Writing the first draft of a book can be exciting or frustrating, and often times it’s both. Some authors love writing the first draft, others hate it. Why? Because it’s wonderful to finally get your ideas down, but writing the first draft can tend to take over your life. When I write first drafts, inspiration rules me. I am its slave, and that can be difficult, especially for those who are competing with a book for your attention. But at the same time, immersing yourself totally in the world of your stories and characters is the way to get the best creative writing.
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At the first draft stage, no matter whether you are writing to an outline or just going where the story takes you as you write, you shouldn’t concern yourself with technique. Forget grammar, punctuation and rules of any kind. Forget it all and just write. The first draft is about getting your creativity flowing and getting the story written, that’s all.
Let your creativity soar!
The fine points of craftspersonship are considered when you revise the story and rewrite it. James A. Michener pointed out the importance of rewriting when he said:
“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” James A. Michener
If you immerse yourself in the world of your characters such that you hear what they hear, see what they see, smell what they smell, hear their thoughts, feel their feelings and know their hopes and fears, then you will write well. That’s the challenge of the first draft. Get yourself inside the characters and into their world so that you can draw the reader in. Readers want an immersive experience when they read, and you can’t draw them in if you haven’t been on the inside yourself. The idea is to write from your protagonist’s point of view as if you are the character, even if you’re writing in third person. In third person intimate point of view the writing should be as if told in the words of the point of view character, and doing that it a lot easier if you are that character as you write.
Even as an editor I immerse myself in the world of the book in order to make the best choices to reveal each story in the best possible way. I try to be each character so that my choices strengthen their voice, not diminish it.
If your characters are having a hard time, it can be painful to get inside their hearts and minds, but if you can do that, then you will be writing what you know, because you will have experienced it in your imagination.
If you find it hard to become your protagonist, at least see if you can watch your story unfold as if you’re watching a movie.
Some authors find it helpful to find music that gives the feeling for a scene.
And you can find images to help with imagining scenes and writing descriptions. How does the one I’ve used with this article make you feel? Write like that! Let your creativity flow.
Who’s writing this story?
I always feel that I am not so much writing a story as uncovering it. It’s not my story; it’s my characters’ story; I’m just transferring it to the page. I follow my character’s lead—they know their story better than I—and sometimes they take over the writing and lead me where I never thought the story would go. If it surprises me, it will likely surprise the reader as well, and surprises make for good reading.
So don’t force your story into your outline if it doesn’t want to go that way. An outline is just a guide, something that gives you overall direction, but should be flexible. There may be a better way to move the story forward that you hadn’t thought of, a more interesting way. That happened to me in my third book, Demon’s Grip. I felt scared to go in the new direction because I didn’t know where it would lead, but I remembered Stephen King’s advice (below) and kept digging deep to reveal a deeper version of the story. That willingness to step outside my outline took that book from ordinary to extraordinary, and it happened because a character said, “Yes,” when I had planned her to say, “No.”
At first I said, “No, we’re not going that way,” but she insisted that her way was the way the story happened. I actually had an argument with one of my characters!
“This is how it happened,” she told me. ‘And it’s my story, not yours. You’re just telling it for me.”
I had to concede that she was right.
In his book on writing King says, “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.” He says that writers should be like archaeologists, excavating for as much of the story as they can find.
More good advice from King can be found in this useful article in the UK Independent.
One of the reasons for not concerning yourself with grammar and so forth at this stage is so your voice can come out. Your voice as an author is your perspective on the world and your style of writing, but your characters also have voices, and they may not speak in perfect grammar—how many people do? Each point of view character should have their own voice, their own way of seeing the world, and if you focus too much on writing ‘correctly’ at this stage, your characters can all end up sounding the same.
An author’s voice is important. It’s what makes readers come back for more of your books. They recognise a style and perspective that, if it appeals, they want more of. When a publisher looks at your book, a strong voice will grab them, whereas a voice that sounds like every other author’s voice will sound uninteresting to them. As a publisher reading submissions, I know this personally now. A strong voice can be the single reason why I will request a full manuscript. So don’t try to write like anyone else. Just write!
Don’t try to write well
Trying to write well is a trap. I know because I fell into it with my first book. If you try too hard, your writing might come out formal and stilted, or overwritten with too many metaphors and similes. That’s what I did, and the story got lost in amongst wonderful metaphors and glowing descriptions. Even though they were beautiful, I had to cut masses of them (I used them in subsequent books) so readers could actually follow the story.
Don’t even try to show instead of tell. Later you can mark passages that need to be turned into showing. Just get the story down.
Good writing communicates clearly, so that should be your only aim. You want the reader to be able to understand and follow your story. There is no need to feel that your writing should be any particular way. Simple is good, but if you naturally write in complex sentences with lots of embellishments, then let that flow. It’s not wrong unless it’s not your natural style, and you’re trying to write like someone else or to fulfil some idea of what good writing is. The danger is in trying too hard. Remember that we want your voice to come out, and that will come out in your natural writing style. If you try too hard, you will thwart the very thing you most need to do—developing your own voice.
“Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it,” Stephen King says.
Write every day
King suggests that once you start on a book that you write every day and complete the first draft in 3 months. Why? To keep it all flowing, to not lose the impetus and the creative juice. If we have a full time job we might be stretched to complete it in 3 months, but aim for no more than 4 months.
“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop, and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to,” says King. “If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind … I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.”
When you’re done
Celebrate. It’s quite a feat to finish a first draft. Even though it’s only the start of your journey to publication, it warrants a pat on the back and a special dinner.
Then tuck it away somewhere out of sight, where you won’t be tempted to look at it, and leave it alone for six weeks. If you look at it straight away, it will look perfect to you, but it won’t be perfect. If you have a break, then when you come back to it, you’ll be much more able to see it objectively and to see what needs to be done.
Do you enjoy writing first drafts? Why?
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It won’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
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You’ll also find my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: WritingTips to Make Your Prose Shine, very helpful.
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