Author Tip Tuesday – Tip #12 Tackling Your First Draft

September 6, 2016


Now that you have the story idea, characters, and you've mapped out the major plot points, it's time to start writing that first draft.

To use GINGERBREAD MAN as an example: the story is about a nerdy college guy who meets a cute girl online. He’s never had a girlfriend, always freezes up when he’s around girls, so this is a big deal for him. Then the girl is murdered before they even had a chance to meet in person. Except that she shows up for their next online chat.

So, take that kind of information and just start writing. Vomit words onto the page. Ideas come as you write. Some of them will be great and some will hit the cutting room floor, but it doesn't matter. Don't worry if it's good, because it's probably not. Being good is not the point of the first draft. The point is making clay. You need raw material to work with, something you can later poke and prod and massage into a masterpiece.

But that's not what you're doing now. With the first draft, you're making clay.

Hands working on pottery wheel , close up retro style

See that big white blank screen? Type something on it. Even if it's these words: I don't know what I'm going to write now, and this is crap, but I will write something, the first words that come to my mind….

Maybe it's just finger exercise, but it's something and eventually you'll write something useful. I promise.

When writing your first draft, try thinking in scenes rather than chapters. I usually ask myself the question, what happens next? Sometimes you have to go and do something physical like go for a walk or vacuum the floor, and while your body is busy, your mind can unlock the next scene–the setting, the people, the situation, and what your characters are saying. When you see it in your head, go to the computer and write it down.

And repeat.

What I don't do in the first draft is worry too much about deep character development or minor details, I just think, What happens next? I'm making clay.

This process takes several weeks. Even months. The process will go faster with practice. Just don't give up. You must reach those beloved words, “the end,” and you will!

Okay, when I'm done my first draft, when I have a big pile of molding material, I let it sit for a while. Put it in a big plastic bag so it doesn't dry out (figuratively speaking), eat something with chocolate in it. Give my brain a break; because soon, I turn from the clay maker to the sculptor, and for that, I need a whole new tool-box of tools.

What happens if you don't make clay? Or enough clay? You get hung up re-writing the first half (quarter?) of your book over and over again. You hit the wall because the beginning is never good enough and you can't press through to the end – or you've painted yourself into a corner plot-wise, because the beginning is nailed down and it forces your book to stay on a certain track when it would be better for the story to take an unplanned turn.

See what I'm saying?


What do I mean by leaving the details until later? For instance, one school of thought (and this is perfectly fine, it's just not my method,) is to write a heavy outline beforehand where you as the writer know practically every scene until the end before you start writing. People who take this approach often like to do thorough character sketches pre first draft as well. They'll have a long list of questions for their character like what's their favorite color, season, childhood memory, greatest want/fear/disappointment? Etc. Again, if this is your style-go for it!

I'll tell you why it's not for me. In my experience, I can't know the character that well before I start. In fact, I'm only getting to know my characters as I write my first draft. How can I know at the offset what they like to eat for breakfast?

The characters reveal themselves as I write. A lot of the plot will reveal itself as I write the first draft as well. I try to envision the sculpture underneath as I make it. It's like watching the image of a Polaroid shot come into focus. It's not instant, like digital images are. It takes time.

So, though I don't go into the first draft with all this information up front, I'm watching for it as I write. I'm paying attention. I keep track of things as they appear on an excel sheet.

Once I'm finished my first draft, I take time to sort out the characters, their motivations, felt needs and overall character arc (keeping the flaw in mind). I look for all my subplots and make sure the arc of my main plot is clear.

But not until I'm done the first draft.

Next we'll discuss the importance of tension and raising the stakes.

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