Maybe you have an idea for a story that’s been kicking around in your head, screaming to be let out, nurtured, and put on paper. It might have come to you just as you were falling asleep, or as you were on your fourth kilometer while jogging around the block. But now, it’s here and it isn’t letting you rest easy.
It’s time to write it down and make the jump from half-baked idea to a full-fledged narrative. Cue the sudden realization that writing a whole book is…well, it can feel overwhelming. The first milestone is hammering out that first draft.
Here’s where it gets tricky, and this is where a lot of fledgling (and even well-seasoned) writers get stuck: writing the ominous, terrifying first initial draft.
But how does one write a first draft? Surely there are steps that must be accomplished before sitting down with your hot beverage of choice, a solid amount of motivation, and a healthy amount of optimism.
I’m here to tell you that yes, yes there is. There are indeed many things to consider before putting pen to paper for the first time. Character sketches, maps, floor designs, plotting the narrative, story development are but a few things to consider working on before writing.
It may seem like a lot. Take a deep breath. Good. Now, here’s the question of the day for you: what kind of writer are you?
It may seem innocuous enough. And may also seem completely irrelevant to writing a first draft. But determining what kind of writer you are may help in figuring out what kind of planning you need to do before sitting down to write.
From my musings with other writers, I’ve noticed there are two overarching ‘types’ of writers: those who write without a plan, and those who write with one.
Both are equally good ways of writing a story. Personally, I’m a planner who writes. I don’t feel comfortable writing unless I have over-analyzed the whole world I’m trying to build. But Stephen King is perhaps the best-known writer who just writes, without tethering himself to a plan. And to give complete credit where credit is due, I think Mr. King has written enough stories at this point in his career that he can absolutely do whatever he wants.
Before sitting down and working on your story, determine which type of writer you are. There are pros and cons of each style, and becoming familiar with the pitfalls or advantages will really help determine how to approach your first draft.
The ‘just do it’ writers
These writers don’t plan. They have an idea and execute it as the story evolves in their minds. After a first draft is written, they reexamine their story and try to find common threads that can be tied together and exploited to strengthen the storyline.
The advantage of this approach to writing is that the absence of a plan can feel liberating. You can do whatever you want! Your muse will guide you! The characters will speak for themselves! The story may even feel more authentic because even you, the writer, are flying by the seat of your pants!
There may not be much room to plan in this stage, and so the prevalent concern is to keep writing. Not having a story outline may feel freeing, but the weight of the blank page staring back at you feels a lot heavier when you don’t have a captain to steer the ship.
What’s important to keep in mind when pumping out your first draft is that the quality really doesn’t matter much. The longer you stay stuck in a particularly knotty area of your story, the longer you’re ignoring the rest of the narrative.
And here’s where the downside of this technique comes in: when you don’t know where you’re going, it’s easy to get lost and lose sight of the big picture while you agonize over details. Or, even worse, lose motivation to write after you’ve written yourself into a corner and can’t see a way out.
For ‘just-do-it’ writers, it’s important to remember that what counts is to keep writing, no matter how thorny or difficult the task may seem. Things can be altered, and since you haven’t adhered to any firm plan, everything can be changed anyway. But the crucial bit is hunkering down and pecking away at the keyboard, stringing sentences together so they make sense.
A good tip to unstructured writing is to structure your time. Set yourself a goal for how long you want to write, undisturbed, and then stick to it. And no matter how eloquently the siren of distraction calls, keep your butt glued to that writing chair until you’ve completed the required time to do so. Best to fit it into your schedule, or risk being at the mercy of ‘inspiration’.
As a planner myself, this method is what I subscribe to and fully endorse. I’ve tried the unstructured writing, but to be completely honest, I find it stressful. So I’ve always over-planned my stories, going into the nitty gritty of character development and plot structure before ever considering putting pen to paper. I draw maps, sketch out characters, and concoct whole backstories for my main characters, including the antagonists.
The planning method of writing means exactly that: planning the nitty-gritty of the story, the narrative arc, and plot structure so you get an idea of the big picture before sitting down to write.
The advantage of the planning method of writing is that staring at a blank page isn’t as intimidating, since you already broadly know what you want to say. It’s just a question of how you want to phrase it. By breaking it up into little chunks, it also minimizes the burden of knowing you need to write a whole book, because you can take the story one chapter at a time. It’s a nice way to confidently chug away at the narrative that was oh-so-brilliantly charted out by a past version of yourself. This way, you can blindly follow along to the arc that was pre-determined and concentrate on throwing words on the paper.
The downside of planning so much of the story ahead of time is that it may result in the story feeling forced, or at some point the narrative may outgrown the arc you’re trying to force through. In these instances, it’s totally okay to switch up the plan you had on the fly and spend some time re-charting your course, if you know it isn’t going anywhere anymore.
So, what now?
Hopefully, by this point you’ve giving some thought to what kind of writer you are, and what steps you may need to take before sitting down and typing out the first draft of your masterpiece. And don’t forget, you are also free to combine the two methods to create your own hybrid version that works perfectly just for you! Nothing is stopping you!
When I was writing the first draft of my Young Adult Fantasy novel, The Sapeiro Chronicles: A Forgotten Past, I first spent countless hours delving into the culture, religion, and structure of the land. Then I agonized over character development and sketched out key locations. After that, I loosely plotted out what I wanted to happen, and used that plan to then section the whole novel into chapter blurbs. These chapter blurbs were the foundation of the first draft, and although the final result was immeasurably different from that initial first 50,000-word draft, sectioning it as I did helped in taking it one step at a time and, more importantly, see the big picture.