Ah, first drafts. Where characters are born just to die in revisions. Where plot threads are strung together only to end up in a tangled knot by the time you type “THE END”. I, for one, refer to my first draft as my “trash fire” draft because it’s just that bad.
But hang on, is any first draft really that bad?
No, because writing is rewriting. Stories are born in revisions, and you can’t start revising until you’ve conquered that blank page and battled your way through a first draft. After you’ve finished that very last sentence, then you can go back and make the words on the page match the world in your mind. First drafts look different for everyone. They can include false starts, wrong main characters, flawed magic systems, and so much more, but they all have one thing in common…
They are all just the first step, a foundation on which you can build something grander, but they still hold the spark of your story.
But how do you get that first draft out? How do you lay down the foundation so you build on it later? That, my friends, is a question I constantly ask myself. I find that my drafting process is unique for every manuscript, with the characters demanding I treat them all differently than their predecessors (what drama queens). So, here are a few drafting techniques you can try as you’re trying to figure out how to approach your new project.
NaNoWriMo it up
Look, we’re two weeks into November. If you thought you’d get through a blog post about first drafts without a mention of NaNoWriMo, you were sorely mistaken. For those of you who don’t know, National November Writing Month involves writing 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s tough, but a lot of people find this urgent deadline effective. There’s no time to overanalyze character names. No time to agonize over how to describe your love interest’s perfectly tousled hair. You just have to write. November is a great time to participate in this challenge because of the sense of community, but you can use the technique of giving yourself a tight deadline at any time of the year. Set a countdown on your computer, tell some people about your goal, and get writing!
Follow the writers who came before you and put pen to paper
Hey, once upon a time, this was how all stories were written. Busting out that yellow legal pad or your favourite notebook might be the thing you need to get out of a drafting rut and push to the end of your manuscript. Follow the speed of your pen and just write. Jot down how you see the scene playing out in your mind without overthinking it. Handwriting also offers a different feel and connection to your story than typing it on a computer screen. This technique might be the missing piece as you try to unearth your main character’s voice for the first time. Light a candle, boil the kettle, put away all your devices, and embrace some quality time with your pen, paper, and story.
Shove your characters in a time machine and write out of order
Sure, readers are (hopefully) going to read your manuscript in a pretty orderly fashion. They’ll consume page 1, page 2, then all the way to page 394, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Jumping around in your novel is one way to get through that first draft. Did you get stuck on a coronation ball scene early in your draft, unsure how to piece together the path to your next scene? Jump ahead to the aftermath of the king’s assassination to keep the creative juices flowing! It might just help you figure out who the killer is and how your characters got there in the first place. Then, jump back to the ball and lay in all the clues, like that shifty soldier hovering by the macaroons or the visiting princess who is a little too comfortable holding the cake knife. Sometimes you just need a different perspective to untangle the threads that make up that chapter you’ve been stuck on for a month.
First drafts are difficult, there’s no way around it. Staring at that blank page can feel like staring at the peak of Kilimanjaro when you’re still caught up in the jungle below. They are difficult, but they are not insurmountable. Try out some of these methods the next time you start a new manuscript. Combine them, play around with them, and find a process that works for you.
Remember, your first draft is just your first step. It doesn’t need to be perfect—it just needs to exist.
Did we miss your favourite drafting technique? We’re always on the lookout for new tips to try, so reach out on social media or comment below to share your wisdom!
Extra goodies for your consumption:
- This Book is Broken and Other Things I Tell Myself While Writing, V.E. Schwab
- In Defense of Writing With Pen and Paper, The Writer
- 2 Ways to Finish a First Draft, Tomi Adeyemi