Friday, April 15
It’s a Start: What Not to Worry About in a First Draft
Writing a novel is a lot of work. There are plots to weave, subplots to finagle, characters to grow, conflicts to craft, and that’s just the basics. With so much to worry about while your write, it might be good to know that there are some things you don’t have to worry about until after that first draft is done.
I’m a first-draft note taker. I don’t have all the details planned in advance, and when I need something I create it and make note to make sure it fits in later. There are plot points and character groundwork that I won’t figure out until I’m well past where I should have put it in. Like this:
I hit a point in my WIP where my protagonist needed to describe a character to someone to learn their name. I needed a visual tag for him to do this (something that made this girl stand out), but since this is a minor character, I never bothered to give her more than a name. So I came up with something for this scene, and added (add tag) to the end to remind myself to go back and do this when I revise. I wrote my scene the way I needed to, and didn’t halt my momentum by having to go back to where I first introduced this girl and add in the tag I’d need later.
What makes this even more fun, is that the girl herself was a throwaway detail I wasn’t sure I’d ever need again, but I named her anyway because you never know where the story will lead. And after this scene, I thought of another way in which she’d be useful, so now this throwaway character had a bigger and important role. Not bad for someone who was named just because my other protagonist needed to be able to talk to someone at a dinner table and not using their name was implausible and awkward.
When you’re writing that first draft, don’t worry so much about the little things if you’re not sure about them. You can always mark it to remind yourself to fix it later. I can’t tell you how many (need name) or (check food) or (lay groundwork) notes I have in my first drafts. My characters need to eat, but I’m not sure what they might have that fits my world. They meet a priest, but I don’t want to use the word “priest” because it doesn’t fit my story. I decide my protagonist has a phobia but she hasn’t exhibited before this. Things come to me as I write and I go with them. As I sprinkle in random details, some of those details start connecting later in ways I never imagined.
Even better, since those random details came up naturally in the text, by the time I’m done polishing, it all reads as if I’d planned it all along.
Stuff You Can Ignore
Minor Characters: Having too many characters is a problem for a final draft because your poor reader won’t know who to remember and who is never showing up again. But in that first draft? Use whomever you want, and name them if you feel like it. Toss in those random people in the hall, the friendly waitress, the casual acquaintance. You never know when you might need a character later, and what if one of these throwaways is the perfect person to bring back? These details can stir around in your subconscious and pop out when you least expect them in some very unpredictable and interesting ways. (In fact, the character of Danello in The Shifter was a throwaway detail. I needed someone in chapter four to do something for the plot, and it suddenly made total sense that the nameless guard from the first scene would be the same guy. A minor, nameless character became one of the core characters in the series.)
Post Draft: Once the draft is done and see how the story plays out, then go back and get rid of unnecessary characters.
Wild Emotional States: Discover you really need your protagonist to be freaked out for a scene when they’ve always been calm as a cucumber before that? Let them freak out, but make a note to go back and lay the groundwork later so their emotions are consistent and lead up to that freak out. It’s okay for the character’s emotions to be all over the place while you’re still figuring out how they feel about everything. Realizing they’ve reached a certain point emotionally can even force you to work a little harder to get them there and you’ll create a character arc you might not have done otherwise.
Post Draft: Check the emotional consistency of your characters. If they suddenly act out of character or inappropriate, find out why and fix.
World Building Details and Mechanics: You’re bound to have some of these in place before you start writing, but often you’ll discover you need the world to work in a certain way for whatever it is that you’re writing about. A detail, a belief, a ritual, a location, whatever, and you don’t have it already established. Do what needs to be done and lay the groundwork after. If you discover a nasty secret about your world halfway through chapter twelve, just think about all the cool things you can do in chapters one through eleven to show that. You might even find a subplot or cool complication for your protagonist.
Post Draft: Make sure the world feels fleshed out and all those details and mechanics make sense. If something you planned didn’t work out, yank that out of there so it doesn’t confuse readers.
Everyone plots a different way, but I've found that leaving a lot of plot breadcrumbs is a great way to craft plots that feel connected and thought out. As my characters are figuring out how to solve their problems, they (and I) have a slew of minor things that can affect their decisions and the outcomes of those decisions.
First drafts are usually messy, bad, and scattered. Don’t worry about it if yours follows suit, and don’t worry if you don’t have everything worked out from the start. A lot of times we don’t know all the answers until we start asking questions, and we won’t know what to ask until we see our protagonist in action. Throw in what you need when you need it, and decide later how much of it stays, what can go, and what needs a little more polish to make it work.
Labels: final drafts