Let’s talk first drafts. A lot of writing information seems to put writers in one of two categories ‘pantser or planner’ I’ve pretty much ‘pantsed’ my way through my first three books. With some mental planning beforehand. I knew how they begun (I love an opening) and roughly how they ended, and I always knew my characters which has been my starting point with all my books. Each of them has been a different experience. ‘I, Witness’ involved extensive re-writing and took a couple of years to be ready, largely because it was my first attempt at a novel and I hadn’t figured out that I needed to finish it in order for it to exist (hello many files of 20,000 words).
‘Found Her’, my second book to be written and my third to be published Feb 10th 2020, was a gift. My first draft of that was down in five weeks with only minor revisions since. I honestly thought I’d cracked it (cue hollow laughter) but my next two books, ‘The Lies We Tell’ and ‘Loaded’ (I’m due to hand this in at the end of Jan 2020) have been long and drawn out with a lot of re-writing. This got me thinking a lot about first drafts, how writers approach them and how, and if, our methods change.
One of my New Year writing resolutions is to incorporate more planning prior to writing. I’ve been reading a lot of books on structure and have previously blogged about which ones I’ve found most useful here. I have written a chapter-by-chapter plan for my next novel – as yet untitled – using Scrivener which I highly recommend for any long document and especially to writers who are Microsoft Excel averse (me). I am intrigued by how other writers manage the first draft and how those processes evolve (or not) so, I asked 15 authors how they approach the dreaded blank page…
1. T E Kinsey is a planner who writes a clean first draft and he says:
My background is in magazine journalism where the brief was always to submit something publishable within a tight deadline. There wasn’t time for multiple drafts so we had to get it right first time. “Editing” was mostly sub-editing for style so there was no room for a rewrite afterwards, either. I’ve carried that approach into fiction writing. The idea is to submit something to my publisher that could be published. Obviously I love the idea that an editor will work with me to improve that first draft, but the aim is to get it as clean as possible on the first go.
I do it by planning everything very carefully.
I make mistakes – lots of them – but I’d rather throw away a three-page planning document that took me six days to write than a three-hundred-page novel that took me six months. Once the plan is planned, I write the planned story exactly as I planned it. If I have new ideas as I go (which over the six months, I will) I know how to incorporate them because there’s a plan. I know what else will need to be changed to make them fit in because there’s a plan. And, as it happens, I find it easier this way. I find telling stories much easier than making up stories. The invention is the hard part so if I do that first, on a small scale in the planning document, writing and embellishing the story is straightforward and fun.
2. Adam Southward is another planner who also hands in a pretty clean first draft but goes on to do revisions in collaboration:
I tend to edit as I go, largely because I struggle to move on to the next scene/chapter until I’m happy with what’s come before (and that includes at a prose/sentence level). I’ll often rewrite a scene several times before I move on. I also work to a plan all the way through, and the plan gets edited as I go! With the last two manuscripts I’ve paused drafting at the one third mark to rework the plan (mainly character arc, pacing).
What this means is my first drafts (when I type ‘the end’) are pretty much as good as I can get them. At that point I send this ‘first’ draft to my agent who will apply her magic and normally come back with “this is great, Adam, but I have a few notes…” (10 page document attached). The multitude of revisions from that point are collaborative.
3. Dominic Nolan polishes each sentence and re writes plot and character:
In terms of prose, I like working hard at a sentence level in the first draft, definitely. My rewriting on the two Boone books has been almost exclusively plot and character stuff. So, I’m not someone who would sit down and try to write eight thousand words in a day to get a first draft completed quicker, and then spend weeks rewriting that.
I’d rather do a steady 1500 a day but be happy with writing on an aesthetic level. The second draft will then be a mass panic of the oh-my-god-why-is this-character-doing-that-stupid-thing-christ-this-all-has-to-change-to-make-sense variety.
4. James Delargy revises a long and detailed outline:
First comes the idea. The idea turns into a short outline, a general overview of what might happen, maybe with the ending, maybe not. Then its revise and revise the short outline, adding in some flesh. Time and again until I can do a longer outline and repeat. Revise and revise.Then focus those back into bullet points, reorganise or delete.Then finally draft.
So I will have an outline of anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 to 50,000 to work from when drafting. I prefer to have it planned this way.In a good run, six months but closer to nine.
I use this crap analogy: It’s like a building a house out of Lego. Dig into the bucket and start piecing it together. Build a general structure and then set about reshaping it. Maybe change the colour of the blocks or the shape. Add extensions. Maybe knock down part of it and redesign. Add or remove a few pieces that don’t fit. It’s your house so it can be as garish and fantastical as you want but most should have the same solid structure of a story running through it.
5. Louise Fein works with a rough idea of the beginning and the end and all the details still to be fleshed out:
When writing my first draft, I begin with a clear idea of the beginning and end, and a woolly, nebulous idea of the middle. I roughly plan about 2 or 3 chapters, write them and then roughly plan (and I mean a couple of sentences plan) then next couple. Doing it this way helps me to get to know my characters freely. They become clearer and clearer as I write, often acting in unexpected ways, which adds sub-plot and allows sometimes the introduction of new characters and for minor ones to become major, or vice versa. I write historical fiction so I do some research before and during this stage, but not in huge depth. The first draft ends up being perhaps 60/70,000 words and represents the framework of the story and by the end I feel like I know my characters far more fully.
Once I have this, I have a story, what works, what I need to scrap or change, what I need to research more fully. I then do a proper chapter plan for the second draft, do more in-depth research and fully re-write the whole thing again. From my second draft I can edit, re-write sections if needed etc. My first draft is so bad, I don’t show it to anyone. I’m not sure this is the most efficient method as I end up doing probably at least 3/4 drafts before it’s in a good enough shape to share but it has worked so far. I think it might be better to plan more fully to begin with, but I can’t seem to do this. I have to write to know the story and the characters!
6. Kate Simants has spread sheets and everything and, I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty jealous of this organised method where all bases are covered:
I’ve always started at the start, worked through a few chapters trying to get the sense of the characters and their interactions, and then I’ve gone back to the planning stage. If I don’t plan out fairly well here, I’ll just meander and have lots of thoughts and feelings and no action, which readers often skip (especially if they want a thriller!). I do my plan on a spreadsheet – I have columns for what happens, whose point of view the chapter is in, time/date/location, and also who knows what and when. Doing it in this format gives me somewhere to make notes to myself as I go, or as I edit later – I’ll have a column for issues or what needs changing.
Then I just bash it out. I can get a chapter done in a couple of days, I try to just get the words down and I like to do it fast, then come back and edit a lot afterwards. I love editing, not so much the actual writing: that block about starting gets me every time. A friend told me recently that the fear that it’ll be rubbish – and the paralysis it brings – never goes away, even after five, ten, fifteen books. She says you just have to learn to sit with it, and work alongside it. I think that’s great advice.
7. Harriet Tyce wrote her debut Blood Orange (which has just made The Sunday Times Bestsellers List – yay Harriet) in a workshop environment:
I’m currently in the process of rewriting my first draft of my next book so this is very timely! I’ve tried a new approach this time, because it’s the first book I’ve ever written outside of a workshop environment. Up until now, I’ve written everything in chunks of five or ten thousand words, which have then been put through critiques and which I’ve then rewritten before moving onto the next part. So, Blood Orange was written incrementally, really. The first draft was in relatively good shape once it reached completion because I’d already done so many edits along the way.
This one is different. I stopped at about 25,000 words and revised what I had before sending it to my editor and agent, and I took on board their comments at that stage which influenced the way I wrote the rest of the draft, but no one read it until I had finished. I did my best to make it as polished as possible, but I was working to a tight deadline so I didn’t have time to revise it as much as I would have liked before sending the whole MS out. Fortunately, the feedback is that overall it has worked, although there’s a fair amount of rewriting to do to fill out gaps.
The way I wrote it was to get the plot down, and to have the major characters mostly fleshed out, but a lot of scenes are effectively placeholders – I’ve put people where they need to be for the plot to work but I haven’t explained why adequately, for example. I needed to get to the end to see what happened (despite having a fairly detailed plan, I deviated a lot from it as I wrote), and now I can explain why. If that makes sense! As I’m now doing the edit, I’m finding it reasonably straightforward (so far) to fill in those gaps because I know that the main plot points are in order, it’s just a question of refining the detail.
So it looks like this first draft method has worked so far – it’s somewhere between a fully written draft (with as beautiful prose as I can manage…) and a very detailed outline. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished the edits if it’s a method I’m going to keep using moving forward!
8. Clare Empson talks about the pain after the opening – Clare I feel this pain:
I find the first draft hellish after the first 10,000 words or so. It feels so depressing that the bright shiny idea in your head refuses to materialise on the page. The biggest thing I’ve learned in many years of writing before I finally got published was to keep myself going no matter what. In the early years I regularly abandoned scripts halfway through when they weren’t working rather than looking at the problem. This meant a mountain of unfinished scripts and nothing to show for all those years of work!
Now I force myself to move forwards without revision even though this results in a finished script with some seriously clunky writing. It helps to tell myself that the first draft is just a road map, I’m learning the shape of the story and the characters. I’ve also learned to make myself plan before I start. This means shaking off the feeling that if I’m not writing I’m not working, (crazy but I still feel that way). I heard the author JP Delaney say he plans for 6 months and then writes a complete first draft for the next 6.
That sent me into a spiral of self-doubt but I can see it makes sense. Writing before you’re ready is the surest way of concocting a first draft that doesn’t remotely realise your idea. Controversially I also now think it can help to abandon the script before you’ve finished if you’re ready to start second draft and have a clearer idea of where you’re going. I just did this with book 3 so I hope so!
9. Phoebe Morgan, like Clare Empson, also talks about the, often difficult middle section:
Writing the first draft is the hardest part of the process for me. I love the first few chapters, where I know what’s going to happen and it all feels fresh and exciting, but the middle section (usually from around 35,000 words) is the part where I begin to feel like I’m wading through treacle. I usually set myself a daily word count – which at the weekend I will often surpass, but in the evenings after work it can feel as though I’m crawling towards it because my brain is so much more tired! I don’t force myself to write in chronological order when drafting – if I want to jump to the ending or to a different scene I do so, as that way I’ve got my word count up and I can return to a trickier scene later on.
I never number my chapters in first drafts as they will always change – I just put Chapter XX and go back through at the end once I’m happy with everything. Nobody reads my first drafts apart from me – I’d be embarrassed if they did! When I hit about 75,000 words I get a feeling of real elation because I know I’m on the home stretch.
That’s not to say that it’s never an enjoyable process – it is, of course. There’s nothing like the lovely feeling of writing for an entire chunk of time and getting to know your characters; I think a successful day of drafting for me produces the same endorphins as a run (nb this is not a scientific fact…).
I don’t plan my first drafts too much – I usually know the characters, the beginning and the ending, and figure out the rest as I go. I do edit a lot but I love that part.
10. Victoria Selman plans unless her heart takes her in a new direction:
My books tend to be very twisty with lots of red herrings and misdirection. To be able to write that way, I need to have a clear sense of where I’m going from the outset. That means detailed synopses and chapter outlines which go through various incarnations, before I can even think about beginning a first draft.
Having said that, there’s definitely a ‘pantser’ element to the way I write too. There’s a scene I was writing in Snakes and Ladders where I suddenly became a viewer rather than creator. I knew what was going to happen in terms of the plot, but the words out Ziba’s mouth felt like they had nothing to do with me. Was this the moment she’d finally get together with the man she’s secretly in love with? Or would she sabotage their chances forever?
What came next was more ‘right’ than it could ever have been if I’d planned it out.
The more I write, the more I find this happens. I have a road map, I know where all the pit stops are and who I’m supposed to meet up with along the way. But sometimes I see a nice view and take a detour. And when I do, I often bump into someone (or something) I wasn’t expecting.
11. Kerry Fisher’s stories are character driven she plans to learn more about them:
Because my novels are very character driven, I work out the basic story then get writing so I can get a ‘feel’ for who they are. In my current WIP, 30k in, I’ve realised that the protagonist is way too beige and weak, so I’ve gone back to toughen her up. But I only ever seem to understand how to write the characters once I’ve let them loose for a bit and seen them interact.
12. Fliss Chester in pure festive spirit likens her first drafts to puff pastry (and now I’m hungry):
Maybe I’ve eaten too many mince pies over Christmas but I’m thinking of my first draft (handing in on the 6th) like puff pastry… I’m laminating in the layers like you do with the butter! I keep going back and adding in another ‘layer’, again and again… hopefully I’ll have something more substantial than a croissant when I hand it in!!
13. Nikki Smith makes sure she has a plan and is another enviable spreadsheet user:
I’ve found that I’m happier writing a first draft with a plan – I put key events on a spreadsheet by chapter so at least I have an idea of where I’m going (it always changes, but at least it makes me feel like I know where it’s going!) I’ve also found I need to leave enough time between drafts (at least a week completely away from it) so I can come back to it with a fresh perspective – and I think that even though I’m not working on it actively, that ‘down’ time gives my subconscious time to work stuff out.
14. Eleanor Anstruther is, I think, the purest pantser on the list:
I’m writing a first draft as we speak & mine are always the result of accident, as if the material has to trick me into it, like it’s saying, “just try writing a little piece about ….” and the next thing I know, I’ve begun. Then, once I realised I’ve been tricked, I’m of the Julie Cohen, *finish the damn book* school of drafts: 1st one is a matter of turning up everyday for 2 hrs, writing whatever’s in front of me, and not editing or judging anything until I’ve got a complete piece of material down in whatever shape.
Once I’ve got that ragged half formed mess locked in, I leave it for at least a week, and then go back to the beginning and start the long & laborious process of shaping it into a coherent novel. The last book took 11 drafts to get it to submission phase. 1st drafts always feel like a running blind white knuckle ride even though my subconscious has probably been working on it for quite sometime.
Like Nikki [Smith] I’m also aware that I’m working on it between drafts too, even though it’s locked in a file having breathing space. I always tell new writers that the point of a first draft is not to produce a polished book but to give you a platform on which to write the 2nd draft, and so on. (All first drafts are a mess, so don’t let it put you off etc).
15. And finally, Heather Critchlow said:
I try not to sweat the details of the prose in draft one, just get the story and characters down.
So, we all work pretty differently but ultimately, we all get the job done one way or another! How do you approach a first draft? And have you changed your method over the years?