First drafts can be like mazes. The way through is never a straight line.
by Ruth Harris
A first draft is a maze you create that you have to find your way out of. Like a maze, the first draft doesn’t proceed in a straight line from start to finish, from beginning to end.
In the process of drafting, you will get lost at times, find yourself in dead ends at others. You will have to go back and retrace your steps, find another route, and keep trying until you solve the puzzle and get through to the end.
First Drafts are Written by Both the Conscious and Subconscious Mind
Your conscious mind does part of the work for you. Whether you start with a detailed outline or an idea of the genre, the setting, a notion of the MC or a scene you can’t wait to write, you make deliberate, conscious choices about what kind of book you want to write. You choose the setting, time period, and the characters.
Sometimes accidentally overheard dialogue can lead to gold. Matt Weiner, creator of TV’s “Mad Men” and author of the forthcoming novel, Heather, the Totality, remembers where the initial idea for the book came from. He was carrying the notebook he always keeps with him to record snippets of overheard dialogue or a fleeting idea for a scene when he saw a teenage girl having a tense conversation with a companion.
“You don’t know if an idea is going to be a TV show or a movie or a play or prose or a poem or a stupid note you write in your notebook and forget about,” he says, recalling the unsettling sense he had that she was in some kind of “animal danger.”
The subconscious asserts itself via the fleeting thought that seems crazy or impossible until you mull it over. It can also be the time your character that does something completely out of character that brings the book alive. Your subconscious is also at work when it creates the plot twist even you didn’t see coming, the scene seems to write itself, or the intuitive leap that takes you from Point A to Point B in a way you never imagined.
Plotters and Pantsers
You can think of the two approaches as deliberate or spontaneous. They are often referred to as plotter or pantser, gardener or architect, muse or editor, unruly child or sensible adult.
Writers from Virginia Woolf to Joseph Heller, from Stephen King to Katherine Ann Porter, James Joyce to J.K. Rowling have detailed their specific approaches to writing. They are quoted in an excellent article by Akilesh Ayyar, who is interested in the intersection of literature, philosophy, psychology, and religion. He is currently a fellow at The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Ayyar addresses the merging of the lines between plotter and pantser as follows: “These divisions are not to deny the facts that writing itself constitutes a kind of planning, if only in retrospect, and that the lines between glimmering visions, developed thoughts, preparatory notes, preliminary sketches, and first drafts blur. Planners certainly do not and cannot plan everything, and even the incorrigibly spontaneous no doubt fall into certain involuntary spasms of planning.”
Writing a book is a juggling act/a balancing act, a process of going forward and going back in order to go forward again. Like a film or stage director, a corporate executive or Mom or Dad, your job is to keep all the various elements of a book, a show, a company, a family, working together toward the same goal: compelling the reader to turn pages.
The subconscious is messy, passionate, energetic, unruly. The conscious is rational, orderly, deliberate.
Your job, if you want to write a novel, is to learn to mediate between the two and use them both to their best advantage.
Many approaches toward the same goal.
- Joanna Penn describes outlining as the process of setting out the main events of your book and working out the plot from beginning to end. She adds that “the point of outlining is to help you with the actual writing of the book.”
- WikiHow offers an easy-to-follow 9 step method—with pictures!—for outlining your novel.
- NY Book Editors take the opposite approach and warn that planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival.
- For yet another approach, there’s the well-known snowflake method of organizing your book.
- In Take Off Your Pants, author Libbie Hawker explains the benefits and technique of planning a story before you begin to write.
- Author of over a hundred published novels, Dean Wesley Smith has written a guide to writing without an outline: Writing Into The Dark. He takes you step-by-step through the process and explains why not having an outline boosts your creative voice and keeps you more interested in the book you are writing.
To begin at the beginning: how (and where) to start your book.
Whether you outline or snowflake, whether your pants are on or off, whether you write into the dark or with the lights on, you have to start somewhere.
- David Hewson, author of the Nic Costa series and Pieter Vos novels, shares some thoughts about how he starts a book. He does not use an outline and explains “I want to be surprised and enlightened along the way because if I’m not the reader won’t be either.”
- Michael Martinez, who writes science fiction, fantasy, thrillers and historical mashups – often in the very same book, analyzes the first pages of a book from the big bang cold open to the dreamweaver and talks about tropes that work—and don’t work.
- Chuck Wendig lists 25 things to know about writing the first chapter of your novel including bait, gateway drugs, dialogue, conflict, and mood lighting.
- For some writers, including Anne and me, writing the first chapter is the last thing we do. Or, to be more accurate, rewriting the first chapter for the umpteenth time is the last thing we do. Because, by then, we actually have an idea of what the d*mn book is about. 😉
- Here are Anne’s thoughts about 10 Things Your Opening Chapter Should Do.
- I chime in with tips and fixes for the First Chapter Blues.
Signs that your subconscious is at work.
- The scene that writes itself and makes you ask, where did that come from? It’s the terrific scene that you can barely remember writing but that gives your book new energy and deep, convincing emotion.
- The plot twist even you didn’t see coming.
- A character does something completely out of character that turns your plot in an entirely new (and better) direction.
- You wake up in the morning with the answer—often shockingly obvious—to the question you couldn’t solve the day before.
- When the real beginning strikes you after you’ve written 3/4 of the book.
- Like Matt Weiner, be sure to keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. A phone that allows dictation can serve the same purpose. When the fleeting idea or insight or overheard bit of dialogue strikes, make a note or a voice memo. You might never use it. It might be future gold, but if you don’t write it down, you will forget it.
How to organize the mess.
Terry Pratchett reminds us that “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
Anne Lamott calls it the “shitty first draft.”
Every writer has been there, done that. Question is, how do we rescue ourselves from our own first draft? The answer comes in editing, rewriting and revising.
- Author of Speculative Fiction, Cas Blomberg, explains how she uses scene cards during the drafting stage and again later during the editing and revision stage.
- Dictate or write by hand. Slowing down (writing by hand) or speeding up (dictating) can often help untangle the knots.
- Janice Hardy walks you through the process of creating an editorial map to help organize and clarify the draft.
- The Purdue Online Writing Lab explains the simple process of reverse outlining, a helpful method that comes in handy after you written your draft.
- David Hewson writes in Ulysses and keeps a book diary “whenever I’m working on a project. Into it go thoughts, weekly word counts, ideas, worries about what might be going wrong.”
- I use Scrivener (now available in iOS) and use the Project and Document Notes feature to make notes and reminders to myself as I go along. I make a style sheet at the same time to help keep myself on track.
- Feel free to skip around. The reader reads forward, but that doesn’t mean you have to write from beginning to end. You will most likely need go back to insert the needed clue or foreshadowing. Or rewrite the chapter that went off track by a little or a lot. And you may want to add (or subtract) details that make the character real, relatable, frightening, welcoming.
The bottom line.
Outline. Or not.
Pants. Or plot.
Type. Or dictate.
Just get something—anything—down.
You get as many re-do’s and do-overs as you want or need.
In the immortal words of Nora Roberts: “You can’t edit a blank page.”
by Ruth Harris @RuthHarrisBooks September 25, 2016
What about you, scriveners? How do you get that first draft on the page? Are you primarily a plotter or a pantser? Or do you have one leg on and one leg off (I tried to find a picture of a person with one pant leg on, but couldn’t find anything out of copyright. Sigh.) How do you get yourself through the maze? Any tips to add?
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