How to write a first draft

To get to the stage you can start a novel or screen play:
You need to get fluent – writing practice.
You need to get your structure and characters sorted out.
Have the characters ready to go: all the suggested techniques for developing characters and their back-stories are ideal for notebook/writing practice topics. It is much easier to write a tricky scene when you know your people inside out, when you know how they will react and behave (or not behave, as the case may be). You need to internalise the characters, by which I mean that they need to become part of you. There has to be a sort of passion about this. They should produce strong feelings in you. You must love them or hate them, and certainly you must understand them deeply. Indifference is fatal. It may seem like a cliché to talk about romance writers falling in love with their heroes, but that sincerity is key to the popularity of the genre. Readers want to be able to sense emotional reality in all fiction, not just in romance novels. Without emotion, without passion, it is just words on the page. You might as well be writing a report for work, full of turgid, time-wasting jargon.

Sort out your story before you start.

Some writers you may read about claim not to have the least idea where the story is going when they start. This is, I suspect, a partial truth. Such writers are usually time-served craftsmen who can plot on the hoof because they have an innate sense of what a story demands. They also use the first draft to try out the plot and probably do a great deal of rewriting and restructuring. This is a risky strategy for beginners, though, as going wrong is a real confidence basher. For a confident, fluent fiction writer there is the inner knowledge that things can be put right later. But if you are starting out this requires a lot of faith.

So I would suggest that working out your story in advance is a very good idea. You can use StoryLines for this. Then you will be able to concentrate on writing the story in the most effective way if you don’t have to worry about what the hell happens next.

Writing is like travel. An outline can vary from a rough set of directions to a detailed itinerary, and there is actually no obligation to stick to it. If you have spent time developing an outline, don’t feel that it is a legally binding contract. To return to the travel analogy, it is a suggested path and that’s all. If you see a different and better route through the mountains when you are there, allow yourself to take it. You may even end up at a different destination. Think of the outline as a helper, not a dictator.

There comes a moment when the material is ripe (like cheese or a fruit) and you will find yourself better able to face the Himalayan trek that is the novel or screenplay.

Break it down into small, manageable chunks, scene by scene rather than chapter by chapter. Don’t set yourself daunting objectives. For example you might decide “I will write a chapter this weekend,” or equally “I am going to write the scene when Lucy learns that her father is a bank robber.” Set a low achievement threshold and then if you pass it you will be pleased with yourself rather than cross with yourself for failing.

Look forward to writing the scenes before you sit down to write them. “I can’t wait to do the scene when Helen confronts Gus about the sale of the painting. She’s going to be so mad with him and of course he can’t tell her why he had to do it.” Imagine the scene running in your head like a movie. Do it several times. A good time to do this is when you are lying in bed, just before you go to sleep. Then when it comes to write it will just be like describing something that already exists rather than creating something new. This will feel much less daunting and you are more likely to suceed in your objective.

Try not to be critical. Just write the bit you have set yourself and be pleased with yourself for completing that task. Don’t read it back. Just move on to the next task.

Let yourself go if you like. If you want to describe everything in the room, this is your chance to do it. If you want to go over the top you can. Editing comes later. If you overwrite you will have plenty of material to pare down into something really effective. Try, if at all possible, to enjoy the experience. Even if you are churning up nasty emotions (and I hope you will be) try not to be afraid of them but take it as proof you are writing well.

If things go well and you get into flow, remember to allow yourself to wind down again. You can feel very flat when you come down from a high of writing effectively and it is often necessary to schedule some debriefing activity that doesn’t require the emotions or intellect. When you write fiction not only are you using your left brain but your right brain, and your heart as well – and that is a combination that is both addictive and exhausting. Expect to feel restless, but drained and a little strange.

Don’t let anyone else read it when you are still working on it. No matter how well meaning the person, they are bound to say the wrong thing and skewer your confidence.

Consider signing up for Nanowrimo or some such scheme (novel in a month). This gives you a sense of community and the chance to write just for the hell of it. In fact Chris Baty, the founder, extols the virtues of quick and dirty writing, and I agree with him. If you don’t give yourself much time to think you won’t be critical and the story will be everything.

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