In Screenplay writing it's called 'breaking a story's back.' It's the time that you have the treatment done, an outline formed, and you get down to writing page after page of actual, physical script. All the while, you're seeing people moving from place to place. Deciding what goes in and stays out. Pushing the story forward. Finding out what it's all really about.
The equivalent for novels is the rough first draft. You've completed however many words it is, maybe never really paying attention to word count. You've moved your characters all over the place, put them through their tests, and made a few decisions. And then, somehow, it happens.... The story makes sense. Or, at least you hope it does.
I've just (really just a few minutes ago) finished a rough first write of a new novel. This one was a long time coming. It began when I heard about Sea Cadets during WWII manning ships in the St. Lawrence as signalers. From there, it went to writing grant requests. Then, a research trip to Anticosti Island last summer. When I returned I took most of the summer off to skateboard and hang out with my kids while finishing up Set You Free which will be out in October of this year.
Nevertheless, I finally began working on this Anticosti novel back at the beginning of November 2014, and here I am today with a rough first draft done. I know the real work begins now. The re-writing and editing, &c. But this is where I like to be. I want pages written. I want to have made certain decisions. I want something to work with. I want to have this thing printed out and sitting on my desk all mashed up with ink and divided into sections and messed up with coffee cup rings and jotted phone numbers.
I feel this worked out well. It didn't always feel that way. The biggest problem I faced was having to write a book which was about 95% without dialogue. I love dialogue. It's likely the most interesting part for me. I create characters with dialogue and move the plot with it as well. So this was a giant challenge for me which, because I don't think ahead enough, I didn't even see coming. I was likely 20,000 words into this when I stopped and asked myself why it was such a slog.
I'm going to give this a few days now to sit. Then I'll come back at it, print it out, see where everything fits, what might be missing, and go back at it with the technical look I always like to have. This is the time to read a book like a reader would, not as I already have. To decide what works and what doesn't for the sake of the story and not the sake of my initial 'vision'.
I'm happy with it. Which I am not always at the end of a first rough. The main reason, it seems, is because though it took me three months to figure it out, I finally actually know what this thing is about. And if that's all I take away from a rough first draft, then that is exactly enough.