Monday, June 11, 2012

Writing The First Draft

This post is about the basic, primary process of writing a whole novel—and kind of long, sorry! At least it's not as long as a novel :). In later posts I'll get into nitty gritty detail of things like scene development, exposition vs. action, character development, setting, dialogue, etc. etc. etc.

Many things go into good writing in a novel, but basically, whether you are writing your tenth novel or your first, there's one thing that is most important when it comes to how you approach your writing process. That is, your primary aim must be to complete the first draft. Not the first few chapters, and then revise them over and over, or take them to a workshop to try to help you figure out what to do next. FINISH THE DRAFT. THE WHOLE THING.

If you have written several novels already, this process will be different than if you haven't, simply because there's a learning curve that comes with experience. But whether your approach is sophisticated or you are a newbie, the full first draft is the essential first step on your way to actually finishing the book (which is different than finishing the draft).

I'm going to add two things here to help make what might seem like a daunting task not only doable, but fun.

First, give yourself permission to let your imagination fly without worrying about what somebody might say, or about what somebody said at a conference about poor use of metaphor, or how they'll gag if they see one more awful cliché in the opening pages of a book. You need to let yourself love every day that you're writing. You need to feel excited when scenes come to you so that you can see them like they're etched on your brain and you can't  write them down fast enough. You need to believe absolutely in the significance of your characters and their plight. And you don't need anybody looking over your shoulder telling you how to improve your work at this stage. That comes later. Embrace what Ann LaMott says in her book on writing (BIRD BY BIRD): you've got to give yourself the gift of 'writing a shitty first draft.' But don't worry, even if your first draft is crummy, the truth of your story is in there and you'll be able to make it shine when you start polishing.

Second, unless you absolutely hate to know anything about the story you're writing until it appears on the page under your hand, do a little story arc planning before you start writing (or, for those of you who are natural-born outliners, a more detailed story plan). I'm in between the seat-of-the-pantsers and the outliners, and like a lot of writers, I'm very visual. Seeing my story arc drawn on a piece of paper helps— what can I say? Here's my simple approach:

I need to know the beginning (the inciting incident*), the climax, and (usually) the ending before I start writing. Every story, long or short, has an arc and that arc has some specific key points on it. I like to draw myself a picture of the arc and fill in those six (for a novel) key points, so I can visualize how the rising action of the story along the arc line leads to the climax and the ending. In addition to knowing what the Inciting Incident, the Climax, and the Ending are before I start writing, I might have an idea what the Major Plot Points (1**and 2****) are, and what the Character Turning Point*** is going to be, but I don't have to. I just need to see where they're happening on the arc so I can build toward each one as I write. Those points typically reveal themselves to me as I write. Here's what a basic novel arc looks like:

See those little red arrows? Those represent rising action—how the story builds through suspense all the way through the book (more difficult to do in the middle—more on that, and on techniques for writing suspenseful scenes or moments in later posts). Suspense is not just for mystery and suspense novels, it's key to almost all novels, and can take any form that keeps the reader interested in seeing what's going to happen next. See how the arrows end when the climax is reached? After the climax comes the denouement, or the wrap-up, which used to be quite long years ago, but nowadays tends to be short—anywhere from a paragraph or two to a few pages until you say, 'The End.'

Put your story's major specifics on a piece of paper like this. Write out, on the arc page, a sentence or two of what's happening in your story at those points (the ones you've got an idea about). For those that you are uncertain of, just write in the title of the key point: e.g. 'Plot Point 1.' Viola! You've given yourself goal points to write to, with the push of those red arrows to keep you focused on making the action suspenseful.

*Inciting Incident: the thing/event that turns the protagonist's world upside down and sets the story in irrevocable motion. This needs to happen within the first twenty pages of the book (with some exceptions in literary and experimental literature)
** Major Plot Point 1: a major plot development (can be a twist, or not), that is something really good that moves the story forward and occurs in the second quarter of the book, often closer to the midpoint than to the one-quarter point
*** Major Character Turning Point: comes around the midpoint of the book. The protagonist's defenses against the problematic action of the story are bridged somehow, and s/he suddenly sees the situation in a different light and changes his/her attitude and behavior to reflect the new understanding
****Major Plot Point 2: a major plot development (can be a twist or not), that is something really good that moves the story forward and occurs late in the third or in the fourth quarter of the book, before the climax, and leads to the protagonist choosing a course of action that seals his/her destiny: there's no turning back.
(Climax and Ending self-explanatory)

Of course there are many approaches to writing the first draft. This is just one to play with if you're looking for one. What is your favorite way to write your First Draft?


  1. This is a really great post on breaking down the draft of a novel. Writing the bare bones is what that first draft is all about. It's hard sometimes to avoid the pitfalls of editing while writing. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Thanks, Sheri. Yes, those pitfalls. I NEED those little red arrows to keep poking me so I don't edit myself off the page.

  2. Linda, this is fantastic post. I cannot say how important that first draft is. Get it out. If anyone thinks they have a bad one... it could not compare to mine. I laugh at the bad first draft.
    Then... First draft 130,000 words. Final book, 98,000 words.

    My learning curve came from perfecting those early chapters by line editing everything over and over. Some of those chapters I spent so much time on, I ended up tossing. So my advice, on top of this, is get the first draft out and then beat up that story before you line edit. Make sure it all works first.

    Thank you for the reminder of where the critical points belong, too.

    Now... back to writing down those bones.

    1. Thanks, Karlene. I love your process: first draft complete, then 'beat up' the story--that's key, then edit. Excellent.

  3. Outstanding advice! Writing the whole thing is so vital and many writers don't do it. They stop and edit~huge mistake! Once the momentum is interrupted it is never the same again.

    1. Well-said, Heather. Momentum is SO important.