The Secret Starting Point of Any First Draft


Drowning Under a Mountain of Paper by Christian Guthier

As we approach November, many writers, published or not, participate in National Novel Writing month (NaNoWriMo), “thirty days and nights of literary abandon” that, if we’re lucky, result in a 50,000 word first draft of a novel. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No. The key is knowing where to start, and I guarantee it’s not what you think.

Clean your desk and keep it clean for 30 days. Seriously.

Even if you’re not participating in NaNoWriMo, the truth is, most of us also work full-time jobs outside the home and our time is precious. For those of us still trying to make this passion of ours into a real career, we have to eek out writing moments wherever we find them. Free time, if we have any of it, is treasured, hard to come by, and simply cannot be squandered in the hunt for supplies, readying our space, or getting prepared. We simply must BE prepared already.

Here are the rules I’ve found most useful in waging a personal war on desk clutter and recapturing a desk when it gets completely out of control. I can’t guarantee that if you follow these rules you’ll compete that novel you’re writing for NaNoWriMo, but I can guarantee it’ll make writing any draft easier.

Rule #1: Thou shalt want to be more organized.

Master YodaThere is no half way about taming the clutter of desks. In order to start and maintain an adequate organization method, you must truly want to forge order out of chaos. It may ultimately be a simple process of decisions, but without the willpower to start and the concentration required to stick with it until you find balance, you’ll never find your desktop, much less an organization system that works for you. If that’s a pristine desktop with your telephone and a single pen, aim for that goal. If it’s merely better organized piles of paper, that’s okay too. The key to remember is that you need to want it organized and you need to want to get it done. Remember Yoda in Star Wars? He said it best: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Rule #2: Thou shalt start small to avoid overwhelming thyself.

Waging a military war always involves a series of battles, not one single push for supremacy. The same holds true of waging the war on desk clutter. Time is precious to writers like us. Rather than worrying about how we could ever possibly find the time to manage it all, start small. Start with a single drawer or cubbyhole. Start with the single stack to the left of your keyboard. Whatever you start with, start small. If it works better for you to set a time limit, spend a set amount of time working on the clutter and no more, then move on, continuing to set a series of short-term time limits throughout the day and week until you reach the level of organization that allows you to efficiently maintain your work space. Allowing yourself a small measure of success, cleaning that one pile or drawer, means you’re more likely to follow the entire de-cluttering through to the very end. More importantly, small successes will build on each other and give you the confidence to keep things organized in the long run.

Rule #3: Thou shalt look at an item and act on it immediately.

For every item on your desk, you need to make a decision about it immediately and act on it immediately. You cannot look at it and think perhaps you can deal with it later. Do something about it now. Don’t put it off.

Pick up an item on your desk right now and think about it carefully, asking yourself these questions:

  • Do I reference this item regularly while I work?
  • Do I need to take some action regarding this item?
  • Am I waiting for more information so that I can act on it in the near future?

If you answered no to these questions, then the thing you picked up needs to go into the recycling bin or the garbage. You don’t need it and you especially don’t need to be tempted by it later. Any “yes” answer to the above questions, however, means the item needs to go into one of two places. If you’re keeping an item because you’ll be referencing it regularly, put it in the home it should live in permanently. If it’s an item that you need to act on, act on it now. Immediately. Don’t wait.

If an item you’ve picked up is one that you’re waiting for more information on, you still need to act on it immediately. Set aside one special place where pending items can live on your desk and place the item there. Then be sure to put a specific to-do item in your calendar stating what needs to be done for follow-up and when. Call someone? Put a time in your to-do list when you’ll call. Find more information? Put a time in your to-do list when you’ll do that searching. Don’t just throw the item back on your desk and not act. Always give yourself a job to do.

Rule #4: Thou shalt keep it up for 30 days minimum.

Jennelle’s Desk

Once you’ve gone through and gotten all the items off your desk that aren’t pending or being used as reference, you’ll need a way to keep it up. Ideally, any time you even think about putting something on your desk, you should look at it immediately and deal with it immediately. Realistically speaking, however, most of us grab the mail from the mailbox, the papers from the kids, the thing, the item, the whatever, and toss it on the desk while we go about life’s business. If this is the case for you, keep waging the war on desk clutter by setting up a time during each and every day when you can spend 15 minutes revisiting Rule #3. Wherever those 15 minutes fit best for you is what’s important. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how soon your organization abilities improve and become second nature once you make it part of your regular routine. For me, it took about 30 days.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? I’ve decided to try again. Even if you’re not, what other tricks do you have to starting out a novel the right way?


20 thoughts on “The Secret Starting Point of Any First Draft

  1. Hi Jenelle. I like the way you think. I like things organized and I’ve usually got a place for everything because I like to find what I need – fast! However, I am notorious for having a pile of receipts or notes on my desk. They do tend to get out of control. Fortunately, I write on a laptop at the dining room table where it’s always neat because I have to bring the laptop to the table rather than just me. It’s my desktop computer desk that’s a mess. : )
    I am seriously considering participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I think I need the support and the kick in the butt from everyone to get another book finished. : )

      • Go with what works for you! I usually start with some fully blown scene in my head for some reason and then build a story around that so far. Rather crazy way to start, but it works well enough for now. 🙂

    • Hi, Amy. Thanks for stopping by. I think organization of writing space, any writing space, is important. That includes the dining room table. Dining room and kitchen tables are notorious dumping grounds for things when people come in the house, so it’s just as important to keep those clean as it is your desk if you write at one. Baby steps are the key to starting the cleaning process. I firmly believe this.

      Trying NaNoWriMo can’t hurt, can’t hurt, can it? Even if you don’t finish it’ll be that many more words towards your next work of art, right? Good luck!

      • Not my dining room table, Jennelle – I don’t allow it! We actually eat on it! LOL! I am going to neaten up my puter desk though – I ignore the neat little piles of paper but I know they’re there. Baby steps – baby steps – baby steps. : )

  2. My desk is actually upstairs on the second floor of our house, so instead of the clutter migrating there it all ends up on my kitchen counter. I definitely need to put this into practice. Last night, I took a night off from writing to clean my unfortunately-very-dirty house and do the laundry that had piled up while I was writing. And you know what? I really do feel better!

    • I definitely think you can use these tricks for your kitchen counter too. Removing some of the worry points around us makes writing that much easier. I agree, though, sometimes there’s just no substitute for a dedicated deep-cleaning session. MrMr calls it “Girl Cleaning.”

  3. Great post Jennelle. I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo, but I do have a 12/31 deadline to meet. And I am notoriously messy and disorganized with my desk space. I’ll be honest-part of it is from sheer laziness because sometimes I just can’t be bothered to deal with the reams of paper and just let it go. But then the problem gets compounded because the piles of paper get to me too much and it’s too intimidating to tackle. And then I can’t find the paper I need and make a mess finding it-it’s truly a vicious cycle, lol.

    I think a daily 15 minute clean up would be a good idea for me.

    My tip for starting a book off the right way? Find out what works best for you. If you need silence, turn off the cell, shut off the internet, etc. so you can keep the distraction to a minimum. But if you like background noise because deafening silence bothers you, by all means crank up the music. You definitely need the right ambience.

    • I really do think the 15 minutes and starting small can really be a way to get deal with overwhelming yourself. You can do it!

      I agree there’s no “one true way” and I think everyone benefits form learning how others go about starting their sessions. It’s funny you should mention the music aspect. Kiersten Krum will be guesting with me at the end of this month on that very topic.

    • Congratulations on your early finish last year! If my day job and volunteer activities actually allowed me that much free writing time, I bet I’d zoom along too, though I like to savor my writing. I’m not really a head-long-rush girl. 🙂

  4. Hi, Jennelle. Lovely post. So helpful and full of great tips. I’m trying to decide whether to try NaNo this year. I’m a truck driver so my schedules are pretty not-existent but I’d like to participate if only to flex that discipline muscle that’s atrophied. Lol

    • Hello and thank you! One of my friends is a long haul trucker who says he uses the voice note taking on his iPad (the Siri functionality on an iPhone) to dictate his novel into. He says the results are sometimes hilarious when the system misinterprets what he says, but otherwise it works fairly well. I’m not sure this will work for you, but I thought I’d offer it up as an option. Good luck!

  5. I seriously need to try this with my work space. I think the rule about dealing with things straight away is an excellent point. It’s too tempting to just keep putting things aside for later.
    No Nano for me. As usual, I have edits and deadlines over November.

  6. Organiztion is one thing I don’t have to worry about–being a teacher has basically turned me into an obsessive-compulsive 🙂 Wonderful post, though! A handy-dandy way to tackle an issue that can quickly take over your life.

    • Thanks, Cora. That OCD gene bit me too. I’ve had people ask me too many times, “How do you keep up with everything?” and these are the first basic steps I use. I should probably do a series of these on how I do these things to keep up with Real Life, a day job, volunteer work, the occasional zombie apocalypse, and a sick husband. 😉

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