Raise your hand if you’re working on a first draft. Yeah, me, too. I’m going to let you in on a secret: I used to hate drafting. There’s an expanse of empty white page. There are thousands of possibilities (holy overwhelm, Batman), and it takes an enormous amount of dynamic energy to create from nothing.
That’s what a first draft is all about—creating from nothing. Well, nothing but a few nebulous ideas.
Yet, something has happened to my feelings about drafting over time. Now, after writing eight books, I’ve realized my writing process continues to evolve, and some of the methods I used for my first few novels no longer fit either my skill set, or my schedule. I’m starting to see drafting in a whole new light. Is it still my favorite part of writing a book? No, but somewhere along the way, I’ve found a few ways to enjoy it more, and to speed up the painstaking process of getting something down on paper. I’ve also given myself permission to try new things. Here are some hints for those of you struggling through the shitty first draft:
A deliberate writer or one who labors over the words:
If you’re a writer who simply cannot put “anything” down because your sentences must be well-crafted and your scenes and transitions complete before you move forward, then the trick is to write short. Writing shorter drafts means you can hit goals faster, sooner, and have a real sense of accomplishment that we all so desperately need when writing a novel. (We all need goal posts of some kind.) Once you have this shorter first draft, build upon the essence of the story. I’m a deliberate writer myself, so I tend to have about 80,000 word first drafts. I often add 15-25,000 words in my second draft, and then pare down from there as I continue to shape the story.
Working on a heavily fact-based book, or one with intricate world-building: (i.e. a historical biographical novel or a fantasy novel or sci-fi with lots of “rules” or inventions that govern that world.)
I’m working on a dual biographical novel right now, actually, with two characters whose lives were heavily documented. It’s both fascinating and a little exhausting. Writing without honed purpose means I might get things wrong that could cause serious plot and theme issues later. (Every historical author has run into this at one time or other, getting something wrong in their chronology or some pertinent detail their plot hinges on, and having to backtrack.) Beyond plot issues, I don’t want people who may have known my characters to call me to the carpet and give me whatfor. It makes for a very difficult drafting process.
But I think I’ve cracked the code. Chunk the book into acts. For each act, write a scene outline following the chronology of the character’s life. Under each scene, I’ve bulleted the facts I need to cover within that scene. This allows me to draft a section much faster, as I don’t have to keep stopping to look things up. Will I have to verify these facts later? I will, in a later draft, so I’ve left page numbers and sources in the margins to help me track where I found the information. But I’ve suddenly shifted from moving at a snail’s pace to a hare’s, and I’m not constantly frustrated with the drafting.
Other tricks to get you moving faster
- Set the timer and do short sprints: If time is of the essence, or you find you’re having trouble focusing, set the timer for thirty minutes (preferably with another critique partner, but working alone is fine, too), and set a word goal. Put anything down. Race the clock. You’d be surprised how quickly you can write when the clock is ticking. Yes, you will have to revise it, but sometimes you just need to move forward. Oh, and shorter is better in this case! It enforces much more focused time.
- Working several scenes ahead: I’m a linear writer. I like to feel the pace and the tension mount over time as I’m drafting. This means I’ve had a lot of trouble giving myself permission to work on various scenes of the manuscript that aren’t “in order.” But suddenly, the last book I worked on, I decided, what the hell? Let’s just see what this feels like. I could picture the next two scenes ahead of the one I was working on, so I decided to go for it. I drafted half of one and parts of the other. After, I switched back and forth, finishing them. Something about working ahead helped me push through the block.
- If you’re blocked and can’t get anything down: This probably means you need to spend some time looking at the characters’ motivations and how they’re coming into play in the scene, as well as how this scene will drive them closer to an answer for their Big Question. OR, in the case of a historical writer (sci-fi writer or any novel that has lots of facts and world-building incorporated), it might mean you need to stop and research before you continue drafting. Research. Jot down things you want to cover in the scene. And go!
Some of us loooooove drafting. It’s your favorite part. I think I get that. There’s all of this unbridled freedom to explore and find the story; put anything down and go in any direction, at least theoretically. I’ll admit, that’s a cool concept and it absolutely works from some writers, but I just can’t work that way. To go in any direction with complete abandon means a lot more heavy lifting later, a lot of cut material, and also a fair amount of wasted time on the wrong story. It goes against my efficient nature.
But in the end, every book is its own animal, and what has once worked for me in the past may not apply to my next “sparkly new manuscript.” So I’m willing to try just about anything once, to see how it works. I’m always hoping some magical new trick will lead me down a path to writing my best book yet.
What about you? What tips and tricks do you use to navigate the drafting stage of writing? Have you tried anything new that turned out to be a big blunder—or home run?