9 Tips for Writing a Really Good “Shitty First Draft”

7335883554_1550623118I’ve been sitting here for hours, staring at the cursor relentlessly blinking in an empty white screen. My head is pounding, my stomach is queasy and I’m deep into the territory every writer dreads: wondering what the hell I have to say that anyone else would be even marginally interested in (except to gleefully mock), and what I’d need to do to get hired for a real job, anywhere, doing anything.  Dental school, maybe?

Let’s face it, the second most terrifying thing a writer faces is the blank page.

Which often leads to the most terrifying thing writers face: a shitty first draft so utterly, irredeemably discombobulated that in retrospect that empty white screen seems soothing, inviting almost.

And yet, as Hemingway said with such blunt eloquence, “All first drafts are shit.” Very true.  All first drafts have plot holes, places where character motivation goes missing, dull scenes, clunky transgressions and unearned epiphanies.

But there’s a huge difference between writing a shitty draft of an actual story and simply “letting it all pour out and romping all over the place,” as Anne Lamott advises writers to do in Bird by Bird. I know, Lamott’s book is fabulous and she makes a gazillion great points, but this one has been universally misinterpreted, undermining thousands of writers, many of whom may have given up as a result and actually gone to dental school. Not that there’s anything wrong with dental school, mind you. But sheesh, the thought of a potential F. Scott Fitzgerald scaling teeth is kind of sad.

So let’s talk about the “let it pour out” definition of a “shitty first draft” — why it’s  so dangerous and so  tempting, and what you can do to steer clear of it.

Why are we tempted to “let it all pour out?” Because we’re hardwired to do what’s easy. It’s not a negative, nor does it make us weak. It’s a survival mechanism, the better to conserve energy for handling the decidedly unexpected. For that reason, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “. . . smart brains are also extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously.”

Let’s face it, it’s much easier – seemingly liberating — to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go. Plus, since staring at that blank page can be exceedingly stressful, the relief of letting it all pour out not only feels good, it feels right. Thus it’s easy to believe that this is the natural path to storytelling.  Which in turn means that if at the end of the day that flood can’t be shaped into an actual story? Well, you must not be a real writer after all.

Don’t you believe it for a minute. Letting loose, regardless how good it feels, doesn’t produce the kind of first draft that Hemingway was referring to.  That is, a draft that begins to capture – in rudimentary, unpolished form — the story itself.

So rather than flying blind, here are nine tips that can help you create that sort of shitty first draft, as opposed to a bunch of pages with words randomly romping across them.

  1. Don’t worry about the language or “writing well,” even for a moment. Don’t strain after metaphors, don’t worry about symbolism, forget your love of language. Concentrate on what the language is meant to convey: the story itself.  One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to begin polishing their first draft even before it’s even finished. The more you polish at this stage, the deeper you’ll fall in love with your words, and the harder it will be to kill your darlings. I recently spoke with a writer who was celebrating having finished the first draft of his novel. He told me proudly that it came in at a little over 100,000 words, and that he loved every single one of them. Uh oh.
  2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.  All stories make a point, and everything in a story – in one way or another – builds toward it.  If you know what you’re trying to say, chances are much better your story will actually communicate it. Plus, it will give you a yardstick by which you can gauge what’s relevant, and what might be a darling you’ll only have to steel yourself to whack later. Might your point change as you write? Absolutely. It’s a first draft, nothing is written in stone. But even knowing what your point might be allows you to focus in on a story that makes it, rather than romping aimlessly. A story making a point moves, a story that romps tends to run in place.
  3. Don’t expect “the force” to write through you. You are not a channel for some otherworldly energy, you’re a writer, and everything you write comes from you. You have the power to harness your prose to a story, and you have the power to then shape it, polish it, and change your reader’s worldview by allowing them to experience the hard won change your protagonist goes through. Take responsibility. Is it harder to write this way? You bet. As Dorothy Parker noted, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Sometimes that’s the way it goes.
  4. Know the overarching problem your protagonist will face. A story is about how someone solves a problem they can’t avoid, and what he or she has to overcome, internally, in order to do it. It’s this overarching problem that gives a story context. From the first page of Gone Girl we’re wondering, “What’s up with Amy and did Nick have anything to do with her disappearance?” The problem is there front and center, and it’s what hooks readers from the get-go. What’s yours?
  5. Know your ending first. If you don’t know where your story is going, how will you have the slightest idea whether it’s moving at all? How will you know what turns to take? How will you know what needs to happen next? Or at all? You won’t. Without a target to aim for, chances are high your story will idle in neutral.
  6. Know how your protagonist sees the world. If the overarching problem is what gives your story context, what gives it meaning is how your protagonist navigates that problem. In other words, how does your protagonist react to what happens? One of the most stubborn brain myths is that our brain is like a camera, recording an exact, objective account of everything we see. Not so. Rather, we record events in bits and pieces, subjectively, depending on what matters most to us. We then evaluate what we’ve “seen” based on what life has taught us thus far. If you don’t know what has shaped your protagonist’s worldview, how will you know how she’ll react to anything that happens? Or why?  Your reader will be getting to know your protagonist on the first page, but you need to know her inside and out long before you commit her to paper.
  7. Find your story’s third rail, and make sure everything touches it. Here is the essence of a story: the protagonist is forced, by circumstances outside her control, to deal with a problem she’d really rather avoid. This forces her to dig deep and overcome the inner issue, wound or  misconception that’s holding her back. Everything in the story impacts this quest. Think of it as your story’s third rail – everything must touch it, giving it juice and causing sparks to fly. That means if what happens doesn’t affect it in some way, no matter how well written it is, the story stalls. Find the live rail, it won’t let you down. Once you zero in on it, it becomes a live sensor that beeps madly when the connection is broken.
  8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.” This is a simple, incredibly useful one, even if you ignore the others. Whenever something is about to happen, ask yourself, “why?” Why is this happening now? Why is my protagonist reacting the way she does? Why does the reader need to know this? Stories aren’t about “what” happens, they’re about “why.” Just like life. Watch as your day unfolds. People do things – that’s the what – but aren’t you always wondering why they did it, what they really mean by it, so you can figure out what the heck you should do in response? In a story the most important initial “why” is why the protagonist wants what she wants, and why she can’t seem to get it. Figure it out first, and it will be your true north.
  9. Know your basic theme. This is much easier than it sounds. Think of theme as what your story is saying about human nature, which is reflected in how people treat each other in the world you’re creating.  Characters’ actions – and therefore what’s humanly possible – are going to be very different in the world of a lighthearted romance from that of a dystopian drama. What world will your story unfold in? And are you sure all your characters got the memo?

The beauty of approaching your first draft as a story, rather than as romping words, is that it allows you to really, truly quiet the voice that says you’ll never be a good writer. Because it’s not about the writing. It’s about zeroing in the story that you want to tell.

What’s more, when you’ve nailed down the specifics we’ve been discussing, very often the story does pour out. Because you know where it’s going, you can feel the intoxicating rush of your own creative momentum. It’s thrilling.

Even so, you’ll end up producing a shitty first draft. But the beauty of this kind of shitty first draft is that when it’s finished, you won’t have to sift through endless words, hoping  to discover the fragments of a story – it will be there. In fact, this is the one and only thing that can cut down on time spent rewriting.

If you think you hear an underlying drum beat here, a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of being a pantser, you’re absolutely right. Yes, some writers can sit down and nail a story blindfolded. They have that innate skill, and tend to be successful out of the starting gate. Most of us – and that includes most successful writers – don’t have that innate sense of story.

But we can develop it by mastering story and committing it to muscle memory — that muscle being the brain. Of course, that still doesn’t make it easy. It just makes us less likely to be up weighing the pros and cons of dental school at two a.m.

Image via Flickr by ~db~

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Would have liked to see tips that fitted pantsers, too, instead of telling us to not write the way we write. Most of what’s listed is what I learn during the writing process of the first draft, or hinges on what does come into the story. I’ve tried coming up with some things before I write the story, but once I start writing, I might as well toss it into the garbage because it’ll never make it into the story.

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  2. says

    I’m definitely going to give numbers 7 and 8 a try – they really made me stop and think about my WiP in a different, more focused way.

    I consider myself a pantser/plotter hybrid, and I’m not sure how I feel about #5 Know The Ending First. Sometimes I do know the ending and the whole story flows toward that moment but other times, it’s like the story itself doesn’t know where it wants to go and we’re working toward finding it together.

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    • says

      I hear you! I think we’re all pantser/plotters to varying degrees. Although, I don’t like to think of the other as a plotter — it’s not about the plot — it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. In other words, it’s about the story itself. And hey, sounds like even when you don’t know the ending, you have the opening tethered enough to build toward it. That works too!

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  3. says

    Oh, my, what a juicy, juicy post. Great truths. I particularly liked the ‘third rail’ analogy. Printing this out and committing to memory or, perhaps, a tattoo on the inside of my forearm. Thanks.

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  4. says

    Such a good list to keep in mind as I venture forth on a first draft. As a pantser, it is so easy to be overwhelmed and start second guessing myself. No. 5 in particular is something I might need to touch on. i can think back to a novel I worked on for years – wavering around the idea of what the ending “might” be and never really deciding. No wonder it didn’t go anywhere. It had no where to go!

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  5. says

    Lisa, excellent list and this made me lol, “But sheesh, the thought of a potential F. Scott Fitzgerald scaling teeth is kind of sad.”

    I so wish I’d heard this advice in my early 20s when I had a germ of an idea and would write 80 pages and then left it in the ethereal desert where all unfinished manuscripts go to die. (Likelier they died on old Macs, I hope no one finds them.)

    The WHY keeps me reading and writing far more than the WHAT.

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  6. says

    Oh, to create a shitty first draft. I’m editing draft 2, and I can feel where thevstorynis zinging along and where the story stalks.

    But I did what you said.

    I have fallen in love ith those stinking chapters that sooooo need to go. I am going to create a new document and SAVE the old document with those areas highlighted. And then keep plugging away. I think I need to know they aren’t gone. That I could use them, perhaps, somewhere as a blog post or in a new piece — or maybe somewhere else entirely. But starting a new document without them will FORCE me to rewrite, instead of read over those gorgeous words that just are t working in this narrative.

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    • says

      I do the exact same thing, Renee! Every time I edit something, and have to pull out paragraphs I love, I put them into another document, for use later. It dawned on me a while back that I never, ever went into those old files again. But . . . even knowing that, I still do it. Whatever works, right? ;-)

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  7. says

    Although I considered myself a pantser throughout the first draft of my first ms, I lucked into at least knowing the end before I started. And, having picked a certain historical era, I had a ‘built in’ overarching conflict and third rail. It was indeed pure luck, too. I knew nothing other than what I’d gleaned through reading my genre and, to some extent, imitating the books I loved.

    My problem as a pantser came off how long it took to get to that known ending, and being strict about how each scene needed to be a specific and meaningful step toward that end. 500K later, I was left with quite a bit of wheat, but even more chaff. I will definitely be reviewing this post before starting the next project. It’s a lot of work doing it backwards. Thanks for this, Lisa!

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  8. Denise Willson says

    Wonderful timing, Lisa. I think you guys at WU are tapped into my brain lately…freaky.
    I’m 200 pages into my current WIP, yet I haven’t written a single word of it. All 200 pages are notes, points neatly divided into sections titled: character profiles, setting, etc, and within each section are further details like belief systems, goals, motivations, flaws, strengths. It goes on and on.
    I doubt all of this will find a home in the manuscript, but to write it, and write it well, I need to KNOW this stuff. I’ll still end up with a shitty first draft (sigh) but it will have good bones.

    “Build it and they will come.”

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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    • says

      So well said, Denise — I LOVE this: I’ll still end up with a shitty first draft (sigh) but it will have good bones. Yes to the good bones! What good is great “skin” without it?

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  9. says

    Lisa, this is such a fabulous post. Soooo many great bits to unpack. On first read, the quote from Damasio about smart minds being lazy really sticks out to me (and comforts me), and as Alex Wilson said, the third rail concept is really intriguing. I’m sure I’ll find and learn more as I read again. Thanks so much!

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    • says

      Thanks, Kristan. I know what you mean about the Damasio quote — it’s from his fabulous book “SELF COMES TO MIND: Constructing the Conscious Brain.” I think neuroscientists and writers have a lot in common — we both want to know what makes people tick.

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  10. says

    This is a great great great post, Lisa. It flows along with what I read in your excellent book, Wired for Story, but it helps to hear it again, in specific pieces. Thank you!

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  11. says

    Lisa – I always walk away from one of your articles feeling like I’ve gained immensely. Wonderful truths, and I love the way you think. This one is another bookmarked entry into the Lisa Cron file. Thanks.

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  12. says

    You’ve nailed the essence of a book I recently read that had a cohesive external plot and significant stakes, but went nowhere for me: no third rail. (No juicy internal conflict.)

    Lisa, you’ll probably address this elsewhere, but while I’d love to be an outliner, that’s not how my brain works. I can begin with an image or a snippet of dialogue and can only discover their context by writing. (This is generally true of my blog posts, too.) Rather than “first draft”, do you have another word or concept for those of us who must externalize our thinking before we get to what you’d call the first draft?

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    • says

      That is such a good question. What you said reminds me of that great Joan Didion quote: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Whether or not she has a natural sense of story (I’d bet the farm she does), I think it’s true for all of us. And that yes, it IS a pre-first draft. It’s field work — it’s writing down that snippet of dialogue (or whatever) and fleshing it out, probing to see where the story in it is — and then going from there. I think the key thing is: the goal is to find the story (especially the third rail) rather than to write randomly or, god forbid, try to write beautifully right out of the starting gate.

      Plus, outlining is often about plot, and truth is plot (and “structure”) by themselves can be as empty as story-less beautiful writing — like the book you mention here. The real trick is exploring that snippet, that initial idea, to find the story you want to tell, the point you’ll make, and then using it as a guardrail. Nail that, and sometimes the story does pour out, because it has a clear direction in which to flow.

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  13. says

    I envy the Panster. Everybody would love to be one if they could, but we all can’t, at least not in the beginning. That knowledge was revealed to me after rewriting four novels (still haven’t finished one). I have to write extensive blueprints that contain summaries, charts, detailed outlines, character profiles, detailed plots and subplots, pivot points, action / reaction section, a miniature editor, and a lot of Java. Hell the categories I just mention have subcategories. I hope one day I can be a Panster, but for now, I’m an Outliner.

    Great tips

    Thank you Lisa

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  14. says

    Nice article – well laid out and very helpful. I particularly like #3. Whenever I start a new project and find myself deflated around 10,000 words I always consider just giving up writing since obviously I don’t love it enough, or have the right muse, or will ever…. blah blah. The first draft is work – there’s no doubt about it!

    Thanks for your blog, it’s always helpful.

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    • says

      Oh Carly that’s SO true! Reminds me of this quote from Virginia Wolfe: “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.”

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  15. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Your post couldn’t be more on target for me. I’ve outlined my new story until my fingers bled, and I’m onto the first draft, armed and prepared with your points above. Seasons don’t fear the reaper and a strong story won’t fear a shitty first draft. Thanks, LIsa

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  16. says

    Hi Lisa!

    Superb post, and I had to chortle over a few choice nuggets. You caught me; I have been known to go back into my manuscript and start editing and revising and tweaking. Thank you for telling me to ‘Knock it off!’

    Great, great tips and I will, along with a handful of other repliers, print this out and refer to it often. Thank you!

    Now, back to work….

    Take care,
    Paul

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  17. says

    Number 1 hangs me up on a regular basis. Even though I know from bitter experience that first drafts emerge as literary eyesores and that the prettying up is best left to the editing/revision stage, I persist in agonizing over the perfect word and trying to smooth out the knobbly sentences. It’s one of the reasons NaNoWriMo is such a productive time for me–it forces me to push ahead without worrying about language.

    I love the concept of a “third rail.” With every story I write, I keep that “third rail” front and centre in my thoughts, but you’ve given me the vocabulary to describe it. The suggestion to focus on the “why” as opposed to the “what” is going to help me over a hurdle in my current WIP, so thanks for that!

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  18. Carmel says

    “Because it’s not about the writing. It’s about zeroing in the story that you want to tell.”

    Such an encouragement! Getting to the heart of the story has been the biggest struggle for me, but all I seem to worry about is that it reads well. ;o)

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    • says

      I so know what you mean Carmel, it feels counterintuitive, doesn’t it? You want the writing to be stellar because it’s so visible, so right there, and so it’s insanely easy to lose sight of the story beneath it. But the more you nail the story, the more liberating writing becomes — because you don’t have to worry about that nattering voice in your head that focuses only on the language. You can kick it to the curb for a bit. That feels good!

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  19. says

    Great post. I think the tips are key to avoiding a lot of dead ends and time-wasting while we’re generating that first draft. I also like the way you spread a bit of disinformation with point #3. After all, we don’t really want anyone to know about our connection to otherworldly energies and the stories that flow into us, through us, and bind us to the nature of reality itself. That would lead to the whole “Firestarter” thing, where the black van shows up, they grab us, take us to the secret lab, then there’s’ the testing…it gets invasive, we have to bust out. People get hurt. Things blow up. Tears. Good to keep the true source of our powers a secret.

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  20. franb says

    Great post, Lisa. You always make so much sense! Your advice is always right on. I just wish I’d known all this before I pantsed my novel. :)

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    • says

      Thanks, Fran! And don’t forget to keep me posted — dying to know what happened in Leslie’s world, not to mention in Dad’s bell jar.

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  21. says

    I heard you speak at the Palm Springs Writers’ Guild and was so impressed with you then, and this piece is also very much appreciated! I learned to write as a pantser and will never go back. Thanks for the tips.

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    • says

      Thanks, Lynne! Talking to the Palm Springs Writers’ Guild was a highlight of my summer — what a fabulous, committed, and savvy group! And can I say, I LOVE your blog — just read your post on Oprah (did she REALLY say that?? ;-).

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  22. says

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I was over the moon to discover I’m a plotter! Yay! And I have always had to have a ‘third rail’ (love the analogy) before I start writing. I too will keep a copy of this advice close at hand.

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  23. says

    My favorites are 7 and 9 on this list, but why pick favorites? This is some great stuff. Leaves me quite curious as the etymology of the term “Pantser” though.

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    • says

      Thanks so much! Great question — I think “Pantser” stems from the notion of writing by the seat of your pants. Can I ask you a question now? Did you mock up that “Gimme Back My Shirt!” cover on your blog? Cause it made me laugh out loud!

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  24. says

    Absolutely awesome post, Lisa. Freakin love it!

    I’m a planner, a plotter and outliner, and even though so many writing advice books say that the first draft should be an unhindered overflow of inspiration and energy, and you should worry about all the technical stuff later, I could never really just “let ‘er rip”, I always need to know where I’m going and what’s the most unexpected yet logical way to get there. And even with planning the first draft will be shit, but it will be a good block of marble out of which to carve and chisel an actual novel, instead of just a messy lump of dirt and clay thrown together in a “creative” hurry.

    Thanks for this great list of tips, and the clear perspective!

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  25. says

    Great post, Lisa, thank you.

    I do think I have a different process, though I am the first to admit it’s a process that needs to be reexamined because I don’t like that it takes me years to finish a book. For me, to “let it all pour out” is much, much harder than outlining. I can outline a book, and I can write to that outline, but I don’t enjoy it; it’s boring to me, even if it is much faster. I think for some writers, it’s just the case that what you want and need to write doesn’t become conscious until after you’ve written it on the page. If that makes any sense… :-)

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    • says

      Makes total sense! I hear you — and I agree. To be clear, I’m not advocating outlining, per se at all. But knowing what your story will be about, and what problem your protagonist will solve, externally and internally. The problem with outlining is that it sounds like it means focusing on the external plot — and without having zeroed in on the story, in at least a rudimentary form — that tends to be just as story-less as writing with no map at all. Even a basic map, a basic idea of where you’re going, really, really helps. Can that change as you write? Absolutely! In fact, I think it just about always does. But changing directions is completely different from being directionless, if that makes a lick of sense!

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  26. says

    I wrote my first ever really shitty first draft without doing a scrap of research on the writing and selling of books. I ended up with an unwieldy tome of great Russian length, with so many subplots I needed a big chart on the wall of the living room to keep track.

    I put it away for years. Wrote something else. Took the tome draft out of the drawer, gave it a 65% haircut, completely re-wrote, and I mean savaged, the remainder. The result, my second novel, out this week.

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  27. says

    Terrific suggestions for working through the first draft — that’s my struggle, trying to turn off that inner editor who wants to perfect the words long before the story is set. It’s a reminder that it’s wasted time, because as much as a plotter as I am — I always learn more about my characters through the course of the first draft. I always go deeper than I thought I would, and as the “what makes them tick” answers get more fully developed, it always means going back and making changes earlier. Tough to do that if I feel I’ve polished my pages to perfection (ha) when I first wrote them.

    And I have enjoyed reading Larry Brook’s take on the plotter vs. pantser. Essentially everyone must come to the same conclusion about the driving force of their story — some of us discover it before we write a word, others discover it in the first draft. Either way means changes after the first draft, either way works. I think it’s about knowing your method, what works best for you and finding any way possible to reduce the time it takes to finish a book.

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  28. says

    I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that “letting loose” without nailing down the specifics you list can’t produce a draft that begins to capture the story. I’m a pantser, and I write to discover much of what you enumerate. In my mind, I usually do know the ending, I have a sense of the themes and the point, and know somewhat of how my characters see the world–but those things are not nailed down, not immutable. They can grow and change as things happen, and they do. I think that, if you were to read my first drafts, you would see the fundamental story (with shortcomings, for sure). Much of what you say must be decided before writing has been discovered in the writing, and I can strengthen those elements and remove weak spots–that what rewriting is all about, for me.

    Don’t dismiss the capacity of other writers to create a coherent story more or less on the fly. I’ve read a considerable amount of how bestseller Tess Gerritsen, a pantser, writes, and she seems to do pretty darned well. There are times that she does not know the ending even a few chapters from the finale. For one of my novels, I didn’t know how it ended but developments as the story unfolded logically led to what needed to happen, and it grew out of character and events.

    I think your points are good ones to keep in mind, but, for some, not all specifics must be “nailed down” before the writing begins–or before it can succeed.

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  29. says

    I hear you, Ray! And to clarify, I’m not saying that all the specifics have to be nailed down before the writing begins — far from it. But some of them do need to be. While yes, there are writers like Tess Gerritsen who can just let ‘er rip, those writers tend to have a natural sense of story to begin with — they could write a laundry list and we’d be sobbing over the plight of poorly sorted socks. But since most of us don’t (counting a lot of very successful writers), the more we know about the story we’re going to write, the better.

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  30. says

    This post was exactly what I need. I always have a vague inclination that a successful first draft (successful = finished) rests on these principles, but never been able to verbalize them as perfectly. Thank you. Bookmarked forever.

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  31. says

    I’ve been reading your columns on the writing process, and they are some of the best I’ve read. I’m working on the second draft of my first ‘real’ novel (up to know I’ve concentrated on writing Reiki and other teaching manuals from my Crystal Chamber School), and your advice on giving my protagonist a real life history really kit home with me. You have great advice for writers of all levels – the seasoned and the sort of seasoned with non-fiction, which is really great! I’ve got them all bookmarked so I can consult them when I get into a corner.

    Elizabeth King, MA, DCH
    CSN English Department
    Community College of Southern Nevada

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