First Things First
By Rebecca Zornow
Shannon Hale elegantly calls it shoveling sand into a box so that you can build castles, but Hemingway just refers to it as shit. It’s the first draft.
To get started with a first draft, I let ideas ramble around in my head to see if it’s a viable story. I generate characters during my morning runs and practice dialogue in the shower. As much as I think I understand the story, when it goes down on paper, it becomes an entirely different animal.
Take my current work-in-progress…title still unknown. I finished my first draft a few weeks ago, but the idea was in my head for years. I wrote a few chapters but felt I wasn’t doing the story justice, so I set it aside while I worked on another long project.
A Book in Four Months
By the time I went back to those measly pages, I didn’t even recognize the story. Then I read On Writing by Stephen King. His advice on a first draft is that it should not take longer than a season to write. If it does, it will feel disjointed and lost.
I decided to put that in action and set a goal of four months to complete my first draft. Most novels fall between 80,000 and 110,000 words, depending on the genre. I knew this story would be on the longer end of that, so I planned to write 25,000 words each month. I remember nodding to myself, yeah, that sounds doable.
On Day One I realized my ‘doable goal’ meant I had to write nearly 1,000 words per day. It was a lot to eke out one word at a time.
Try Not to Use Your Head
Moreover, when I looked back over what I just wrote, my face warmed. The raw manuscript was embarrassing, something I’d never want to show to another person.
I had to put into action another piece of advice: pretend no one is going to read your work and write from the heart, not the head. As a writer, I thought I understood what that ugly first draft was for, but my inclination was to spend my time rewriting what I had just written. It was much more important for me to push forward in the story than worry about those early words.
The Beat Sheet
When I’m about 30 or 40% finished with a fictional story, I take a break from the unstructured writing and plan out a comprehensive beat sheet to outline the story arch. You can find a write up I did on that here.
The timing is useful a third of the way through. The early stages taught me about my characters’ motivations and more of the story is figured out which makes it even possible to visualize things more clearly.
Then, I write until I get to the end of the story and achieve the word count goal.
After four months, I reached 100,000 words. I had a complete story arch, clear main characters, and a unique take on the genre. I also changed characters’ names halfway through the story, exposed plot holes, and wrote confusing, bigheaded nonsense. However, all of that is fine, because that is the point of a first draft, to work it through.
I’m taking a break for a month so I can return to the manuscript with fresh eyes and will do several rounds of editing before sharing it with beta readers. I’m happy to be on this side of the first draft, but it is that early struggle that makes all the difference, it is what makes me a writer.
Rebecca Zornow is an American blogger and writer of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and memoir. She is the co-founder of the book blog ConquerBooks.com. You can follow her on Facebook @ConquerBooks or on Twitter and Instagram @RebeccaZornow.