When you write your first draft, you picture the words pouring out of you onto the page in profound perfection. You picture emulating your writing idols, crafting a seamless plot with lots of twists and turns along the way. You envision a story that will make readers laugh, cry, gasp, and ultimately leave them with a massive book hangover by the end. And, although that vision may very well become a reality… it won’t on your first draft.
As you sit down to write your manuscript, you picture the gold shining vision of the final manuscript you want to create. You just want to hurry up and get to that version, the version you’ve dreamt of, but every amazing manuscript has a messy first draft.
Do: Focus on structure
Every story should have a beginning, middle, and ending. The beginning of your story should include the ‘inciting incident’ or the event that spurs on the events of the story. The middle should consist of conflicts that challenge your protagonist and raise the story’s stakes. Finally, the ending should include the climax and whether or not your protagonist gets the object of their desire (IE what their goal is to achieve throughout the story).
Instead of focusing too much on every single plot point, focus on hitting these beats and getting the story from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the ending). In order to help one achieve this, it can help to create a brief events list. This simply involves breaking the story into that three-act structure and writing down (in one to two sentences) what happens in each section. For example, in a fantasy story maybe the ‘beginning’ involves a character finding out they have been chosen for a quest, which they accept. Then, next to that statement, write the events that lead to that conclusion for your protagonist. Who tells them about this quest? How do they take it? What makes them accept the task?
Do: Get to know the tone and characters
Rather than mastering your tone and characters on your first attempt, your goal should be to get to know both of these elements over the course of the first draft. Think of your first draft as your opportunity to figure out the tone and characters in your story rather than for either of them to feel perfectly crafted on the first try. When it comes to tone, on your first draft it will likely change drastically from beginning to end or even just scene by scene. It’s not uncommon for a writer to go into a novel with a light funny tone only to discover that the story works much better with a sardonic darker tone. Use your first draft to play around with your narrator’s voice and POV. It may give you more editing work to do later, but it will also allow you to figure out what works best.
Additionally, in terms of your characters, writing up an informative character sheet won’t allow you to get to know your characters nearly as much as actual scene work. On your character sheet, your protagonist could come across as very dry but their actual voice (once you start writing them) could sound completely different than you pictured. Furthermore, a character could end up making completely different decisions than you had thought they would make. If this is the case, let your character take the lead and see where it goes. Sometimes this won’t work and other times it can lead to the best character writing.
Don’t: Focus on language and details
Your first draft is the time to experiment with your language and details, not to meticulously focus on them and make sure they’re super consistent. One of the quickest ways to encounter writer’s block on your first draft is to get too bogged down with your language and making sure everything sounds nice. Even your favorite author has first drafts that are horrendous and sloppy… that’s kind of the point of them. Don’t be afraid to skip over areas where you’re struggling and just add a note in letting future you know what needs to happen there. Or if you’re in the writing groove and then lose your rhythm, don’t force yourself to try to mimic what you had previously been doing. Focus mainly on the story structure and leave the details for second and third draft you to handle.
Don’t: Worry about character development and plot holes
Since you’re still getting to know your characters in this draft, try not to focus too much on character development outside of the basics. You theoretically know the arc you’d like each character to have, but this initial draft is there to see if the characters will fit what you were thinking. They may make decisions that contradict the arc you had originally planned for them so just get to know them, see the choices they make, and then reorganize them into an arc on a later draft.
Plotholes are going to be plentiful on your first draft, that is just the nature of the beast. Perhaps you reach a point in the story where your protagonist is cornered and you’re not sure how to write them out of the situation. But wait, you think of a device that you could add to the story to aid the characters at this moment, but that would leave the audience scratching their heads wondering how this device appeared out of nowhere. Don’t worry about this now, you can always go back and add the device in an earlier chapter to make the moment more satisfying. Focus instead on getting your characters where they need to be, you can fix plot holes and inconsistencies later.