by Erika Marks
Talk about two words that manage to strike both excitement and fear in the hearts of all of us who write, yes?
After having published three books and now deep in the middle of my fourth, I’d like to think I’ve got this whole first draft thing sewed up.
Except, well, I don’t.
But while I’m no pro at this yet, friends, like all of us, I’ve amassed a decent catalog of tried-and-trues that work for me.
Since everyone has her or his own tip sheet, what works/what doesn’t when they sit down to write that often elusive, sometimes terrifying but always consuming first draft, I thought I’d share some of mine with you all today. And I’d sure love to hear some of YOURS in the comments section.
Okay. Here goes…
First off, don’t sweat the small stuff.
I have found that nothing derails my writing flow in a first draft more than stopping to find that perfect word or the perfect piece of accurate historical detail.
It may seem like a simple Google search, but beware. That simple Google search offers a rabbit hole that could easily steer you far from the source of your search, not to mention your manuscript. When I hit a spot like that in a manuscript, I use a placeholder, three x’s, and I forge ahead. I can always come back.
Just get to the The End.
I’m not suggesting you pull a Jack Torrance and fill 500 pages with a single, maniacal sentence just to reach the end of your first draft. But I am giving you permission to get rough and rude with your first draft. Manners are for second and third drafts.
First drafts are uncouth things, messy things, often filled with gaps and wrong words—even wrong scenes!—but you must let them be just that: rough and messy. Because here’s the thing, my dears: No one is looking!! So go for it!
See the Big Picture
For me, first drafts are about the big items. The emotional core of each character’s journey. First drafts are for getting into my character’s heads and understanding what makes them tick. I try not to get wrapped up in where they go to do what, but rather WHY they go where they go and does it propel them (and the reader) further toward that character’s reckoning?
Whatever you do, don’t stray.
Your first draft is a small child; don’t leave it unattended for any reason. When it comes to writing that first draft, distance does not make the heart grow fonder.
The passion you have for your first draft is very much like the beginnings of romantic love. It’s lustful and all-consuming. Don’t squander that unbridled passion for your story by thinking a few days away will clear your plot’s cluttered head. It won’t. If you can manage it, keep near to your first draft, keep in regular contact with it, let it know you can’t keep your hands off it, and that excitement will endure.
Make notes as you go.
Like I mentioned earlier, you want to avoid breaking the stride of your writing flow. But that said, unless you are truly gifted at keeping a zillion plot points in your head at once (and maybe you are—and more power to you! I, however, am not. It’s all I can do to not lose count of how many scoops of grinds I’ve put in the coffee maker!), then I suggest making a quick note of your inspiration.
Some notes I make in a notebook, others I will make directly in the manuscript, always in parenthesis and IN CAPS.
Sometimes they are character notes, sometimes they are plot notes. Plot notes can either refer to something I plan to write in a future scene, or something I will need to go back and insert into a previous scene for continuity or just to enhance a storyline. Again, this keeps me focused in the present scene without having to lose that light bulb moment.
I always have to remind myself that first drafts are sketches, not finished paintings. Make sure the bones are there and you can fill in the highlights and shading and all those lovely details later on.
When Stuck, Take off your Pants and Plot.
It happens without fail with every first draft: I pants and pants along…and then I hit a wall. It generally comes at page 100.
It used to be that I’d flail around stubbornly, determined to continue the flow of story I’d been enjoying (sans outline) from page one to page 99. Now I know better. When the flow stops, I take to the outline. I plot the chapter in full, maybe even the next two chapters.
Invariably, the flow returns and within a few more chapters, the pants are back on. Ahhh.
And lastly, accept that your process is never finished, and never final.
This summer, I’ll be on the road for a trip with my family, a trip that comes when I am nearing my fall deadline for book 4. On the road, I won’t be able to take my computer but since I can’t be away from my manuscript at this crucial time, I am going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to print a hard copy of my pages and read them with a pen, making edits/adds/comments/cuts in the margins.
I know what you’re thinking: Wait—what? This is the first time you’ve done this, woman??
Yes, friends. It is.
And you know what? I can’t wait!
Because something tells me, if I am lucky enough to get to come back and visit you lovelies here at Writers in the Storm after my next novel, I will have a sparkling new tip to add to our list.
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