The following is a guest blog post by the winner of the 82nd Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition, Dan J. Fiore. Dan shares his thoughts on the first draft writing process, common first draft problems and why your story should always take precedent over these problems.
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First drafts. They’re tough, right? I mean, first drafts of anything. Even the first draft of this blog post. Typing out those first two words alone: exhausting. So let’s try to make things a little easier on ourselves…
I probably don’t need to tell you that finishing a story is a constant struggle from ideation to publication (or sometimes—okay, most of the time—to rejection). It’s a journey walked in bare feet uphill with no street signs as strangers scream conflicting directions at you from the sidewalks.
I’ll start by stating one thing that applies to everything I talk about below: your first draft is all about story. It’s about discovering the details, characters, scenes and arc of your narrative. Everything else can wait until the second draft.
And, to be honest, the following bits and pieces of the process—these struggles and worries that are just you wasting time—they’re things that I’m still fighting with too. In a way, this blog post is as much a letter to myself, saying, “Stop wasting valuable time with all these silly things,” as it is a list of lessons that I’ve learned the hard way and yet still run into time and again.
So let’s do this together. Let’s promise each other we won’t waste any more time fretting over the following fruitless aspects of our first drafts.
Voice is supposed to be natural. It’s the way you—you—write, plain and simple. By all means, tell the story from a set point of view, but let it come naturally. If it feels forced when you write it, it’ll feel forced when people read it.
Plus, your voice, whatever it ends up being, is as much about how you edit as how you write. One big problem with setting out with a certain voice in mind from the start is, you’ll want to edit as you go along, trying to stay within the stylistic restraints of that voice. But all you’re doing is wasting time you should be spending getting the story down on paper. There’s always room to perfect style later. Your first draft is about substance first and foremost.
Learning to let go is hard. I know. It wasn’t until I was so exhausted from doing a dozen drafts of just the first few paragraphs of a story (all in different voices, all ripped off from my favorite authors) that I stopped thinking about voice, letting whatever came to my head fall on the page. And not only did I finish an entire draft in less time than it took me to write all of those variations of page one, but it felt authentic when I went back through and read it. Of course, being that it was a first draft, it was absolutely terrible. (I’ll get to this in a moment.) But it was salvageable. It was (and here’s the really important part) editable.
Know what one of the most frustrating things about first drafts are? They’re always terrible. Trust me, I don’t care who you are—your first draft sucks.
Instead of letting this discourage you, flip it around and use it to your advantage. Remind yourself over and over again as you’re writing that you give yourself permission to write terribly. Tell that little voice in your head that keeps saying to you, This is awful, that it's okay. Name an author, any author. Go ahead. Guess what? His or her first drafts suck, too. Keep reminding yourself of that.
Your first draft isn’t about writing something publishable, it’s about getting the story down on paper. It’s a step in the process, not the process itself.
Your outline (if you outline at all) is a road map you can glance at if you’re completely lost, not a GPS system barking Lefts and Rights at you. It’s your safety net. Your spotter.
I think that’s enough random metaphors.
The point is, keep your eyes open as you drive, and don’t get scared when you feel like you should take a left when your plan had been to turn right. If a character wants to go in a direction you hadn’t anticipated, by all means go check it out. See where that scary road leads. It might lead to a better story. It might lead to fixing a problem you had earlier (or will run into later) in the story. Or it could be a dead end. But guess what, dead ends are okay. Dead ends make you a better writer. Just go back the way you came and find a new route.
And save what you wrote in a new document. Even though it didn’t lead somewhere in this story, it could be useful later.
There are few things more frightening than a blank page. But starting your story shouldn’t take forever. So take fear out of the equation.
If you are sitting down to write, then that usually means you have some vague idea of the story you want to tell, which also means you probably have at least one scene in your head already. If you’re really stuck on where to start, then just start with the scene you already know, regardless of how well you know it. Sure, it might end up being the climax, or the very last scene, or a quiet character-driven moment, or it might end up getting cut from the story all together. But you know it and it’ll let you explore the world and characters of your story as easily as possible.
After you’re done with that scene, you’ll probably have a much clearer idea of the kind of story you’re trying to tell. So you’ll know where to start, or at the very least you’ll have ideas for more scenes you can jump to. Just don’t jump around forever. Eventually you’ll want to start telling the story the way it plays out. But it’s okay to dive in wherever you want to get you started.
When I say balance, I basically mean weaving back-story, world-building, or character moments in between all the plot elements in your story. Now, you may be a master weaver and have no trouble shifting gears throughout your first draft. If that’s the case, go you.
But, if you’re constantly getting stuck going back and forth from action to information and it keeps getting in the way of writing the story, just forget about it. Maybe jot down a quick note to remind yourself later of what kinds of information you want there. But just continue with the story.
Not only is it easy to come back and fill that stuff in later, but it’ll be more effective to fill in those gaps with important information based on what you know happens down the road. A lot of what you’ll be plugging into those earlier scenes will end up informing later moments in some way.
When in doubt, just continue with the story.
I’m a sucker for strange story structures. And more often than not, it’s gotten me into trouble. I’ve spent countless hours trying to write first drafts in the same structure I want my final story to follow, only to come out with more story problems and a little less sanity.
The best thing to do is to take notes in the beginning on how you see the structure working in the end. Then forget about it. Write the first draft as simply as possible—start to finish. Guess what you’ll end up with.
A story that makes sense.
From there, you can take that story, chop it up into as many pieces as you want, and apply it to the structure you envisioned in the beginning.
One more time: Your first draft is all about story.
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Be sure to check out Dan's Grand Prize-winning story, "Masks," where he was able to lay those first draft struggles to rest.