I believe in two things to completing the first draft of a novel. Being consistent in your writing (which I talk about here) and in setting a deadline for your completion date and sticking to it!
To me, the deadline is just as important as the daily word count. The deadline starts off way in the future, usually 8 weeks or so, and when you start writing your novel, it feels like you’ll never make it to that final day. Last summer, when I started writing my MFA thesis novel the first week of June, my deadline date of Friday, August 11 seemed impossibly far away. I wondered if I’d survive this dark, intense story over the course of ten long weeks. And there were moments, especially in late July, when I wondered if I’d come out of my cave in one piece. This was the hardest novel I’d ever written. It was the most challenging, ambitious.
But after ten weeks of working hard five days a week getting in my words, giving each scene my all, suddenly August 11 appeared, and I typed THE END. It was my eighteenth novel, and yet the feeling of finishing that one was like anything I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t just another novel. It was my MFA thesis. It was a story I’d wanted to tell for thirteen years. And it was done. Something that’d existed only in my head for years was finally down on paper.
And boy, did my thesis need a lot of work over the next few months. In my second draft, I cut about 50,000 of the 110,000 words (!) and added about 20,000 new ones. I changed the middle of the novel completely. I did a third draft this past spring, and then a fourth in May, and just this last week I did a fifth draft where I cut 3,000 words and added about 500 new ones. Revision is its own separate beast, something I’m sure I’ll touch on in a future article. But as has been said before, you can’t revise a blank page. You can’t work on sentences and paragraphs and storytelling that isn’t there yet.
So your first step, the most crucial step in my mind, is writing your first draft, and completing it. Not writing part of it, then leaving a chunk of writing for months down the road. Not writing a 20,000-word first draft that you’ll lengthen at a later date. You need to get a word count down in that first draft that is at least close to the desired word count of your genre. I write YA, so I always aim for 80,000 words. Some of my first drafts come in shorter than that, but it’s always the ballpark I try for because I’m much more of a cutter in revision. I like to trim down, not build up. If you like to build up, maybe you could write 60,000 words as your first draft and go from there. I have a friend who wrote a 45,000-word first draft of a YA novel, and years later the book was published at 90,000 words! So there’s no right way to complete your first draft.
What you need to do is finish it. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I suggest you start with your chosen word count. 2,000 words a day is standard. That’s what I have done on each one of my eighteen novels. If you have the time, and if you think you can do it, aim for 2,000. But 1,000 works well, too. Or 500. Pick what you feel comfortable with. Pick what you know you’ll stick to. If you start at 2,000 words a day and you keep coming up short, you might get frustrated, so if that’s the case, go shorter if you must. You can always start with, say, 1,000 words a day, then go longer later if things are going well.
Whatever word count you choose, you want to stick to it, and then, if at all possible, you should set a firm deadline for the completion of your draft. This has been a fairly easy task for me because at 2,000 words a day, five days a week, that always makes for 8 weeks until my deadline. 10,000 words a week. For 8 weeks. So I just pick that Friday on the 8th week.
And you know what I do next? I grab a Post-It, write in black sharpie the deadline date, and I stick it on the corner of my desk so that it’s always there. I see it every day. I don’t stare at it to give myself anxiety, but to just give myself that daily reminder, the energy really, to keep going, keep meeting my daily word count goals, to reach the deadline.
Now, and this is also important, YOU CAN FINISH YOUR DRAFT BEFORE THE DEADLINE. I have done this many times. I did actually finish my MFA thesis novel on the exact Friday of my deadline last summer, but the summer before that I wrote a YA thriller that I finished three days ahead of schedule. And the summer before that, I wrote a YA thriller I finished a whole week ahead of schedule.
This happens. Don’t panic if you finish your novel early. And don’t try to fill up those remaining days with new filler scenes. Freakin’ celebrate early! Use those few days you planned to write to sleep in, plan other projects, relax. I’m always thrilled when I finish a day or two early.
But by all means, try if at possible to finish your manuscript on the deadline you set for yourself. Even if the deadline is totally made up. PRETEND IT’S NOT. Pretend your deadline date is the day your manuscript is due to the editor, is due to a million fans you have requested they read it that day! I’ve talked to a couple of people who said this doesn’t work because deep down they know the deadline is bogus, so they just forget about it. You have to treat the deadline seriously, like it exists. Trust me on this.
This idea of the deadline of course extends far beyond the completion of a first novel. It can work for a short story (in April I completed a new story writing just 300 words a day for four weeks). It can work for a screenplay. For the month of June I’m writing a new screenplay called The Substitute that I started on Monday, June 4 and plan to finish on Friday, June 29. Four weeks. About 5–6 pages a day. By the 29th, if not a day or two sooner, I’ll have a first draft screenplay of about 110 pages.
I maintain the 5–6 pages a day.
And I always keep the date of Friday, June 29 in the back of my mind.
For whatever project you’re writing, but most especially a novel, you need to do two things. Stick to a word count every day, the same word count.
And set yourself a deadline. It can be made up. It doesn’t have to be real. But treat it like it is.
And one day, either that deadline day, or soon before, you will have a finished novel.