Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Birth of a Book Part Ten: The Writing Stage: Writing the First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Early Stages of a Novel Series

This series has been discussing the early stages of writing a novel. We started with the Stage One: the Idea Stage, beginning with the Inspirational Spark, moving on to Brainstorming the Idea, Clarifying the Idea, and wrapping it up with Testing the idea. Next, we entered Stage Two: Development, which got us looking at ways to create characters, and then further develop those characters. We then shifted to setting and world building, then we focused on figuring out the plot, and wrapped up Stage Two with summarizing the story. Today, we finish the series with Stage Three, writing the first draft.

Since a large chunk of this site is dedicated to the specifics of how to write a first draft, I’m going to step back and and approach this a little differently this time. No matter how much I wish I could list out the exact steps you need to write a killer first draft, no such thing exists. Every writer has their own way of writing, and as comforting as that is, it’s also a bit terrifying—because there’s no one “right way” we can follow.

I’ve spoken with so many writers who fear they’re “not doing it right” when it comes to writing. This fear keeps some of them from writing at all, which is a shame, because first drafts don’t need to be right. They just need to be written.

I get it. First drafts can be scary. No matter how much (or how little) planning we did beforehand, there’s something a little intimidating about the blank page of a new novel—even if you’re excited to start writing it. This is when it gets real. You’re actually starting your novel.

It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s your first or your fifteenth, and I still get those first-line butterflies every time. Even though I know nothing I write is set in stone, I want to start off well because I feel that if I start off well, the novel goes well.

This is total bunk, of course.

I’ve started first drafts that later needed complete rewrites multiple times to get the novel working. I’ve also had rough first chapter starts that smoothed out and turned into novels that needed few revisions at all. How I start makes little difference to the end result, but that’s never changed that initial “get this right” feeling I always have.

It’s funny—when folks talk about their writing process, so much of it is the planning stage. They outline. They plan. They pants. They plants. Most of the process happens outside the actual writing, but the writing is very similar no matter the writer.

Words go down and tell a story.

The approaches vary a little, but it’s still scenes and goals and character explorations. Whether you spent months outlining or minutes picturing a scene, the actual writing of it is basically the same.

Words on paper.

No matter what your process or how you like to write, remember that however you choose to get those words down is the right way. It doesn’t matter if you map out your story or wing it, it doesn’t matter if you write the ending first and then work backward. It doesn’t even matter if you write whatever strikes you that day and you piece it all together in the end.

It’s your book, and your process.

Follow the rules, break the rules, cobble together rules from seventeen different sources. First drafts are about getting the story down and nothing you do is going to be wrong. Don’t be afraid of the first draft because it’s really just a brain dump for the story. It’s your way of getting that story down so you can see what you have and what you want to do with it.

Don’t worry about your process or what you’re doing “wrong.” Do whatever you need to do to feel ready, then just write. If you don’t like something, change it. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but that truly is how it works. There are plenty of successful authors out there who can’t even tell you how they write, they just do it. They’ve no idea what their process is.

Naturally, in all things writing it’s never this cut and dry, so here’s the flip side:

Only worry about your process if you’re unhappy with it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve revamped my process and tried something new. New techniques don’t always work, but when they do I keep doing them. Anything that doesn’t make me feel more productive or help me tell a better story gets tossed out the window. It’s made me a better writer, but it’s also kept me from writing a time or two. I’ve used it as a crutch during tough writing times, so I know how easy is can be to hide behind “I'm still figuring out my process” to avoid writing. No one argues with you about it.

There’s nothing wrong with trying new things and updating your process unless it’s a way to keep from writing. If you’re constantly saying, “I can’t write my book because I need to do X first,” and X is always changing so you can add one more thing to the process, that’s a red flag you might be avoiding writing and the process isn’t the problem.

Trust yourself. Trust your story.

No one expects it to be perfect, so it doesn’t have to be. No one even has to see it until you’re ready to show them.

Writing the first draft can be scary, but it can also be a lot of fun. Cast off the fear and embrace the joy of discovering your story, and don’t worry about anything but getting the words down. This is the one time in your book’s life when no one is looking, and you can do whatever you want with it, however you want to do it.

Whatever you do with your first draft is up to you. Write it your way, have fun, and find your story.

Have you ever been afraid of a first draft? Does the blank page intimidate you? Why or why not?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Once again, I love what you say and how you say it.

  2. Thanks Janice, that is very useful for us, new writers.

    Unfortunately there are some authors out there, who claim to be "helping", that say if you don't nail this, or don't nail that, you will spend your time producing garbage. They sell their help by condemning you to produce bad writing if you don't buy their help.

    If you don't nail novel strucuture = you will fail.

    If you don't nail show, don't tell = you will fail.

    If you don't nail all trillion concepts that are important to writing, you will fail.

    That kind of thing got me scared at first, but now I can see thru this BS (sorry) and I know I can get some lines and chapters together. And you helped me very much this year, several times.

    I really appreciate your work.

    1. I'm glad I helped! This is exactly why I wrote this. So much gets dumped on new writers it can be overwhelming.

      Of course, I do think writers need to nail certain things to be successful, but not in a first draft :) It's also not so black and white. Yes, novels have structure and getting your structure right is important, but there are plenty of options on doing that. The better a writer understands craft and how to use the tools of writing, the stronger their writing will be. But two novels can do the exact opposite and still be awesome books.

      It's about using tools to write the best book you can, not following a checklist :) And a lot of this happens in later drafts, after a writer has learned those skills and know how they want to apply them.

  3. Thank you! I needed to be reminded 'a lot of this stuff happens in later drafts'.

  4. Thanks for the article! I'm, like 30 pages in, and I'm still super nervous (this is my first novel). Now I feel like I should go write!

  5. Well said article.
    I've always been updating my writing process as of late and I discovered I have a weird writing process lol
    I underwrite which means little description, internalization and super short chapters.
    I plot out my scenes as I go so I plot only one to a couple of scenes before I write them and no further.

    1. Thanks! I barely use any description on a first draft either. I always have to go back in and flesh that out on the second pass. Sounds like you're a pantser (someone who plots "by the seat of their pants" and doesn't know where the story will go until they write it). You're not alone. :) Lots of writers write that way. Not so weird!