How to Write a First Draft – The Beginning

Feb 06, 2013

Nope. Writing a book isn’t easy. It’s a challenge that a lot of people take on, but far fewer people actually finish. I’m one of those people who took it on and didn’t finish. It took me decades worth of writing before I ever actually finished a first draft. I have piles and piles of stillborn stories that never made it out of the gate. But if we hope to have a career in this competitive world, we need to get those books written. And that first accomplishment of writing, the one that propels us onward and upward to greater things, is the first draft.

So why do first drafts feel so hard?

Because they are. You heard me. First drafts are exceptionally hard to write.

And so, since I’ve learned a thing or two since my start-em-then-abandon-em days and have managed to finish ten or so first drafts, am getting into the groove of how it’s done, I’d like to share some of my First Draft Strategies with you in the hopes that somewhere in there you’ll find some tips or skills that you can use.

This will be a three-part series dealing with the three hardest parts of a first draft to write. Once you’ve mastered the art of writing these three parts, writing a first draft will be a breeze. And those three most difficult parts of any first draft are: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Fortunately, the natural starting place for a first draft is also the easiest part to write: The Beginning.

© Webitect | Dreamstime.com

© Webitect | Dreamstime.com

Beginnings are wonderful. We write them when we’re still full of hope and excitement. Our imagination has been working in overtime and we sit down at our computer or with pen and paper super full of ourselves, our characters, our ideas, and inspiration!

The most important thing to know about writing the beginning of a book is to write it! Make time, harness the energy, eat, sleep, and dream your book and that wonderful, marvelous, inspirational idea. The Muse has spoken, and when he or she calls you have to accept the challenge. Hit the ground running.

Why? Because this is going to be the one time in the process of writing the first draft that the novel is perfect. In your mind, before you start, the idea is clear and beautiful. You can hear it singing and you know what you want to do. Life is still good.

Write stuff down. I find it incredibly helpful to spend a bit of time before I commit any words to a Word file called “Current Story – Draft 1”, scribbling with a good old fashioned pen on a pad of legal paper. I write everything I currently know about the characters, who is going to interact with who, what I want to happen at the end, and any steps that I might know that the hero and heroine will take to get to that end.

Some of my copious story notes

Some of my copious story notes

By writing out story notes beforehand I almost always learn that I have no idea how I’m going to get to the end from the beginning. My brilliant, complete, perfect idea proves itself to be full of holes. Don’t let that stop you! The point of writing story notes before you start is to take stock of what you already know. The first draft is not about reveling in what you already know, it’s about discovering all those things that you don’t yet know.

Does this count as plotting? What if you consider yourself a pantser?

I believe it can go either way. Notes can be a collection of your thoughts or they can be an outline of everything you want to write. I used to consider myself a pantser, but the further along I’ve gotten in my writing career the more I value the practice of plotting. I also value the fact that there are no rules and you can change your mind as you go along. In fact, I routinely change my mind as I go along, but that’s a discussion for next time.

As soon as you’re ready – before that even – sit down and get started. Let the words flow. Introduce yourself to your characters and let their situation get set up. That’s what the beginning of the book is all about. You’re writing it to get your reader oriented to the story and that’s what you want to do as well.

Here’s the biggest trick about first drafts that you’ll need to know if you’re going to be able to write one: They’re ugly, imperfect beasts. Your book is going to have FDSS, First Draft Suckage Syndrome. Get over it and start writing anyhow.

Start writing that beginning, the thing that got you so excited, without worrying that it doesn’t make sense or that it’s full of adverbs or backstory overload or rotten ideas that aren’t going to hold up as you go along. Don’t worry even about whether this will truly be the beginning of your novel or if it will end up in chapter three, or even cut from the final novel. The only way I am ever able to make it through a first draft in one piece is by ignoring everything I’ve learned about the craft of writing. First drafts are for getting the story out. You can clean it up later.

Yes, I realize that this is easier said than done for those of us who really, really want the novel to be as perfect in reality as it was in our imagination before we started writing word after clumsy word. You really, really have to get over it. If you get tied up in perfection then you will never get past the beginning, let alone the middle or the end. You have to just write it.

Fortunately, when you’re still writing the beginning, life is easier. It’s easier than it will be once you pass that point and are deep in The Middle. I usually hit the end of the beginning after about 16,000 words. For whatever reason, that’s about as long as it takes for me to burst forth with all of the new and exciting ideas, to set up the characters and situations, and to smack hard against the wall of “Oh crap. What am I doing?”

Yes, once you’ve hit the “Oh Crap” point you know you’re in The Middle. And that’s an entirely different story.

It just dawned on me that I should add that this series will be on Wednesdays, today (2/6), next Wednesday (2/13), and the Wednesday after that (2/20).  There will be other fun and games on Mondays and Fridays, including the Heartbreakers Blog Hop this Friday in which you could win fabulous prizes, including a Kindle Fire!  Yeah, you heard me!

Comments (17)

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  1. tjloveless3

    I agree! I’m a pantser and lately tried to do a one page very loose outline. By the time I start writing, I’m already intimately connected to the characters, the struggles, the plot. Unfortunately, I always put in plot holes I have to clean up later LOL But that’s okay. I’ll finish this WIP today or tomorrow. Then edit. revise. edit. revise and edit again LOL

    While I have written full length novels before – 3 80+k AUF – I think the current WIP is *whisper* “the one.”

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Don’t you LOVE it when you’re writing something and you get that “This is THE ONE” feeling! It’s so good!

      And my first drafts are like Swiss cheese they’re so full of holes. That’s what revisions are for!

      Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      The same sort of thing happened to me! I think ignorance was bliss, but then I learned so much more about how to edit and more about what makes good writing, and I started second-guessing myself every step of the way while writing first drafts. 😛

      Reply
  2. sandylrowland

    I’m currently struggling with my first draft so this post was needed and appreciated. This one isn’t coming easy. It’s good to remember I can always revise later. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      That’s probably the most important thing that I’ve learned: first drafts don’t have to be perfect. But it’s so hard to let go and just write whatever comes, bad though it may be!

      Reply
  3. Ally Broadfield

    It wasn’t until I committed to NaNo in 2011 that I finally broke myself of the habit of editing as I go. It is so much easier to just get the first draft on paper and then worry about the rest. I have to remind myself constantly, though, or I’ll allow my inner editor to take over and never get a book finished. Great post, Merry!

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Thanks Ally! It’s so hard not to edit while you’re writing, but the more I learn the more I’ve found that I’m just not going to be able to do it otherwise. Sometimes you just have to let stuff be bad.

      Reply
  4. Jamie Dement (LadyJai)

    I’ve written many shorts. Published a few, even. But this, this is my first novel length first draft. I’ve tried several forms of outlining, but got discouraged quite quickly. I tried counting words. That only stopped me up. I write when I write. A sentence here, a paragraph here. I have deemed myself a Plantser. 🙂 I have known events, but getting there is always the hard part. I have to sit there, think and think and think, maybe even get in the shower (my thinking chair) and let it all relax out of me. It’s taken me over a year to write, but I’m still plodding away on my first draft. Nearly there. Hoping to get there by the end of the month…maybe next. 🙂

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      LOL. Oh, Jai, you’re not going to like my next post about The Middle then if you don’t like word counts. But hey, it’s about whatever works for each individual, isn’t it. And everyone has a different set of things that work. 😉

      Reply
  5. DebE

    I’m looking forward to your next post. I’m well into my (second novel-length) middle at the moment. The beginning was the easy part, and it was fun. The middle… well, it’s hard! I know the events I have yet to get to, but there are also still a lot of potential turns my characters could take (and could *have taken* in that beginning…). It’s these possiblities and finding the sense that I’m on the best course as far as my characters are concerned that’s tricky. I’ll be interested in your (more experienced) take on the whole thing.

    Reply
  6. Dave Farmer

    I used to be a pantser, still am at times, but I’ve learnt that plotting works wonders when that initial rush of “Woohoo let’s go!” adrenaline starts to wear off. Interesting how you say that your beginning might end up being the 3rd or 4th chapter, I’ve found that so long as I make that start I feel more confident to shift chapters about during a later edit. I used to love that first draft feeling and despised any later edits, yet now I look forward to trimming and polishing to make the story shine.

    Quality topic Merry, looking forward to the next instalment!

    Reply
  7. Raven Marlow

    I’m really excited that you’re getting into writing full length books! They should be incredibly interesting. You’ve certainly got the talent for it!

    Thanks for sharing your techniques!

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      You’re welcome, Adila! And keep at it! The only way to finish a book is to keep writing it, one word at a time. Just remember that you WILL be able to get it done if you work on it. 🙂

      Reply
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