Thursday, January 2, 2014

Five First Draft Essentials

I did NaNoWriMo this year, and that's one of the reasons why I haven't been posting lately. That was 60,000 words in thirty days, and it got me thinking about what we should expect out of a first draft. Too many fellow writers, it seemed, looked for too much out of their first attempts at a story, and many of them gave up, even though their novels showed promise. It's terrific if magic happens, and the words that pour forth are glorious, but it's more likely the first draft will be a mess. That, in itself is not a problem, but it can go too far.

If the manuscript too disconnected and shabby, it's hard to move forward and get any traction. Some drafts resemble automatic writing too much, so the first requirement is storytelling. Also, if the characters are all one-dimensional, even a well-plotted story will be difficult to rewrite in a way that becomes something vivid and real.

Striking a balance between sloppiness and perfectionism may be the toughest part of getting a draft on paper. You need to do enough without aspiring to such a perfect draft that you get stuck. So, as a guide, here are the essentials I expect of a first draft.

  • Somewhere within the first 50 pages or so, the protagonist must be locked into a tangible goal. This is a goal, as Michael Hauge says, that you could photograph -- lovers kissing, the hero crossing the finish line, a Death Star exploding. It is okay (desirable, in fact) for the protagonist to have an internal goal or to get what he/she needs in terms of emotions, perspectives, and spiritual growth. But commercial fiction demands an external goal.
  • The protagonist needs to emerge as a real character, not a cardboard cutout. For me, that means I hear his/her voice. In fact, before I get too many chapters done, I usually have the character talking to me. But the main point is that the character needs to be, in at least a few chapters, distinctive and someone you'd like to spend time with.
  • By the end, the premise needs to have proven itself. You don't need to have a great ending, and the draft probably will start in the wrong place, but the concept that caught you as a writer needs to have demonstrated that it can fulfill its promise.
  • The story needs to have strong conflict (often in the form of an antagonist). The hero needs to have setbacks. There needs to be real doubt about whether the goal can be achieved. There needs to be potential for rising stakes. Oh, and the villain needs to be one person, not a corporation, a cabal, or society. Even if there are many enemies, one enemy must step forward to personify the forces aligned against the protagonist. Note: In a love story, the opponent may be the object of desire.
  • Something needs to happen. Preferably something unexpected that engages you as the writer. I usually peruse a first draft for three to four scenes that hook me. If everything else is dodgy, that's enough to build a new draft on. These do not need to come in the right order in the first draft, but they need to be there.
When I write nowadays, it is by the seat of my pants and the scenes often come out of order. I try to achieve forward momentum, so I don't rewrite along the way and I insert the word "bagel" in places where I can't come up with a name, a location, a fact, or a word. I keep my enthusiasm for the work, even when it is frustrating me and the words aren't coming easily, by referring to a list of reasons on why I should be writing this book. (This list is created before I go very far with the story, when I still feel that this is a story that must be told.)

Soon, I will sit down to look over the 60,000 words I wrote in November. Some of the prose will be awful (possibly even incoherent). I will have to fix the bagels and fill in missing scenes. I'll need to take a good look at the structure to make sure the beats are all there and it begins in the right place. I'll need to move scenes around to ensure the stakes rise. I'll have many conversations with the protagonist and a few other characters who came to life. I'll do a lot of cutting.

My rewriting effort will be difficult, but, because the draft has all the essentials, I know a complete story will emerge. I hope some scenes will be so wonderful, I'll only need to polish them. But even if massive redrafting is called for, this will be a book that will be completed. When a first draft offers a writer that, it's enough. It has done its job.

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