How to Write a Good First Draft in Five Short Years
I’ve had the idea for writing this memoir for a long damn time – it’s been germinating since 1992. 11 years later, after hearing part of my story, a professor of mine expressed interest in the material. I was just starting my career as a librarian – writing a book seemed insurmountable. But it kept tickling my brain, bugging me. I wrote down ideas and snippets and tucked them away.
Then came the job promotion, lots of hours, two beautiful babies in three years, and stress, stress, stress. It was all sweet madness. In 2011, I demoted myself and cut my hours to part-time. I had some room to breathe, I could enjoy my children, and I could finally think straight for the first time in many years. I’ve always wanted to write. Not just in journals, or for school – but to write books for people. I’ve never been confident about any of it. Crippling self doubt. Anxiety. I don’t want to flaunt myself. But – I think I’ve got a few good stories in me. I’ve spent my life surrounded by books. Now I wanted to write one. Maybe even a few.
So, I said screw it. No regrets. I know I would regret not trying to write this memoir.
So, in 2012, I started. I jotted down ideas, a timeline. I found articles, did research to clarify things. I opened an Evernote account and started tagging and stashing everything there. I could work on it anywhere with an internet connection.
In 2013, I contacted and reached out to a few people and ran the idea of the book past them. All were supportive and answered questions. I kept writing down bits and pieces. I flailed around trying to find a narrative, a point to the story. It is a story about transformation, but it’s cloaked in a rock n’ roll memoir. I couldn’t get past the retelling of facts to find the deeper theme – so this was a year filled with really awful writing. A lot of it was “and then…and then…” I felt like I was writing with a stutter, my brain could not find flow between the pieces.
In 2014, I continued the same way. I started to despair a bit. That summer, I went on a family vacation to a beautiful lake house, and I finally had time to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. That book gutted me wide open. I understood my story in a way that hadn’t been evident before. I began to feel desperate. How am I going to write my book? I needed help, and I HATE ASKING FOR HELP. But, In October, I searched around and found a writing coach.
A writing coach You say? Yes. Here is why: I am introverted, and I am intuitive. I am not the type of person to spend my time driving all over the city to find a writing group to share my work with. I’m not looking for validation or encouragement from a group of strangers. And, honestly, I didn’t want to reciprocate. I didn’t want to spend my brain on their work. I wanted my brain for MY work. I just needed ONE PERSON to talk to, and I found her. She’s a writer, a fellow intuitive introvert. All my anxiety came pouring out. I talked to her every few months. She read my work. She gave feedback, advice, permission to write in a way that didn’t make me feel guilty for not following all the traditional writing “rules.”
In 2015, I had skeleton for the book. I found a graphic of a traditional story arc, and I plotted out the rough progression of my book. I sketched a beginning, a middle and an end. I had a framework. I started to think about theme. What did each of these events mean? What was I there to learn? My coach helped me flesh some of this out. She saw things in my writing that I hadn’t even considered.
In 2016, I started to understand how I needed to turn my sketches into actual scenes. Scenes with dialog, scenes that moved the reader forward. I studied storytelling, story structure, screenwriting, and read a couple of other memoirs. By now I had a long list of writing “gurus” who I followed.
In 2016, I was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Once I realized that the next year of my life would be spent on disability and away from work – I vowed to keep going on the book. Dealing with chemo and radiation and all the side effects from treatment – some days the only thing I could do was prop myself up in bed and poke away at the book. I kept poking. Every. Single. Day. I kept talking to my writing coach, kept stitching the book together, and I learned how to write transitions.
So – despite all that or maybe because of it, in late 2017, I have a solid first draft. Three years after hiring a writing coach. Five years after starting the book. It still needs a lot of editing, but I submitted to a memoir contest, and having that deadline really helped. While I wait to hear about the contest, the draft is out to beta-readers for feedback. I’ve also shared with people who appear in the book. I want to make sure those folks are aware of what I’ve written.
I’ll give it one good edit based on what I’m hearing, and I’ll start a book plan so I can find an agent. I suspect that there will be even more tweaking to come. I’m OK with that. It’s part of the process. I want to serve the story.
Writing books takes time, and I have a feeling the first one is always the hardest. Especially memoir, which requires a deep dive into yourself and your emotions. But once you put enough time into it – you realize you can’t avoid it. You can’t abandon it. So you do the work. To some writers, five years is pretty quick. Many of my favorite writers have been on a three- or five-year cycle. Honestly, it seems about average. I’m totally OK with that. I’m happy to be an average writer. I’m writing!
And don’t forget, you teach yourself how to write a book. Take as many classes and seminars and workshops as you want, but when it comes down to it, you have to teach yourself. You might go fast, you might go slow. Success may be incremental or not at all. But the only way to fail at writing a book is to quit.
So that is how I have a good first draft after five short years. With a bit more polish and some good editing, it will be publishable soon. And there! I’ve written a book. OMG. Something I’ve thought about for more than TWO DECADES! It’s finally off my bucket list. Only because I didn’t quit, and I asked for help. I kept showing up to the book, and she has finally manifested.
Five years. I’m almost done with her. Almost. Can’t wait to start the next one.