First Drafts… What needs to be right, and what can I fix later?

Is it okay if the first draft of your novel or screenplay is a little rough? I like to think so. Here are few tips that will help you get to the end of a messy first draft, not least the one thing you should try and get right first time…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, when writing a first draft, is it OK if it’s, well… a little rough? I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how to do it any other way. My first drafts are rough as sandpaper. And long ago I came to terms with the fact that I’ll probably rewrite a novel or script at least three, four or five times before it’s anything like as good as it needs to be. If this sounds like you, then rest assured you are not alone.

In over three hundred episodes of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I’ve interviewed two, maybe three authors who are happy with their first drafts. The rest of us have to put up with the poor, wretched Frankenstein’s monsters that we will create out of pain and suffering. Here’s a question: with the first draft, what needs to be right and what can be fixed later? Well, what needs to be right? Well, none of it, really. I mean, it can be a complete disaster.

There’s a reason that first drafts are called — and apologies if you’re eating — first drafts are sometimes called vomit drafts. So please don’t overburden your first draft with your expectations. Nobody’s first draft will read like a published novel. The sooner you accept this, the more liberating it will be for your writing. I mean, I still stop myself and fix typos as I go, which is one of the reasons I’m writing more and more by hand, actually, because I scrub it out.

But if you can just burn through, and not look back, the chances of you finishing that first draft increase exponentially. You might be big outliner, but don’t feel that you need to slavishly stick to an outline, as that can create all sorts of problems, not least shoehorning your protagonist into situations simply because the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat says so. Permit yourself the flexibility to change your story when writing. Be open to the story opportunities that will emerge as you get to know your characters.

So I’m currently working through my first draft of my next book now, and there are things that change and evolve in the characters in the story. And the temptation to go back and fix them now is really overwhelming. But… experience tells me that’s a rabbit hole that creates more problems than it solves. If you start tinkering with stuff back there, then you start second guessing stuff that you haven’t written yet, and you end up being dragged into a swirling vortex of despair.

And no one needs that. Not these days, especially. I simply leave myself a little note in the comments and I’ll focus on fixing it in the next draft, because my priority is to finish this first draft, because nothing is more important at this stage than finishing a draft. I can make fixes on the next pass to the one after that or the one after that.

Or… You get the idea. However, if you want to concentrate on one thing and get that right first time round, make it your protagonist. Your entire story hinges on their journey. So if you haven’t figured out what they want and how the journey would change them, then maybe take a second to suss that out. Start with the simple stuff. How do they start the story and how they change by the end? Some of you out there will have heard me say this a million times before, and I’m quoting screenwriter Craig Mazin here.

But if you can figure out how your protagonist goes from “this” to “the opposite of this”, then you have the through line and central dramatic argument of your story.

Now, of course, there are authors out there who write painstaking first drafts that are as good as ready for publication, but they are rare as hen’s teeth. So if you think your first draft is ace. Fantastic. Good for you. But please don’t be discouraged if you feel your first draft is lacking. I think 90 percent of writers out there will be with you in solidarity. You are not alone. I hope that was helpful. Happy writing. See you again soon.

The Druid at Thieves Holm – Free to download now

The Druid at Thieves Holm is part three of The Miss Charlotte Quartet and is FREE to all subscribers of the Woodville Village Library Newsletter. CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP.

Parts one and two — I’ll See You In My Dreams and The Last Night of the Witchfinder — are also available completely free to all subscribers to the Woodville Village Newsletter, and all the stories are also available as MP3 audiobook downloads…

London, Autumn, 1744 Charlotte Southill slinks into Newgate Gaol to interrogate a thief before he is hanged. Only Wilmot Moor knows who has the scrap of paper with the ritual that will allow Charlotte to summon Time and discover the truth behind the mysterious girl in her dreams. Charlotte will travel from London to a tiny islet off the coast of John O’Groats where she will encounter the Druid at Thieves Holm. I waffle about it here, and there’s a brief clip of the audio edition, too…

Big thanks to Julian Barr for his editing skills, Claire Burgess for helping Araminta, Dominic Currie for the music, and Andy Bowden for the cover art.

Here’s One Way To Write A Novel (Part 2): Three-Act Structure

I’ve just hit 22,000 words on my new novel, and this is where things can get a bit sticky. To make our way through the muddy middle of a novel, it helps to understand the basics of three-act structure, so here are a few pointers…

Here’s a link to part 1… https://youtu.be/A9u0SFjv3N8

And here’s the thematic video I mention… https://youtu.be/vD64WDtWsV8

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. It’s been a couple of weeks since the last update. Since then, I’ve had a haircut and my first vaccine and I’m just getting over the side effects…

I’m still using the same method to write the first draft of this book, so scribbling in a notebook one day, then switching to the laptop and bringing it to life the next. And it’s been working pretty well so far. I’ve just hit 22,000 words, which is about a quarter of the way through this book. I want it ultimately to be somewhere between 80- and 90,000 words tops. So I’m about to hit what is possibly the most difficult part of the novel.

The second act, the muddy middle. As I said in the first video, and I’ll pop a link below if you haven’t seen it: https://youtu.be/A9u0SFjv3N8 — openings are relatively easy. Everything’s exciting. The world is your oyster. But when you get to the end of the first act, your characters will have started making choices that have consequences. Story consequences. So how do you navigate this? Well, let’s take a moment to talk about the basics of structure. All stories have this in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the three act structure at its simplest, used by the ancient Greeks in their storytelling, still used by Hollywood today.

Now, you may have read all sorts of fancy stuff about four-act, five-act, seven-act structures, pyramids, diagrams, all sorts of stuff. But in the end, it all comes down to these three essential beats: a beginning, a middle, and end. And why are we even talking about acts? We’re writing a novel. Well, this is largely because the language of theatre and screenwriting has seeped into the bigger conversation about narrative. But it really does help to think of your story in these terms, not least because an understanding of story structure will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your writing and enhance your self-critical skills. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the acts work. So, Act One is all about the set up, and that’s what I basically just completed. I’ve introduced my main characters. The setting, the themes, the tone and the rules of the story are established. There will be some kind of incident that will trigger the story and set the protagonist on the path of the story. The First Act usually ends with a turning point that will launch Act Two. Act Two is all about confrontation. Your protagonist will be tested as they strive to achieve their goal, the action rises and rises, leading to a midpoint that then becomes a crisis. The final events of Act Two, which often herald disaster or certain failure for our hero, will trigger the events of Act Three. Act Three is all about resolution. The stakes are raised to the point where we think it’s going to end in disaster. But the protagonist will take the lessons learned by the tests of Act two and find a resolution. They will almost certainly have changed from the person they were in Act one. And that’s it. The building blocks of story.

You can apply this not only to your overall story, but to each chapter which will have its own beginning, middle and an end. So this is what I have ahead of me next. Act Two. This is where I test my characters like an Old Testament God making their lives increasingly difficult. The good news is I have a pretty good idea of how I want Act three and the ending to pan out. So I just need to bridge that gap with some fun shenanigans.

And if I get stuck, then I need to take a moment just to think thematically. I covered that in a previous video… https://youtu.be/vD64WDtWsV8

Again, I’ll pop a link below. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Hmm. I’ve just written a scene where they come to a door and I have only the vaguest idea of who is on the other side. So, yeah, we’ll see. It’s never easy. But here goes. There’ll be another update a couple of weeks and until then, happy writing.