The most important thing for me when writing a first draft—other than trying to remember that First Drafts Suck, and That’s Okay—is to focus on writing what I have, instead of trying to come up with what I have not.
Right now, for my next book, I have something of a beginning, and something of an ending. I have an idea for how it might develop. I have detailed thoughts on several characters and light mental sketches for a few more. All together, it’s entirely insufficient for writing an actual novel. There are probably more scenes that I haven’t thought of than ones that I have. Most of the characters are so thin they’d hardly stick to the virtual paper I’m typing this on. The core idea of the story may not work. And so on, and so on.
Fortunately, it is enough to write a first draft, as long as I focus on those parts that I have. “First drafts are for figuring out what your story is about,” someone once said (I can’t find the attribution, comment below if you know who it was). The best way to figure out what your story is about is to write the parts you have, and ignore the fact that there are clearly massive question marks.
One big question mark is plot. In any first draft I write, there are always big holes. Not “plot holes” like you might find in a finished story, but gaps, where it’s clear something has to happen. I might have a clear idea for Scene A, and a clear idea for Scene B, and a clear understanding that Scene A and Scene B can’t happen right next to each other. Maybe more time needs to pass, or maybe something specific has to happen in between. But if I don’t have anything to put in between those scenes, then I can either a) struggle mightily to try to find something suitable or b) ignore it and keep going.
As much as possible, I try to choose option B when working on a first draft. First drafts aren’t for anyone else to read. They’re often closer to a Hollywood-style script treatment than a real prose draft. A first draft is an exploration that’s documented well enough for me to follow the same path (or a similar one) a second time. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth…
The most important thing in a first draft is momentum. It’s mind-numbingly hard to write when I don’t have any momentum built up, so I try as hard as I can to conserve it. I’d much rather write a quick sketch of a scene (or skip the scene altogether) rather than get bogged down trying to make it good. Good can wait until I actually know whether the scene will make it into later drafts, and I won’t know that until I actually get to those later drafts. The key for keeping up momentum is to write what I have in my head, regardless of whether it’s any good or whether it’s missing any obvious bits.
So: Write What You Have, and Ignore What You Have Not.
In the next post, I’ll give some tips for how to keep your final-draft brain quiet so you can finish that first draft and move on to figuring out what your story is really about.