Monday, December 14, 2020

3 Steps to Crafting a Stronger First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Don’t just write a good book. Write a great story.

Fiction is an odd combination of skills. The craft of writing is technical, with rules and techniques that achieve different results, yet the art of storytelling is visceral, relying on creativity and instinct to pluck the best pieces from our imagination.

While the story is often what grabs us first, it can quickly get overshadowed by the technical aspects. Is the opening line hooking readers? Should this be first or third person? Is there too much backstory? Instead of crafting a story readers can’t put down, we’re counting how many adverbs are in each chapter.

This can lead to technically well-written novels, but not great stories.

Now, I’m not saying ignore the technical side of writing—that’s how you bring a wonderful story to life—but don’t lose sight of the joy and magic you felt when that story idea originally came to you.

A story that excites you enough to write it, is a story that can excite readers enough to read it.

Which is why “write what you’re passionate about” is such good advice. I love to read historical romances, but I’d be a terrible historical romance writer, because that’s not the type of novel I’m drawn to writing. I’m not passionate enough about the research and the details and the history to do that genre justice. Though oddly, I can spend just as many hours creating a fantasy world, which I find rather funny.

However you get there, a writer’s passion and excitement about an idea shows through on the page. As does their lack of it.

(Here’s more on A Common Reason Novels Fail) 

Here are three steps to crafting a stronger first draft (or any draft, really):

Step One: Make the characters as real as possible

My high school English teacher said it best: “Stories are just interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways.”

Characters are why readers love a book and they’re at the heart of every story. No matter how great the plot, a flat, lifeless character fails to make that emotional connection with the reader.

Sure, readers might think the book itself is cool, but that cool memory fades as soon as a great character in another book comes along and captures their heart.

Serve the story by being true to the characters in it.

Let them be the best story people they can be, and don’t shy away from showing both their strengths and their weaknesses. Give them motivations only they could have and let them act in credible and plausible ways.

The more real a character is, the more complicated and flawed they are (within reasonable limits, of course), the easier it is for readers to connect and relate to them. Even larger-than-life characters can be grounded in reality.

(Here’s more on Don’t Make This Common Characterization Mistake) 

Step Two: Dig deep for emotional connections

The more emotion readers feel, the more likely they are to love the story. Make them laugh, cry, gasp in shock or squeal in glee, and those will be the scenes they’re telling friends about the next day.

Emotional connections allow readers to feel like they’re in the story along with the characters. Connections make readers care, and when they care, the plot becomes that much stronger and more meaningful. Figuring out the well-crafted puzzle before the sleuth makes them feel smart. 

Serve the story by looking deeper than the surface plot and find the emotional moments that resonate with readers.

It’s not just the stunning plot twist no one saw coming, but the emotional punch that twist causes. Make every tough choice a gut-wrenching experience, tap into the human flaws we all recognize, and show the fears that we struggle with every day. Make readers feel right along with the characters.

One caveat here: Some genres are all about the intellectual puzzle, not the emotional draw, so if you write procedurals, thrillers, or any heavy-plot-centric genre, substitute “intellectual” for “emotional” here. Challenging the brain is why readers pick up those books. Though both the intellectual and the emotional can work together, so just because these genres are more plot-focused, that doesn't mean they don't have well-crafted characters.

(Here’s more on Do You Feel It? Writing With Emotional Layers) 

Step Three: Pick the best parts to dramatize

Elmore Leonard famously said, “don’t write the parts readers skip.” Failing to heed this advice has hurt many a story, and resulted in pages of backstory, heavy description, and tedious exposition.

You know which moments are the best parts of your story—they’re the ones you can’t wait to write. If a scene isn’t exciting enough to make you want to write it, that’s a good indication that no one will want to read it.

Serve the story and focus on the scenes that move you.

Find what you love most about every scene and use it to draw readers in so they love it, too. Craft every scene so it contains something that makes you want to call your best writer friend and tell them all about this awesome chapter you just wrote.

There’s no rule on when to focus on the story and when to focus on the technical, so follow your instincts here. You might explore the story first and then polish, or get the plot worked out before you develop the deeper aspects of the tale. However it works for you, it’s worth stepping away from the rulebook at some point, and focusing on the story you want to tell.

Technical skills are like a painter’s brushes—in the hands of an artist, they can create something beautiful.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene) 

Do more than just write a good book. Craft a great story.

It’s a subtle line, but an important one. Anyone with decent skill can write a good book, but a true storyteller taps into a reader’s heart and mind and makes them lose themselves in the novel. The story whisks them away and captures their full attention from start to finish.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and brainstorm ways to deepen your WIP using these three steps. Look where you aren’t serving the story as well as you could, and consider ways to improve your novel.

What criteria make it a “better story” for you?

*Originally published May 2014 on Pub Crawl.  Updated January 2021.

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 ShifterBlue 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. Great Post, Janet. I'm surprised to be the first to comment. The caveat on Step Two especially drew my attention. It seems like those of us who aim to write about Stuff that encourages thought, often get drowned in the Sea of Emotional Advice. Thanks for the post.

    1. Comments are odd. Some posts get a lot, some get none. And some weeks I go on vacation and it takes me weeks to realizes I missed responding to a whole slew of comments (grin).

      The emotion vs intellectual draw is overbalanced on the advice side. I think we tend to think of emotions as the heart-tugging type, but curiosity can work as a emotion in these cases, too.

      Make the reader feel something is probably a better way to look at it. Fear, joy, curiosity, wonder, etc.

    2. Yeah, guess I'm guilty of limiting the practical definition of emotion to heart-tug type. Thanks for another useful post.

    3. We all do it :) And most of the time, the heart-tug aspect is what people are talking about. But it's a lot more useful (I feel) to look at it from the connection aspect.

      And thanks!