Whenever I find myself in a new city — whether I’m planning to stay there for a while or only stopping by for a few hours or a couple of days — the first thing I make sure to do is get lost. Wandering through the streets of the city center and poking my head down any alleyways that look interesting, what I’ve found over the years is that pure exploration is by far the best method of getting to know a place.
Something similar could be said of my first drafts.
For me, as a gardener / pantster, my very first draft is an exploration and a prayer. In this post (and the next couple in this series), I’m going to give you some tips for constructing that all-important first draft of a novel. With 5 novel-length works under my belt (some of them closer to publication than others), I hope that my experience might help you find your way through the tangled maze that is writing the very first draft of your very first novel.
If you’ve read my previous post in this How to Write a Novel Guide, you should already have a few ideas and images floating about and a few thoughts on how those pieces of inspiration connect and intersect. Now all you have to do is put all of those ideas together in a first draft.
Easier said than done.
How you write: Roughs vs Firsts
There are actually more like two phases to constructing the first draft of a novel. The rough drafting phase involves getting your ideas down on paper in their most raw, unvarnished form. Much like artists doing gesture sketches and life studies before they commit their next masterpiece to canvas, the rough draft allows us to explore our ideas and flesh them out before the actual scene-writing and chapter-building.
For some, this may take the form of an intensive planning phase, where every plot twist and character flaw is noted down in excruciating detail (perhaps even using an excel spreadsheet or two to help organize). For others, the boundaries between rough drafting and first drafting may be less defined — you may waver back and forth between these two types of drafting as you work your way towards constructing a first complete draft.
However you work, remember that the rough draft is for your eyes only. It’s made up of all the raw ideas and unvarnished words that your brain spits out in the throws of inspiration, most of which will probably make sense only to you. Meanwhile, the first draft — while still not a fully fledged, ready-to-publish novel — is far more organized and probably makes a fair bit more sense when read from start to finish.
How you move from raw ideas to rough words to readable first draft depends a lot on your particular writing style. To steal the words of George R.R. Martin, some writers work more like architects, while others are more like gardeners. Perhaps, instead, you’re more familiar with the terms planner and pantster, or ‘outline’ vs ‘discovery’ writer — but no matter what you call these two modes of writing, figuring out which one you are will only ever help you nail down your writing process.
Pantsters, discovery writers, gardeners — some of us simply can’t be bound by outlines and spreadsheets. For gardeners, there’s no real boundary between the rough draft and the first draft. This is how I work, and I know that, for me, part of the thrill of writing comes from discovering aspects of my characters and plots that I never would have expected.
If you find that you can’t be bothered to write out scenes once you know exactly where they’re going, or that a plot outline never works for you once you arrive at the critical points, you may be a gardener. By far, my favourite part about writing in this mode is that most of my writing time is simply spent hanging out with my characters, letting them teach me about themselves in their own way. It’s far more of an exploration than outline writing, and you have unequaled freedom to incorporate new ideas and inspiration into your draft as you find it.
That said, writing as a gardener can make it too easy to get lost in the woods. Once that happens, finding your way out of tricky story twists and compounded plot holes may end up demotivating you more than inspiring you. Also, once you’ve gotten through the first draft, you may find your developmental and structural edits to be somewhat more intensive than our architect comrades.
Practical Tip: Stay organized! Even if most of the thrill comes from exploring new and unknown territory, it still helps to have some idea of the expanse you’re planning to venture into. Instead of scene-by-scene outlines, try coming up with minimalistic plot maps such as seven point structure, the main points on Freytag’s pyramid, or even simply knowing the ending first. And when you find out new things about your characters, make sure to keep track of all your discoveries by compiling character documents.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are architects, planners, or outline writers. For this sort of process, a clear delineation between rough draft and first draft is paramount. Much of the heavy lifting of character creation, plotting, and worldbuilding ends up being done long before a single complete sentence touches the page.
If you find you can’t even begin to write a scene until you know exactly what it’s leading up to, you’re likely an architect. I must admit, I’m slightly jealous of your ability! By planning out everything beforehand and using your rough drafting phase to outline exactly what happens at every point in your novel, you’re saving yourself time and heartache later on in the process. You’ll know early on whether a concept needs major reshaping before you’ve waded too far into a complete first draft, and you can’t use the excuse of not knowing what happens next to procrastinate on getting that draft done.
Of course, things don’t always go to plan, and novels can sometimes feel more like living breathing things than an outline gives them credit for. For architects, it can be difficult when all your meticulous planning leads up to a scene that ends up falling flat — or worse, dully predictable. You may also find it hard to let your characters breathe on the page, especially when they start acting more like real people, with quirks and desires only partially under your control.
Practical Tip: Don’t let the surprises throw you! It’s impossible to predict every single issue and detail that is going to crop up in a novel-length work. That’s why people read novels and not novel outlines. Surprises are part of the fun, and if you find that your characters want to go in a different direction, then let them lead the way, at least for a little bit. You’re not required to include the resulting scenes in your draft, but you never know how they might add to your final product.
What a First Draft is and Isn’t
In essence, your rough draft is a version of the story that you tell yourself, before sharing it with anyone else. It’s used to pin down the bones of your story, and get all those raw messy bits down on paper so you can see what you can do with them. Meanwhile, the first draft is a more organized version of those rough ideas. Your first draft should be readable from start to finish — but it will be far from perfect. There will always be several drafts to go before you can turn that first raw manuscript into a finished book.
This all goes to say that there really is no WRONG way to write a first draft. No matter what, so long as you’re getting the story down and moving forward with your words, you’re building a foundation for a successful novel.
A Practical Exercise to Get Started
In the next post in this series, I’ll be talking more about what you need to get started writing your first draft, whether you’re more architect or gardener or somewhere in between. But for now, if you’ve had an idea burning in the back of your mind for a while now, my biggest piece of advice would be to just get started by simply freewriting about your story idea. If you’ve never used this mode of writing before, you can find a guide on my editorial blog. Some prompts to use if you want to use your freewriting to build a novel:
As our story begins…
My protagonist/antagonist was born…
More than anything else, my protagonist/antagonist wants…
At the heart of this story is…
The scene I want to write most is…
This is the image I can’t get rid of: …
That fateful morning…
At the very end…
Bits of what you write now may or not make it into your novel’s first draft — perhaps only a single line or image may be worth keeping. But remember that no writing is ever wasted. In the next installment in this series, we’ll look at more exercises to get you off to a running start with your novel’s first draft, no matter whether you’re an architect, gardener, or something in between.
Until then, feel free to share your novel ideas in the comments! I’d love to hear them.