Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The first step is always the hardest and when it comes to writing, that step can seem insurmountable. Getting the first draft of your story on paper is the single hardest part of writing a novel and the hurdle at which most people fall. For every person who’s nurturing a manuscript they can’t quite get right, there are hundreds who can’t even bring themselves to start.
But, is it possible that writers are looking at first drafts the wrong way? And, if so, is there another way to approach that first draft, perhaps suggested by authors who went from that terrifying blank page all the way to the bookshop shelf? Could that way be summed up in five facts you should keep in mind when sitting down to write your first draft?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
1. It’s going to be hard
Writing your first draft isn’t tinkering or adjusting, it’s the act of creating something out of nothing. Of taking a story that only exists in your head and nailing it to the paper word by word. Even if you change the whole story in your second draft, you’re at least working with something that already exists. With the first draft that isn’t true: there’s no indication of how, when or where things should happen. Imagination is an infinite resource and hammering it into a specific shape is a daunting task.
When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.
– Kurt Vonnegut
The good news is that it’s only daunting once. Every sentence you write might seem like a slog but you never have to write that thought from nothing again. Even if you end up hating the way you wrote it and go the exact opposite direction, that rewriting will be infinitely easier because now you have a frame of reference.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love began as short stories but their authors, having finally pinned an idea down on paper, built them into novels using the control those early drafts gave them. Every sentence you write makes the story more real, easier to work with, even if they’re badly written.
2. It isn’t going to be good
Shaping unlimited possibility into a recognizable form is going to be difficult; shaping it directly into a pleasing form is impossible.
The first draft of anything is shit.
– Ernest Hemingway
No matter how much you’ve written or how well you do it, your first draft is uncharted territory. The goal is to get from A to B however you can, to get an idea about the dimensions of the space you’re working with. Finding the optimum route on your first foray is a fool’s errand and trying to do it will only leave you lost in the jungle. The good news is…
3. It isn’t meant to be good
Good writing comes from several drafts, from experimentation and brutal editing, and not even Shakespeare could do that in his head. Your first, second, third, fourth and fifth drafts are all part of the same process and there’s no shame in that. Think of your final draft as the answer to a difficult sum and everything that precedes it as the working out that gets you there.
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story
– Terry Pratchett
The first draft isn’t for your readers, it’s the notes you need to start writing something they’ll enjoy. Clumsy sentences might make you cringe but that’s okay because they’re only there to help you write something better.
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story - Terry PratchettClick To Tweet
No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed… For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.
– Neil Gaiman
4. It is meant to be fast
Your first draft might be difficult but since it doesn’t have to be good, you can always power through. Many authors underestimate just how rough a rough draft can be. If you’ve reached the point where you really want a character to move from one place to another but don’t know how they travel, put them where you want them to be and come back to it later.
With something as hard as writing a first draft, you need to keep moving. Don’t get bogged down in a difficult chapter when you could be getting the two after it written. Your first draft is a marshaling of your resources, an overview of what you have to work with.
I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months… Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.
– Stephen King
Spending too long on your first draft is tempting and deadly. The difficulty can get you frustrated, so that you end up improving where it’s easiest to do so. Rewriting a first draft is surprisingly easy but rewriting a manuscript that’s a patchwork of first, second and third draft work is a headache you don’t need.
Spending too long on your first draft is tempting and deadly.Click To Tweet
5. You really can do it
Remember, you’re going to change everything you don’t like so, until that time comes, there’s no point obsessing over it. How much are you going to change it? Here’s a page from J.G. Ballard’s first draft of Crash:
Every great author struggles with their first draft and every great author gets through it. The good news is that since it doesn’t have to be good, all you need to take that first, big step is perseverance. Few things make you feel like a bona fide author as much as having a complete manuscript, even a full-of-holes first draft, sitting on a table in front of you.
Work fast, stop yourself obsessing, and you’ll have earned that feeling.Why Writing Your First Draft Is Not As Scary As It SeemsClick To Tweet