The First Draft: Understanding Your Own Story — And Getting It Done

As is with the brainstorming process, there is no perfect formula drafting process for you to follow. Writing is all about finding your perfect way to write your book. And it changes with every book. Writing is a constant, evolving process of self-discovery, of the mysteries that lie within your heart and mind and creative juices. I surprise myself a lot of the time (both pleasantly and unpleasantly). My writing process is constantly changing. I can tell you that the way I’m drafting BLOOD HEIR II is completely different from the way I drafted BLOOD HEIR I. That’s because I’m still discovering myself, and how I work as a writer. 

When I wrote the very first draft of BLOOD HEIR, that was way back in 2014. It was my second “serious” manuscript that I actually wanted to take to publication (my first was trunked without even going to queries), and I wanted to make this The One.

But I really had no idea … how to write. I don’t just mean cobbling sentences together. I mean, the aspects that go into a story. The characters. The worldbuilding. The themes. The techniques. Story structure. All of that were just really fuzzy concepts to me. Words flowed to me as easily as lies pass through Ramson’s lips. So my “first” draft of BLOOD HEIR was written in an absolute daze, with no fully-fleshed-out plot and no outline. The concept for BLOOD HEIR evolved for three years straight, between 2014 – 2017, and the form it takes now bears nearly no resemblance to what it used to look like.

Now, as I draft BLOOD HEIR II with far more weapons in my arsenal and far more roads traveled with my pen (or typing fingers), my drafting process has completely changed. There are writers who just put their heads down and write the first draft in a few weeks all in one breath, and then they go back and fix it later. And then there are writers like me, who take their time with the first draft and make it as perfect as they can, each word falling into place like jigsaw puzzles.

But throughout the years, there’s one thing I’ve learned that will stick with me, and I think will resonate with most writers.

The first draft is for the writer.

The second draft is for the editor.

The third draft is for the reader.

What does this strange little mantra mean?

The first draft, which is the topic of discussion today, is the draft that the writer uses to understand what the story is all about. As I’m writing the first draft, new ideas and concepts come to me that I hadn’t even considered before. My imagination and my mind take me on journeys that deviate from the path of my outline. Your first draft will be a messy draft filled with plotholes, inconsistent characters, wobbly character arcs, and inconsistent motifs/themes.

I know that between the earlier drafts of BLOOD HEIR, entire kingdoms disappeared; characters appeared and vanished; a former lover turned into a relative; and most importantly, the themes came into sharp focus later on. So, the first draft? That was for me to discover what my story was about.

Because in your first draft, you’re just getting to know your story. Everything is fresh, from your characters to the world to the actual plot itself. It’s like putting on new shoes – at least, for the ladies, we have a period where we break into them (and break you might). I might have a lot of the aspects of my novel planned out in my outline, but there’s nothing like putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to figure out what I’ve been missing and what I’m still missing. When I wrote the earlier drafts of BLOOD HEIR, Ana was new, Ramson was new, I was struggling to find both of their voices, the world was still fuzzy to me, and a lot of the plot was met with technical issues (i.e. how do they actually get from this scene to that scene? or, why would the bad guy not just do this and end my series?). Because the reality is, no matter how thoroughly I outline, I won’t know what lies in my first draft until I actually venture in. I used this as an analogy before: your outline is just your map to exploring this whole, wide world ahead of you; you can plan and plot all you like, but you’re not going to actually know what you’re getting yourself into until you start writing.

One thing I love to do while I’m in my brainstorming/first draft stages of my process is: I’ll sit down with a huge pile of my favorite books by my favorite authors and study them. There are always new things to learn, or things you realize other authors did well that you want to study. For example, recently, I needed to study an example of handling childhood abuse, and I cracked open one of my favorite titles and went through, combing for the nuances with which the author wrote about a character who faced childhood abuse. This is the best way to help you learn and push you along if you’re stuck. 

The most important goal of your first draft is to be done. Because most writers will salvage very little of their first draft, and completely rewrite the second. I’m different: I’m a “perfectionist writer,” and I’ll nitpick every sentence and every word that goes in before I’m satisfied. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to re-do a lot of it anyway. The most important thing is to get your first draft to a place where you’re satisfied with it. From then on, you’re going to have a lot of time to edit (which I’ll dive into on my post about the Second Draft and Third Draft).

When I’m writing my draft, it’s a fine balance between following my outline and letting my imagination take me somewhere else – somewhere that’s even better. The first draft always starts with me sitting down at Scrivener, my outline in front of me, a scene clear and crystallized in my head, the room dark, with the only sound being my music and my typing.

So, how do you ensure you finish your first draft?

1. Have a deadline. Yes, this is the single most important thing to give yourself before starting your first draft. Speaking from firsthand experience, I currently have no deadline for BLOOD HEIR II with Delacorte (my contract is still under negotiation since we accepted not so long ago!), so I’ve been slacking big-time, and I’ve been lazy. Nothing is getting done. But before, as an unagented/unpublished writer, I used to give myself deadlines as well. Those worked. There was always something urging me home towards the end of the day, telling me that I had to write, write, write. Put down this deadline in pen. Write it, big and bold, on your calendar/notebook/laptop/wall/desk. Tell all your friends. This is the day you will finish your first draft, and may the gods above smite you if you don’t. It really helps. Humans are driven forward by standards we set for ourselves, so to have a direction means you’ll always be headed there. Even if you miss it, it’s at least better than never. Hell, I know I missed many, many of the deadlines I set for myself when I was writing BLOOD HEIR, because my job became my life for about half a year, and I also realized (as my craft improved) that I needed more rewrites. But at least that goal kept me working towards something. Better late than never.

2. Have accountability partners. This is so, so important: friends who write as well, and can keep you in check. The best decision I made in my life was to find my first critique partner and writing friend, Cassy Klisch. She and I began texting every day about our writing, our drafts, how we were doing, how many words we’d written that day. It makes it feel less lonely when you return to your dark, Manhattan-sized apartment after a long day of work, shove some Seamless in your mouth, and start typing. Having friends who are also passionate about your greatest passions in life is so important. I think that, without Cassy’s encouragement every day throughout those dark months of early 2017, I would not be where I am today.

3. Set a daily goal. A very effective strategy to goal-planning (that I learned from my bank as an employee!) is to set a great, overarching goal, and then break it down into shorter, and shorter increments. For example, my goal has always been: “Get published!” But … how? Where do I start? Break it down into medium-term goals: “Write one book by the end of 2017.” And then, you break that into short-term goals: “Finish draft 1 by March; finish draft 2 by May; finish draft 3 by August; query by September.” With writing a book, it’s more or less the same:

a. Set a long-term goal: “Finish first draft of book in 6 months.”

b. Break it into short-term goals. Usually, a word count is the best way to keep track. Some people like daily word counts, but I prefer weekly or monthly, so that if I want to spend a night out with friends or go to the movies, I won’t feel guilty for not making my goal. Measure it this way: if you want to write a 100,000-word novel within six months, that means you must write 16,666 words a month. That means you must write 4,166 words a week. And, finally, that means you must write 595 words a day.

Suddenly, having broken down your goal into short-term increments … writing a book doesn’t seem so intimidating anymore, right? 595 words a day, or 4,166 words a week, seems … so much more obtainable than writing a 100k-word novel.

4. Skip the hardest scenes. I’m currently at a huge block in my first draft of BLOOD HEIR II. It’s a scene that’s super technical and action-y, and literally a transition from place “A” to “B,” and because I don’t have a particular deadline, I haven’t been motivated to think about how to get through it. Sometimes – a lot of the times – writers will face these. Huge roadblocks that we just can’t get over, write and rewrite many, many times, and ultimately get stuck at. My advice? Skip these scenes. Go on to the next scene that inspires you and gets your muse and creative juices flowing again. If you can, try to “bulldoze” over it, meaning write it really fast and really bad, so that your revisions don’t fill you with a sense of dread over your piled-up roadblock scenes. And if you decide you really can’t bulldoze over it … skip it for now. Give it time to stew in your mind, let yourself type “THE END,” and chip away at these scenes in smaller increments. It can feel much less intimidating than having a blank page and unwritten novel in front of you, the cursor flashing at the exact same word you landed on two weeks ago because you just can’t get past this scene.

5. Give yourself candy (hotpot) scenes. I think I’ve referenced these before. Candy scenes (or for me, “hotpot” scenes, because hotpot is my favorite food in the world and just writing this has me craving it already) are the scenes that you dreamt of, that first inspired you to write the book. They’re the ones that you probably jotted down on the page first, that make your heart sizzle and fizzle like soda when you think about them. For me, they’re the romance scenes, or the character-torture/angst scenes (*evil laugh*). This is just so you have something to look forward to, something that makes you want to write so you work towards these scenes. These are your rewards for yourself for sticking to your goal! Make sure you highlight them (I usually put pink swirls and hearts and random emojis around them) so you feel a little zesty rush of thrill each time you see them (and how close you are!).

Those are the tips I have for when it comes to the first draft. It’s not going to be perfect (note to self). You’re going to have to rewrite it. You’re going to have to revise it until your eyes bleed. 

But it’s the first wild forage into your book, so enjoy it! 

Now, I need some hotpot.

One thought on “The First Draft: Understanding Your Own Story — And Getting It Done

  1. definitely NOT vladimir putin says:

    wow hello from russia, i am biggest fan, ana and ramson are my OTP they make my frozen heart warm even in coldest siberian winter


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