Done. Now start again.

On Sunday morning at 10 a.m. I finished the first draft of the Third Riel Conspiracy. To say it felt really good would be an understatement. If I had a pet I would have danced around the house with it. But I don’t, and the kids were happy playing with Lego, so I made myself a cup of tea and sat for a few minutes marveling at my accomplishment and then did the breakfast dishes.

Jack Cornfield, one of my favorite Buddhist authors book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, comes to mind once more.

When I started this project on August 4th I had a clear vision that I wanted to be done this draft before leaving on a business trip to Polson, Montana on the 21st. That I’m writing this post from the KwaTaqNuk Lodge on Flathead Lake doesn’t escape notice.

This brings to mind one of key lesson’s I learned when writing this first draft:

1) Deadlines are important. Create realistic deadlines for yourself and work hard to meet them.

For me the challenge was timing. Jenn and I had a trip planned in the middle of the period of time I’d set out to pen this draft, and I knew that would interrupt my momentum. It’s important not to abandon all semblance of normalcy when trying to write a book, but it’s also important to make writing a high enough priority that you can capture the natural momentum that comes while writing.

2) Momentum is everything when writing a first draft. It’s the wind at your back. Once you’ve got momentum, do everything in your power not to lose it.

Momentum was hard to capture, and hard to hold during much of the writing of this draft. The trip was great, but cost me two weeks of writing (one for the trip itself, and one for the time it took to get back into the story) The next challenge was that I had done the research for, and written the storyboard of this book almost a year ago. Between now and then I had written two other books, each with three or four drafts, moved from BC to Alberta, and started a full time job. I simply forgot a lot of the details of how the plot was supposed to unfold. In the future I will:

3) Do the research for, and write the first draft, as one continual process.

That stalled momentum as I had to read my notes over and over to try and implant the trajectory of the plot back into my brain-like mass. Another challenge was that the book is set in several diffident locations and while I knew one like the back of my hand, others were less clear for me. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the “set” remained the same for much of the first 45,000 words: the battlefield of Batoche. But once my main characters parted ways, and my protagonist left to track down leads, I felt the momentum wane. Frankly, I got a little bored, and a little frustrated by my lack of clarity around details and the direction of the plot. But I remembered:

4) No matter what happens, write through it. Just keep writing, even if you KNOW what you are writing will end up in the shredder or set on fire during the penning of the second draft.

If something feels hard, if it feels as if it’s stuck, sitting back and having a good long think or stepping away from the project for a protracted period of time isn’t going to get it unstuck. When your truck is stuck in the muck, does stepping away from it get it unstuck? No: pushing and pulling does. I’ve written elsewhere that sometimes the best thing to do when faced with a problem is to do nothing. The Tao te Ching counsels that sometimes the write action to take is no action. That’s true for just about everything except first drafts. With a first draft, writing is the ‘nothing’ that will lead to a solution. If you just keep writing, you keep your momentum, and that unlocks the extraordinary potential for your brain to tap into vast unexplored stores of creativity.

Part of my challenge, as I said, was that there were parts of the story that I wasn’t really into. I looked at them as bits I had to write to get to the good stuff.

5) If I don’t like what I’m writing, nobody who is reading it will like it either.

When I realized this, it made it easy to just stop and move onto the next scene. I realized that whatever I thought was so important about what I was writing likely wasn’t and that the story wouldn’t be served by my labouring over it. If it’s important enough to the plot I can fix it during the next draft.

The challenge here – and every piece of advice on writing I’ve ever read says this, so this is by no means original –  is to not be attached to writing a good first draft. In the case of the Third Riel Conspiracy, even with a couple of days now between me and the end of the spastic vomiting of words on the page that is my writing process, I can see gaping holes in the plot, massive fissures in the development of the characters and an utter lack of texture when it comes to describing the settings for the book.

6) Trust that in subsequent drafts, the writing will get better. It almost always does.

For many writers – or maybe it’s just me – there is a sort of first draft amnesia that takes hold when we are going through this process. I forget that the other books that I’ve written all started this way: just plain bad. Some of them got better; most often after I enlisted the help of an editor.

Finally, and I can’t emphasis this enough: I would not say that every word was written in bliss during the development of the first draft. On the contrary, some sections, scenes and chapters were a labour. That’s why it’s called work. And that’s what it is: good, plain honest work. There’s nothing to say that writing can’t be the kind of work that Kalil Gibran talks about when he says that “work is love made visible.” It is for me. But it’s also hard sometimes, and it takes discipline to keep your ass in your chair for five weeks, every morning, and on weekends, in order to accomplish something. But it feels good when you do.

7) Writing is hard work that requires discipline. But it is also blissful, and one of the surest routes to connecting with our own, and the universes creative potential, and that makes it worth the effort.

So now what? What happens now? Well, the novel stands at 80,000 words, which is short by my standards. It needs some meat on its bones, and I have several pages of notes with questions like, what exactly did Regina look like in 1885? And could Sam Steele or Leif Crozier have been in Fort Battleford on such and such a date? I need to answer those questions, and then, in a few weeks or maybe a month, sit down and start again.

In the next draft I’ll add words, and in the third draft I’ll start the process of shaving them off, layer by layer, like some kind of reductionist sculpture project, until what remains looks something like a novel.

But in the mean time, there are other projects. The Vanishing Track is overdue for a review of the copy edit. That better get done soon or my publisher will put the leaches to me.  And The Slickrock Paradox is almost ready for its first story edit. None of these are complaints: this is exactly the sort of opportunity I’ve been dreaming about for two decades.

Now it’s over to you. Do you have your own thoughts on writing a first draft? Post them here. And follow the progress of these novels on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Between 1-10 on the Suck-o-Meter

One of the problems with first drafts is not knowing just how badly they suck. I mean, almost all of them suck. It’s said that Jack Kerouac only wrote one draft of On the Road, which probably explains why at times it was brilliant, and at times to also sucked. But most of us aren’t Jack Kerouac, and are likely grateful for that, and so we write four, eight, twelve, eighteen drafts of a book before it gets published, if we’re even so lucky.

Right now I know that The Third Riel Conspiracy sucks. What I simply can’t remember is how badly it sucks in comparison with other first drafts that I have written, several which have become books, with covers and ISBN numbers and the faint promise that someday there might be a royalty cheque. Maybe.

Before The Third Riel, I’ve written eight other complete first drafts. Three of these are now books. Two more will be books in the next year. Two more just might be books sometime, somehow. The final one is a yet a dream. I think that’s eight. Yes, eight. I know that the first draft of The Vanishing Track, which will be released by Touchwood Editions in the spring of 2012, sucked pretty badly. It went eleven drafts before someone had finally had enough and gave in. So too The Cardinal Divide, and the Darkening Archipelago. I can’t even remember how many drafts each of them went, but it was at least eight or nine each.

The trouble right now is that I’m so deep inside the narrative arc of the Third Riel that all I can think about is plot. I really couldn’t care less about anything else, and it’s the anything else, at the end of the day, that makes a book worth reading. And that’s why I’m feeling as if the novel is really just a load of rot. It isn’t, but because there’s little else to it but action and dialog – no tone, no texture – I’m getting worried.

What I need is a suck-o-meter with a built in memory function so I can measure, and remember, how each book stacks up. It might be cold comfort I realize.

I know that what makes a book worth reading – the shadows, the way light falls across the scene, the variances in a characters voice – all will come in time. There are still so many drafts to pass through before the suck-o-meter registers something near 0.

Cut to the Chase

I am seriously considering cutting to the chase, literally, and letting anything in between sort itself out in the second draft. I’m feeling a little end-of-first-draft undertow right now. I know I just have to sit in the chair every morning and keep my fingers moving. Its easier said than done.

Write it in Layers

I’ve realized now that I’m writing The Third Riel Conspiracy the way I would read it: hastening from one climatic scene to the next, anticipating the thrilling conclusion. Time to time I worry that the story is pretty thin in places: the characters are not developing; the language lacks prose or any real texture. Large elements of the plot are being skimmed over in the effort to maintain momentum through this first draft.

Each morning when I sit down to write I remind myself that I don’t have to write all of the elements of the book at once. I can write it in layers. In the past I’ve known this instinctively, but now, with so many opportunities to write stacking up on each other, I fear I may run out of time.

But it doesn’t work that way. It can’t. The plot has enough complexity that to try and write it all at once would be a stagnating impediment. I’d grind to a halt trying to tell the convoluted take of Canada’s religious and political entanglement with the North West rebellion, its myriad causes, and the trial of Lois Riel, while simultaneously map out and keep track of the movements of the Alberta Field Force, Sam Steele, Lief Croizer and others.

So I’m writing in layers. I’ve started to think of the story as a human body.

Right now, I’m building the skeleton onto which everything can hang: the plot, the main events of the story, and of course the intrigue around the murder mystery itself. As I’m reminded (often) by my story editor Frances Thorsen, despite the historical or environmental themes of my novels, the books I write are mysteries. Stay focused.

Next will come the connective tissue: the muscles and assorted viscera. This is where I’ll build the story of the politics and religious bigotry that was so integral to the North West Rebellion and the execution of Riel.

Then will come the tendons, and the various joints, cartilage, etc, that give the body form and allow it to move. Here the story of the protagonist must be “fleshed out.” I can’t speak for others, but when I read a mystery series, it’s as much to see how the central character develops as for the mystery.

Then the skin: the whole story has to get wrapped in language that flows; that is evocative and crisp. The country that this story takes place in – the Saskatchewan River, the plains surrounding Fort Calgary, and the foothills and river breaks around Fort Benton and Sun River Montana – have to transport the reader. So do the physical settings: the battlefields of Batoche, and the Courthouse in Regina.

Then maybe we’ll work on the hair; give the whole story a nice bouffant – or more appropriately a crew cut – by trimming out all of the excesses that creep in while writing.

The skeleton is taking shape. And I can’t wait to put some meat on the bones.

Beware: Mushy Middle ahead

I hit the mushy middle this weekend. Chapter seventeen. I could see it coming. I had been warned. One of my favourite bloggers, Chunk Wendig said this:

“The beginning’s easy because it’s like — BOOM, some shit just happened. The ending’s easy because — POW, all the shit that happened just lead to this. The middle is where it gets all gooshy, like wet bread or a sloppy pile of viscera.”

Chucks advice, crudely put: keep the interesting shit happening.

The middle of the Third Riel Conspiracy involves a major scene shift, from the battlefields of Batoche, Saskatchewan, to well…somewhere else. Everywhere else. Fort Calgary, Fort Benton, Sun River….Christ, Legault, make up your mind! The protagonist rides off in search of clues to unravel a mystery, but because of my insistence on holding the narrative tightly against the facts of history, I have a lot more research to do to make sure that what I want to have happen could have happened. In this case, the conversations with people that I want my protagonist to have can’t happen if he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fort Battleford or Fort Pitt? Could Sam Steele have been there?

My solution to this problem was to just make the shit up (which is, after all, the point) and flag it so I can return to it later. It’s all about momentum.

The second problem is just as Chuck describes it. The first sixteen chapters are all set in the aftermath of the Battle of Batoche, and involve the suspects in the murder mystery retelling their perspective on the four days of fighting. When Durrant Wallace, the NWMP Sergeant who is the hero of our tale, rides off, suddenly things get eerily quiet.

I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but the main one is not lapsing into exposition – babbling on about how interesting the old McLeod Trial is, or giving a narrative history lesson on the comings and goings of Fort Benton, Montana – and keeping the story moving along. I can almost hear my editor, Frances Thorsen, saying “Keep the story moving here,” and then using her meat clever to cut the entire chapter….

Over the course of the weekend I ploughed through five or six thousand words (a few of which might endure) and have crested the hump of the mushy middle. There are no sloppy piles of viscera clinging to the manuscript, at least not that I can see. And now things are going to start picking up speed towards a series of apex moments in the story and then all the shit will lead to something happening. I think. That’s what I’m counting on.