Mixing Your Ingredients: The First Draft

With your tools laid out on the counter, your ingredients chosen and weighed, and your work surface prepped, it’s time to take the plunge and begin the bake. How you follow your recipe at this stage will depend on how you work best. For some, following the steps in order, starting with the opening scene, then the second, and third, etc, will prove the most efficient method. For others, a more experimental approach, where you work on the scene most vivid in your mind at the time will be better. For me, the step-by-step option works best. The few times I’ve tried writing out of order, I’ve struggled to backtrack and fill in the gaps.

The First Page

Regardless of how much planning you do, tackling the first page with its crisp whiteness and blinking cursor can be daunting. There’s a certain trepidation that comes with breaking the first egg, a nervous excitement at the thought of putting fingers to keys and turning images into words. A giddy fear of sharing those words and being rejected. When those doubts start to creep in, tell yourself this:

This is a first draft. It does not have to be perfect.

You don’t have to nail every writing technique from the first word, fill the scene with impeccable imagery, or produce flawless, flowing dialogue. Your focus, at this stage, should be on the story.

Don’t Get Stuck on the Minutiae

Often when advice is given on writing a good story, a lot of emphasis is placed on having a strong opening line, a sentence to hook the reader and draw them into the story. This opening line is an enticement, the equivalent of a cherry on top of a cake or the bacon filling your favourite roll. A key to catching the eye of the browsing customer, but one added near the end rather than chucked into the mix at the start.

Mediocrity in a first draft is fine. Rather than spending an hour (or more) of your writing time hunting for the perfect opening, go for something quick and dirty instead. Something to help you, as a writer, establish the mood. For example:

The sun was shining.
Snow covered the farmland and hills.
Angela was livid.

None of those sentences are likely to grab a reader, but they will banish the nagging, blinking cursor in the corner of the empty page. And once the first sentence is there, the next one should come a little easier, and the one after that easier still.

The same thing applies to the rest of your writing too. It is easy to become stuck hunting for the perfect words, reworking a sentence over and over to convey the exact mood, or tearing up chunks of dialogue because they’re not snappy enough. This can lead to frustration at the lack of progress, especially if your writing time is limited.

To avoid this (and the feeling of inadequacy that can often come with it), I recommend using placeholder sentences during the first draft—something to remind you what you’re trying to convey while allowing you to keep moving forward. Remember to mark these sentences in some way so you can find and fix them when you edit. I tend to use *asterisks* when I want to replace a single word, or [square brackets for a sentence or paragraph.] Another option is to use the comments feature if you’re working in word.

Focus on Your Strengths

If a quick, dirty first sentence doesn’t get the words flowing, focusing on the part of the scene most clear in your mind can butter the pan and keep things from sticking.

If you’re a visual person, start by describing the scenery, characters, or furnishings. If you’re audibly focused, work on dialogue and character thoughts instead. If you’re more empathetically focused, working on elements to establish a scene or character’s mood may be the best option.

Whichever area you focus on first, the aim is to create a skeleton on which you can construct your scene. If you started with scenery, work on placing your characters within it next. If you started with dialogue, add in some movements to punctuate it. If you went with mood, the next stage might be to show how the mood is affecting your character’s behaviour.

Sound daunting? Or perhaps too generic to help? Please don’t be put off. As I develop my blog, I’ll look at the various aspects of scene building in detail. For now, the important part is to get words on the page.

And remember: This is a first draft. It does not have to be perfect.

Too Much Detail is Better than Too Little

Getting a good balance between scene detail, character development, action, and dialogue is tricky. Too much detail can turn a reader away, leaving their mind wandering as you focus on details irrelevant to the scene. Too little, on the other hand, will leave a reader unable to visualise events or connect with characters emotionally.

The temptation is to err on the side of caution, paring the details down to a minimum, selecting one or two stand-out flavours rather than creating a unique blend. This can create a bake that’s interesting for the first bite or two but lacks in depth and moreishness.

Rather than risk creating something bland, I recommend mixing in as much detail as you can in your first draft. If a character is wearing a unique outfit for a special occasion, take the time to describe it in detail. Or if they’re visiting somewhere new, somewhere with architecture or furnishings they’re not used too, let him or her marvel at the strangeness or disapprove of what they see as in inferior culture.

Taking this approach may lead to infodumping—creating blocks of description without action or dialogue. But it is easier to address this during editing, blending together the descriptives, actions, and dialogue to create a smooth mix, than it is to conjure those missing details when the scene is no longer fresh in your mind. Think of it in terms of carving a cake. When a cake is too large, it’s relatively easy to shave off the excess, but when there’s a gaping hole, it’s far harder to stuff it with left-over crumbs.

With practice, you’ll get a feel for what level of detail works for your style, and how to blend those details into the story from the start. But if you’re a new writer, or someone who has hesitated to work in lots of detail before, the priority should be to work the details in, no matter how clunky they seem.

Double Check Your Recipe

By this stage, your first scene should be taking shape. All the ingredients are in the bowl or pan, beaten, folded, mixed or heated as required. You have a setting, characters, action, dialogue, and enough detail to bring the world and characters to life. But have you remembered to mix in the conflict? The physical or emotional danger you identified in your outline? This is, arguably, the most important ingredient in your mix, the hook to snare your readers attention and make them want to turn the page.

This does not mean every scene has to end on a cliffhanger, with your character(s) in immediate danger. Leaving your character dangling from a cliff may make your reader continue to the next chapter to discover how the character survives, but doing so repeatedly will become predictable and, ultimately, boring. Mixing in more subtle hooks will both vary the tempo and result in the reader being less likely to pick up any writing devices.

Maintain Momentum Between Sessions

Once the first draft of your scene is complete, it can be tempting to wipe down your board, wash your dishes, and put everything away. Doing so, however, will leave you facing another crisp white page, with another blinking cursor, the next time your settle in to write.

To avoid starting from scratch every time you begin a new scene, there are a few things you can do to maintain your momentum:

  • Copy any scene notes from your outline into your document.

Depending on how detailed your planning was, this could be anything from a single sentence to a detailed breakdown of key events. In the latter case, this may be all you need to kick-start your next writing session.

  • Expand on your notes if needed.

If you only have a sentence or two in your outline, or don’t have notes for the next scene, creating or expanding on them before you stop your writing session for the day can start your subconscious ticking over, making it easier to pick up the thread next time.

  • Note down any key ideas.

If you have an idea for a key piece of dialogue or action, add it to your notes. Even one or two sentences can be enough to bring the whole scene back to mind when the time comes.

  • Write the opening paragraph.

If things are flowing well, and you can picture the next few scenes in detail, take a few minutes to write the opening for the next scene before you stop for the day. Having those opening lines, alongside any notes you’ve made, can give a strong boost to your productivity the next time.

Set Achievable Goals

It’s very easy to look at a story in progress, see you’re only 10% into the draft, think of all the editing stages still to come, and become overwhelmed by the size of the task ahead. To counter this, it helps to set yourself achievable, daily (or weekly) goals.

A set word count is a popular choice, but it’s important not to aim too high if you choose this option. Work out how many words you can comfortably write in an hour, and also how much time you will have to write in a day or week, and use these figures to set yourself a reasonable target.

Personally, I prefer a less exact target, aiming to write one (or two, if they’re short) scenes per session. This works better for me, as each time I write I am moving the story forward a measurable step. In the earlier stages of a book, I’m less strict with myself, and aim for 1-2 scenes per week instead. This allows me time to experiment and familiarise myself with the characters and setting.

Whichever option you choose, do not set your goals too high. Doing so and constantly missing those goals can lead to your becoming disillusioned, losing interest in your work, or even viewing yourself as a failure. The purpose of a target is to motivate yourself, not to set yourself in competition with A. N. Author, who’s been writing for umpteen years and can produce X thousand words a day.

Final Thoughts

There is, of course, much more to creating a first draft than throwing ingredients into the mix and hoping for the best. There are techniques to learn, bad habits to discover and avoid, and the concepts of story, tempo, and flow (amongst others) to learn about. And the best way to learn all this is, imo, to do. Every time you write something new, you are learning, discovering what flavours work together and which cause mouths to wrinkle in disgust, testing the consistency of your mix, working out which combinations are too dry and which too sweet to be palatable.

That is why I chose to focus this introductory section on ways to overcome potential obstacles you are likely to encounter when you work. So you can write, express yourself, and learn.

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