First Drafts, Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Your Novel

How to Write the Perfect First Draft (or Not)

How to Write the Perfect First Draft (or Not), Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Your Novel, First Drafts, Renea Guenther

by Renea Guenther @ReneaGuenther

Let’s just be clear. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft.

No matter the writer, or how good they write, there is always something to fix. Whether it’s the plot, description, dialogue, or simple grammar editing, there is always more work to be done.

There’s just no way to get it right the first time through, no matter how hard you might try.

If anything, trying for perfection leads to many a discarded story, or writer’s block the size of Mount Olympus.

Stopping every few pages to go back to fix things can seriously block the flow of ideas, or leave you drained to the point you never want to see the story again.

I’ve faced both, and despite knowing I should write, not edit, I find myself constantly struggling to keep my inner editor at bay.

Which is especially hard given both are my profession!

I’ve had to learn to separate the two because both require a different set of thinking. It’s tough to be both creative and logical without breaking the flow.

The best way I’ve found, for me, is to continually remind myself to keep going, get as much down as I can, and to make notes if something pops into my head that needs added or changed.

The goal is to finish the story, not fix everything right this minute.

THINGS TO CONCENTRATE ON IN YOUR FIRST DRAFT

1. Reaching the end.

It is a well-known fact the more planning you do before you start writing, the less work your story will need before it is ready to be published.

That being said, there is no set writing process. Some people outline every little detail beforehand, while others go with the flow.

Every writer’s process differs. There are no set rules to follow.

So, the only goal you should have in mind when you start writing is to finish the story. No matter what.

2. Letting the story and the characters guide you, even if you get off track.

No matter how much planning we may do, we never truly know our characters or how they interact with the world until we start writing.

They can come alive on the page in ways we don’t expect or plan for.

Sometimes a character’s decisions take them down a path you didn’t intend, or you come to a point where you realize they would never do what you have planned.

Either we can force them to follow the path we chose, or we can let them free, guiding them as much as we can while being true to the character.

In the end, it is the characters that make or break a story.

They have to be realistic and likable. The reader has to be able to form an emotional connection with them.

They each have their own values, morals, and backstories that determine how they will act in any given situation. In ways that make sense for the character.

Forcing them to do something the reader knows they would never do breaks the connection, making it unlikely the reader will buy the next book (if they even finish).

Nine times out of ten I think you’ll find if you let your characters go, you’ll be a lot happier with the story you end up with.

If not, well, that’s what revisions are for. It could be you need to change characters or replot the book. But the first draft should be reserved for getting in touch with the story and its characters.

3. Finding a voice and style that suits both you and the story.

As you write, you will discover the way you write changes over time as you become accustomed to doing it on a regular basis.

You will find sometimes you’ll have to rediscover your voice, especially if you’re switching genres, or from fiction to nonfiction like me.

Most of my writing up until now had been in fantasy. I had never written nonfiction, let alone a blog article.

Anyone who has read my first blog post knows how much my writing has changed over the last few months, and it is still evolving.

I’ve always been one of those people who keep their personal thoughts and feelings close to the vest. So I’m sure my writing came off pretty cut and dry in the beginning.

Bear with me! My point is—you will never learn who you are or what works for you without practice.

Experiment with first and third person, close and far narrative distance, single and multiple POV.

Learn if you like to write short or long sentences, heavy or light description, the types of words you like to use, etc.

Do what comes naturally to you.

It will only get easier with time, and if you’re in this for the long-term, you might as well find something you can be comfortable with for the rest of your career.

NECESSARY ELEMENTS OF A FIRST DRAFT

There are a few basics every story has and should already be known before you start writing.

If you don’t already have these worked out, chances are you aren’t ready to write your first draft yet.

Characters and a world for them to interact with.

You can’t have a story without characters (whether they’re human or not is up to you). Nor can they exist in oblivion. They have to interact with their surroundings.

You don’t have to work everything out ahead of time. You don’t even have to name anything in the first draft.

Writers use placeholder words all the time.

But you should know who you want to be your main characters and where the story is happening.

Example: A runaway teenage girl entering a bar.

A character and a place. Quick and simple.

A conflict with a defined beginning and end.

They’re looking for adventure, excitement, perhaps a bit a mystery, a touch of the unknown.

If your characters face no conflict whatsoever, be it external or internal, you will have a story that will put your readers to sleep.

Life is a struggle, to survive, to reach our goals, and to live our lives how we want to. Nothing is handed to us.

Conflict is interesting. Perfection is boring.

Complicate your characters’ lives, and your readers will thank you for it.

Something that makes your story unique.

Readers are looking for an escape from the mundane, to explore new worlds they’ll never have the chance to visit, to feel as if they are the character adventuring halfway across the world when they have never even left their hometown.

They’re looking for adventure, excitement, perhaps a bit a mystery, a touch of the unknown.

Nobody likes to read a book that is the same as every other. There would be no point in reading at all if that was the case.

Give your readers something no one else can, no matter how small. Stand out of the crowd if you want to be noticed.

WHAT A FIRST DRAFT MIGHT LOOK LIKE WHEN IT’S FINISHED

Every first draft will turn out differently depending on the writer’s process.

It could be a bunch of ideas thrown on paper with no sense of structure, bad grammar, and missing punctuation.

Some drafts might capture the story but need some work dealing with big pictures issues such as plot, characters, and world-building. These usually require heavy rewriting and editing and are one of the most common drafts.

Perhaps your draft is nothing more than a stream of consciousness. You just wrote whatever came to mind. It has missing pieces, things that need to be taken out, and lots of problems but the story is there.

Those who do at least some outlining beforehand might have all the big issues worked out. It might need a little more description and some minor tweaking, but overall it doesn’t need a ton of work.

The best drafts are fully fleshed out and read like a finished novel. They don’t need much more than a bit of polishing before they’re ready for publishing. These drafts are not common and requires extensive planning beforehand.

Most first drafts end up a mess, so if your story doesn’t come out like this, don’t worry about it. Most don’t.

How your first draft looks has nothing to do with the quality of your writing, only how you chose to get the story down.

Do whatever’s comfortable. One person’s first draft is no better than another’s.

Only the finished product matters in the long run.

What do your first drafts look like?

FOR FURTHER READING

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