The Plague: Journey to a Book #1 – Freefall Writing a First Draft

If you read my last Journey to a Book post, you’ll know that based on feedback from the agent who read Monkey See,  (which I thought was Book 1 in a series of 3), I am now writing a book which comes before Monkey See, with the working title The Plague. It is set during a pandemic with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease but rapidly accelerated, which kills 70% of the human population globally. It tells the story of a man who, in desperate circumstances, volunteers as the first human trial subject in a treatment hoped to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. Through the research, Danior gets to know his simian counterpart, a bilingual spider monkey named Chacho, who communicates in sign language. As the pandemic takes hold, the limits of Danior’s humanity are tested and an unbreakable bond is forged between man and monkey.

It usually takes me at least a year to write the first draft of a novel, and sometimes longer. But I wrote the first draft of The Plague in just 4 weeks. How? I hear you ask.

Usually I edit as a write, polishing each sentence, paragraph, scene and chapter over and over, meaning the story inches forward at a rate so slow I regularly fear it may grind to a halt. This process, which is about 10% writing and 90% thinking, gives me time to get to know my characters and their motivations, while my unconscious brain scurries ahead to see what lies around the next corner.

But writing a first draft of The Plague has been an entirely different process. From having written Monkey See, especially from the extensive work I did to flesh out the back story, I already knew my characters and their motivations, and was familiar with the world in which the story takes place. I didn’t need anywhere near so much thinking time. In fact, I didn’t allow myself to think at all. When I sat at the keyboard, I typed without stopping, as fast as my fingers would move, capturing the first thoughts that passed through my mind. I found myself writing 1,000 words an hour every time I sat down. And within a month I had a draft.

When I described this process to other writers, one referred to it as ‘a vomit draft’, and another, more poetically, as ‘freefall writing’. According to the oracle (Google), freefall writing is a term coined by Barbara Turner-Vesselago:

Freefall invokes the courage to fall without a parachute, into the words as they come, into the thoughts before they have fully formed in the mind, into the unplanned structures that take shape, without prompting, contain them.

One of the biggest benefits of freefall writing for me was that I didn’t have time to listen to the editor/critic who sometimes sits on my shoulder telling me what I’m about to type isn’t good enough.

It was also a journey of discovery as my unconscious mind took me places my conscious mind might not have ventured; I was truly surprised by some of the plot developments. The drawback, as I see it, is that there won’t be that same sense of excitement when writing the second draft, and I fear that process might drag a little. Will it be quicker or more enjoyable overall? I’ll keep your posted.

Your turn:

Have you experimented with freefall writing? Is it something you’d consider trying?

23 thoughts on “The Plague: Journey to a Book #1 – Freefall Writing a First Draft”

  1. Your ‘Journey to a Novel’ posts are my fave, Annabel. I’m always interested in your processes. I recently wrote a first draft of a short story using this method, so I’ll be keen to read of what you make of the process when you go back to revise. I’m currently writing to the 8 point arc, and I’m examining how other writers are introducing hooks etc to maintain reader interest.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that, Steve; I’m really pleased to hear you find them helpful. I imagine the Freefall method would work particularly well for short stories because it takes you straight into the guts of something. However, I may be way off here because I can’t/don’t write short stories! How are you finding the 8 point arc? I ditched requirements and forewarnings so just work to a 6 point arc now. It’s always interesting to experiment with different techniques.

      1. Sometimes the 8 (6) point arc feels like colouring by numbers, but it does provide the security of focusing my thoughts and story in the first draft. I did a structuring course at NSW Writers Centre recently, which reaffirmed for me that whether I “plan” or “pants”, planning is essential at some stage of the process. Dani Shapiro’s book takes a kind of free fall approach to writing, and argues that after writing for a while a structure suggests itself. What do you think?

        1. Hmmm. This is hard for me to say because WCF had a built-in structure which predated any actual writing, and The Ark had some restraints which meant a structure wouldn’t evolve naturally in the same way as it might with other books. But I do think that during any writing process, the best way of telling the story starts to become clear to you, and connections between things emerge.

  2. Your computer must have been smoking! Congratulations on completing your draft!
    I did a Freefall writing course with Barbara TV in 2012 and it completely unlocked me. I couldn’t recommend it more. I feel as if I need to do it again, actually. (She comes to Perth every November.) I use it to write my fiction and essays, but I often forget to obey the rules and get stuck editing.

    1. Where can I read about of find out more about Barbara TV’s method?

    2. I read your post about it Louise, it sounded pretty wonderful. Would you like to link to it here? Would be great for readers to hear about your experience with it.

      1. Here’s a link to the 2013 blog post I wrote:
        I’ve recommended the course to a few people, all of whom have got so much out of it. It’s very liberating and it helped me find my voice. I’d add that to get the most out of it, you have to give yourself permission to write towards things you’re fearful of telling, which means not judging yourself. It also means sitting with a bit of anxiety, which isn’t easy.
        I was knackered by the end of the week and it took me a few weeks to feel normal again. I wrote about personal things that I’d protected for decades and it took time to settle into place afterwards. Obviously, you’re there for the writing and not the psychology, but the two are yin and yang. Of all the courses I’ve done, this was the one that helped my writing the most.

        1. Just a question to Louise (thx for the interesting post Annabel)When you first do freefall writing how long do you give yourself; ten minutes, twenty minutes, three pages?
          thank you very much Louise

  3. Freefall writing has been my go-to method for all three of my fiction books (though I’ve never heard the term before). For the first two, rewriting was agony: to be honest, I should have done more of it, but just couldn’t face it. But for some reason rewriting on ‘From the Wreck’ was a bizarrely spiritual experience, a burrowing down into the real, hidden intent of the book, hauling up the things I’d meant to say from all the other stuff I’d said by accident. If that makes any sense at all.

    1. How have we never talked about this before, Jane? Rewriting was agony because it is just slow and laborious and there’s no discovery?
      i LOVE what you said about burrowing down into the hidden intent, that is such a wonderful way to view it. I think if I look at it like this then I will feel differently about it.

  4. Yes, I now use Freefall for everything I write. Barbara is the best teacher I’ve ever come across. She’s so good, you can’t tell what she does that is so good! I wrote The Historian’s Daughter mostly in Freefall and the new novel I’m writing is also freefall, so far. But I write slowly, Annabel. So I’ve got another year to go before I finish this draft. The best thing about this way of writing is it teaches you to turn off your inner critic and trust your instinct. I’ve done about 4 workshops with Barbara and most of the pieces I wrote then have been published. Hoping to get to the one in November. Thanks too for this lovely post.

    1. wow, that is a big rap, Rashida. I think I should try this course! But I don’t understand how freefall writing and writing slowly go together. If you’re freefalling, don’t the words just pour out?

      1. Yes, the words do pour out, as memoir, mostly. But that doesn’t translate into the novel I’m writing, so I write holding the emotion I’ve generated, in fiction. It’s complicated. Even when I’m freefalling I tend to jump around rather than sustain one piece of thought, narrative or structure. Barbara’s second book about fiction is very helpful in this regard. And she quotes one of my stories almost entirely, to make a point about ‘opening out.’ This story was later published in the Westerly 🙂

    2. I’ve just purchased Barbara’s two books on freefall writing on the strength of this thread!

  5. Great post Annabel,
    I love the freefall writing approach and generally use a combination of freefall and meticulous polishing when writing fiction. When I’m writing freefall and can’t think of the perfect word I just plug in XXX and move on so as not to disrupt the flow.

    1. Thanks Genevieve. I do that too. My draft had lots of XXXX bits also square brackets with [Chilean plant info], [insert deets about medicals] etc! meticulous polishing is even more important when you start out in freefall I think.

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