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.