Claire King


Zen and the Art of First Draft Writing

Posted on: February 5th, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

What do meditation and novel writing have in common?

When I was taught to meditate, the veryย first thing I had to learn was how to stop distractions, to clear the mind, by turning my attention to my breathing. The aim is to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your body, and then to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

When I first tried this I became instantly and acutely aware of the cacophony that is going on inside of my head. The thoughts, the questions, the wondering if I should have cheese on toast for tea…and how easy it is to follow those thoughts skipping off through my brain. Ooh look, badgers!

My teacher described these thoughts, and how we should deal with them, as like puppies that we have to train. There are many, many puppies. They are interesting and fun. It is tempting to follow them as they gambol off down the garden, trailing your toilet roll behind them. Ooh toilet roll, I must add that to the shopping list. Oh, and coffee. Ooh I could just do with a coffee actually. I’ll just go and…


So the idea is to train the puppies. When you notice a thought popping up which is not the ‘in and out’ of breathing, you do not pick it up and cuddle it, let it lick your nose. No. You say ‘Hello, puppy. I’m busy right now so sit down. We’ll play later. Sit. No, sit. Sit!’ And you go back to thinking about your breath.

The puppy will sit for a while but will either get up again after a few seconds, or else a new one will bound over. Perhaps two. They run in packs, you know?

But if you are firm with the little darlings, repeatedly, eventually the puppies get bored and they stop bothering you. And then there you are, with a clear and lucid mind. You are meditating, you have a sense of inner peace and relaxation. It’s actually very refreshing to get a break from all that noise…

What was I talking about? Oh yes, first drafts. So, when I start on a novel, it tends to take shape in this way:

First there is an idea – it can be a character or a setting or a conflict – that starts to grow. I ruminate on it. I take notes. I indulge in literary doodling. I draft out characters, I explore scenarios. Mull over plot points. I form pictures in my head of the characters and the overall ‘feel’ of the book. I write sample dialogue. I write sample settings. I test out voices. I have no idea if this is a normal way to go about things, but this is what I do.

At some point there is a tipping point, where I’m happy that I have enough of a framework, sufficient material to work with, that I need to commit myself and just start the process of writing – the rhythmic, day-in-day-out storytelling that will add up over the next few months to a first draft.

I arrived at that tipping point last week. I sat down with my notes and doodles and draftings and various other musings, ready to get cracking on the actual first draft of my next novel (it has to be written before the summer holidays, you have permission to nag me about word count). I open up my new manuscript project, set the word count target and…

Here come the puppies!

I shall name a few of them. Have you met?

Research Puppy (Shall we just research this element before we start? It could be important.)

Perfect Tense Puppy (Is this the right tense to be using? What about all the downsides? Maybe we should think about it some more?)

Point of View Puppy (You know, once you’ve started writing in First Person it will be a pain to change it to third if it doesn’t work? Maybe you should think about it some more? Best to be 100% sure.)

The Puppy of Perfect Beginnings (You know, an opening line has to be an attention grabber. Everything rests on that first line, that first paragraph. Let’s just work on getting that right today).

The Naming Puppy (That character’s name just doesn’t sound right. We should re-think it. Let’s Google some names.)

There are more.

Fortunately I am wise to their game, and they are currently sitting in a nice row while my word-count-ometer ticks satisfyingly upwards. But I know they’ll be back…

28 Responses

  1. I love the idea that those nagging chaps are puppies… although it might be counter-productive for me to think of them that way: I’ll be wanting to stop and stroke them every time they bark!

  2. claire says:

    *Passing you a bag of Scooby Snacks* That should keep them quiet for a while.

  3. Alison Wells says:

    Oh so excellent, this could be the post that changes my life! Pity we can’t control the real life ones as easily!

  4. Morag Joss says:

    I’m printing your brilliant piece to stick over the desk, along with other writerly wisdom (“Continuity of attention is the most important thing in fiction writing.” Annie Proulx). But if it becomes my Clair King Puppy (I need to read that great piece again, so I’l be really focused on the next bit), I’ll let you know! Many thanks.

  5. Jan Carr says:

    Hi Claire
    Thanks for this
    Great and reassuring to read how you go about it WIPing and all that.
    There are ways and there are ways, some ways are almost military.
    But your ruminating, mulling and occasional puppy cuddling for me, feels exactly how something you want to birth, should grow.
    Not to say other ways aren’t right for other people
    just expressing solidarity with this one.

  6. Those pesky puppies – and they don’t simply look for attention when I’m doing proper writing. I have to concentrate very hard to make it through reading a blog post in one go, even when it’s as interesting and relevant to me, as this one is. Perhaps I should try meditation? Not something I’ve ever tried.

    • claire says:

      I recommend meditation actually (and I practice very rarely). Even if you just try it once, the idea of trying to pare down all those thoughts, to control what is going through your mind – it’s an amazing experience in self-awareness.

  7. Cathy says:

    Well, I’ve got the names. But I’m still working on advanced training for the rest of the puppies…

  8. Martha says:

    I cover myself with chocolate sauce and let the puppies run free and they gallop and ramble and squeak and lick and eat ’til they’re sick and I laugh and the children bounce and shriek and the husband gapes and into the cacophony come the voices and noises of all those who would join in, if only they had a body, and I say, I can’t give you a body, but I can turn you black and white and make you good to look at, and I cover them with chocolate sauce until they hide in my pen and we do it.

    • claire says:

      Thanks, Martha. I’ll let you know what this comment does to the search engine traffic arriving here!

      • Martha says:

        ? Do you know how LITTLE I understand of the web? I have no idea what your comment means (!) But if I’ve opened up the portals of pervs and whiter teeth then delete me — you know I’ll be cool with that! x

        • claire says:

          Would never delete you. Puppies licking chocolate off writers? Maybe people Google that…I’ll let you know. All I do know is ever since I posted that picture of an eyeball, I’ve had a dozen visitors a day arriving after an eyeball related search. Suspect they’re mostly disappointed!

  9. andrea says:

    Great comparison! It’s a good idea to use meditation techniques – although I’ve had problems with concentrating on that, too ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for the thoughts!

  10. Astrid says:

    LOVE IT! Fun and useful. Kept my puppies out of mischief for a bit… Thank you, Claire.

  11. Advice for all writers:

    Read this post.
    Pause to consider its implications.
    Read this post again.
    Repeat every day until retirement.

    Great post, Claire.

  12. Peggy Riley says:

    Ha! I’m halfway through my first draft and my puppies love Twitter – and reading blog posts like yours! Thanks for it and happy writing! Now, must leash my puppies and get back to it…

  13. Carleen says:

    Thank you for this! One of my puppies led me right here. Good puppy. Now take Mommy back to her draft please.

  14. *Love* the puppies as thoughts analogy–pesky but lovable, frisky, persistent…

    All I missed in this completely excellent post was a reference to the clear, clean, flow of words as the break from the barking, licking puppies–the breath of fresh, first-draft air blowing across the page…

    Though, you chose, “…they are currently sitting in a nice row while my word-count-ometer ticks satisfyingly upwards.”, and, now that I take a break from my own pack of comment-puppies, I like your analogy much better ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. […] and it talked about puppies. Not nice ones, though. You should read it. it’s damned fine..: Claire King’s Blog :. There are some great thoughts in the blog post, but this is one of the key points: So the idea is […]

  16. Ann Marie says:

    I started writing morning pages a la Julie Cameron/The Artist’s Way this year: if I have some designated, approved puppy play time in my day, that will open up other times, right? (Right???) And actually, it has been a good exercise. If your goal is to write down anything that flits through, it turns out you get tired of flitting pretty fast and are ready to move on to something else.

  17. […] and whilst I was thinking about the novel I’m writing, and Where To Go From Here, a few nagging, puppyish thoughts crept in about the money we’re spending on finally closing up the holes in our walls and […]

  18. Marcus Speh says:

    brilliant! i’m fond of the “pilot puppy”. doing that, every day of 100 days.

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