuinely surprised at how solid your timelines were:
@TheSprintShack 30 days, 80k first drafts or I lose interest or wonder off track.
— Shell Bryson (@shellbryson) August 23, 2014
@TheSprintShack When the characters grip me I write it ASAP, pouring all my free time into a book, working every day. Often finish 7-10 days.
— A.K. Lindsay (@AK_Lindsay) August 23, 2014
@TheSprintShack It all depends. Usually I try to finish 1st draft in 35days. Though it’s more like 45.
— Jessica Markley (@jesdeh2o) August 23, 2014
@TheSprintShack It varies, though I try to do it in 60 days or so since I know editing might take years! :-)
— Christina Ochs (@therollinwriter) August 23, 2014
If your tweet isn’t featured here, what about you? Do you set a deadline for your first drafts? Do they tend to just take hold and finish themselves within a certain period of time? Or do you wing it and hope for the best? Let us know!