Recently I had a new writer ask me about first drafts and he mentioned that even with an outline, it was taking him so long just to write the first chapter. Confused, I asked him more about his outline. How developed was it? Had he outlined the full novel? He insisted that he had, but he was still having trouble getting the early sentences of the story down on paper. Probing still deeper, I realized the problem wasn’t with the outline, it was with his understanding of what a first draft is, which was a bit off the mark. So let me clear up the confusion.
What is the Role of a First Draft?
The first draft is where you work out your story. It is also called a rough draft. Why? Because it is rough. The opposite of rough is polished. See where I’m going with this?
Your first draft is for doing whatever you have to do to get the story from your brain to the page as efficiently as you can. Let me say that again. Your first draft is for doing whatever you have to do to get the story from your brain to the page as efficiently as you can.
To do this, you must dispense of all urges to edit your work in production.
The first draft is for clunky sentences, run-on sentences, poor syntax, repetitive sentences, and ugly, bland, boring descriptions. It’s also for underdeveloped settings, flat characters, plot holes, bad dialogue, and “I can’t believe I wrote that” cringe-worthy lines. All these things are immaterial when your job is to get the story out.
If you were an artist, this would be equivalent to your field sketch. The field sketch is what you do when you are trying to set up a painting. You go out in the field, wade through the mud, scout around and find your view. Then you sketch like mad, before the sun moves, before the crowds of people come and want to look over your shoulder to see what you are doing, and before the rain comes down or the wind blows your papers away. Your field sketch is not your painting. Your first draft is not your polished novel.
So. You are not going to agonize over a sentence, trying to get it perfect in a rough draft. You are not going to write for five minutes, then scroll back and think about how to make your dialogue more realistic. You are not going to stop and think about if Bobby should have freckles, and then go to Google and search up kids with freckles and decide if they look more like the Bobby in your head. Oh no! Because none of this will help you to—come on, say it with me: do whatever you have to do to get the story from your brain to the page as efficiently as you can. In short, you are going to vomit that story onto the page with as little dicking around as is humanly possible. Now keep reading and I’ll give you some tools for doing that.
I don’t care whether you are a pantser or a planner, you need to have some inkling of an idea where you are going with your story. To get your story out, you really can’t be one hundred percent in the thinking stage. You’ve got to know who your main characters are, what would be their best day ever, and what would like, totally bum them out, dude. You can have the whole ruddy book planned out from first nose scratch to the last happy tear. Or, you can have only the vaguest idea of how your character will get from point A to point Z. Or, you could be like me, and have a five sentence, basic-as-white- bread, outline and rely on the characters to whisper in your ear as you go along. It doesn’t matter. What matters is you know where you are going every time you sit down to write, at least to some degree. In short, be like a girl scout and Be Prepared.
Ok, it’s time to write. Take a deep breath. Flex your fingers in that annoying way that makes the joints pop. Okay, maybe don’t do that. Stare that evil white page down and tell it “You’re going down, bitch.” If you can touch type, then you’ve got the advantage. Put on some headphones with your favorite no-lyrics music, close your eyes, and write what is in your head. Dance like no one’s watching. Because they aren’t. It’s just you and the page, baby. No critics, no grammar referees, not even a single typing teacher. This is your private space where no one can spit on your dreams. Just let that story flow out of you without interruption or self-judgment.
Set the timer for ten minutes. Set it for thirty minutes. Heck, set it for an hour. Be at peace. Accept yourself. Accept that anything you write is not set in stone and can be changed later. Much later. So very very much later. Now stop. Walk away when you are done. Okay, maybe scroll up through the pages to admire how awesome you are at filling pages, but then walk away. K? Promise? Thanks!
The kids have come home from school. The dog needs to go out to pee. Your hubby announces he’s taking you out for dinner. The mother-in-law insists you drive to her house to get your boxes of books out of her attic. Okay, perfect. This is when you think about your story and where it needs to go next so that when you return to your first draft, you have an idea where you will be going with it. Did you realize you made a mistake in the plot or with a character? Okay, jot it down in a notebook because you’re going to fix it in the second draft. Later. Much later. Then write like you’ve already fixed the problem. Continue the story with your new character. Switch out the old one, later. Much later.
Returning to the Story
So, you’ve escaped back to your laptop, have you? You’re ready to write some more. Go back to your last paragraph. Quickly read it for the purposes of picking up where you left off. Not for any other purpose. Got it? Good. Now, get to writing again. No editing!
Now, lather, rinse repeat. After a few weeks of this, you will have a completed first draft. Yay, you!
Some Hard Proof
But Melanie, you may ask, does this really work? I mean, seriously, can I write a first draft quickly, without agonizing over every word? Can this really be done?
Well, my friend, this is my tried and true formula for every novel I write. I’ve participated in and completed five Nanowrimos. That’s where you write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. I’ve also submitted twice to the 3-day novel contest, where you write 25,000 + words in seventy-two hours. Believe me, if I agonized over sentences as I wrote them, I would never have been able to write this much. Like, ever.
I tell writers that the first draft is for story, and subsequent drafts are for smoothing. Stephen King likes to say that the first draft is yours. However you say it, the first draft is crappy, it’s unpolished, it’s raw, it’s not for anyone to judge, including yourself.
I’ve recently had my Nanowrimo 2011 novel published by Fitzroy books. I wrote the first 50,000 words of A Peculiar Curiosity in the first month and the other 50,000 words the next month. I then spent the next four years editing it. So you see, a first draft is not for editing. It’s for releasing the story, for listening to your characters and jotting down what they want you to know about their lives. It’s for scribes.
The second, third, fourth, fifth, etc., draft is for the bard. That’s when the word wizard steps in and turns the coal into the diamond it was destined to be.
So get out there, and get barfing, er, I mean scribing!
Some Additional Help
Ok, wait. Before you get going, you might want to check out some craft books. Here’s a few books that will wrap your head around how to get a good story down on paper.
Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days by Denise Jaden
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Elements of Fiction Writing by Nancy Kress
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson