Friday, April 17, 2009

Your First Draft Doesn't Have to Suck

by L.J. Sellers

Many writers think a first draft of a novel has to be crappy. Anne Lamott in her nonfiction book about writing, Bird by Bird, has a chapter called Shitty First Drafts. A recent Murderati blog post was titled, “Your first draft is always going to suck.”

I respectfully disagree. Of course, no first draft is publishable as is, but it doesn’t have to suck either. There’s no reason a novelist can’t craft a readable first draft that needs only minor revisions in the second round. Every writer has his/her own style, but my personal belief is that if you start your journey with a good road map and a tangible destination, you won’t get lost.

In other words, I believe I write decent first drafts. Which saves me a lot of time and trouble. How do I do it? With a lot of advance planning. These ideas may only be workable for crime fiction, but here’s how I craft a great first draft without any gaping holes or illogical twists:

1. Create an outline. Once I have a basic story idea (comprised of an exciting incident, major plot developments, and overview ending), I start filling in the details. I structure my outline by days (Tuesday, Wed., etc.), then outline the basic events/scenes that happen on each day, noting which POV the section will be told from. For police procedurals (and most mysteries), in which everything happens in a very short period of time, this seems essential. Some people (like Stephen King) tell you not to outline, that it ruins creativity. Again, I disagree. So I fill in as much detail as I can at this point, especially for the first ten chapters and/or plot developments.

2. Write out the story logic. In a mystery/suspense novel, much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I worry that I won’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened. So I map it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

3. Beef up the outline. As I write the first 50 pages or so, new ideas come to me and I fill in the rest of outline as I go along. I continue adding to the outline, and by about the middle of the story, I have it completed.

4. Create a timeline. A lot happens in my stories, which usually take place in about six to ten days. I keep the timeline filled in as I write the story. This way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when an important event took place (Monday, 8 a.m.: Jackson interrogates Gorman in the jail). It’s much faster to check the timeline than scroll through a 350-page Word document. The timeline also keeps me from writing an impossible number of events into a 24-hour day.

5. Keep an idea/problem journal. I constantly get ideas for other parts of the story or realize things I need to change, so I enter these notes into a Word file as I think of them. (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?). I keep this file open as I write. Some ideas never get used, but some prove to be crucial. Eventually, all the problems get resolved as well. I use the Notebook layout feature in Word for this so I can keep the outline, timeline, notes, problems, and evidence all in the same file, using different tabs. I love this feature.

6. Keep an evidence file. This idea won’t apply to romance novels, but for crime stories, it’s useful. I make note of every piece of evidence that I introduce and every idea I get for evidence that I want to introduce. I refer to this file regularly as I write, so that I’m sure to process and/or explain all the evidence before the story ends. In my first novel (The Sex Club) , a pair of orange panties didn’t make it into the file or the wrap up, and sure enough, a book club discussion leader asked me who they belonged to.

7. Update my character database. It took me a few stories to finally put all my character information into one database, but it was a worthwhile effort. Now, as I write, I enter each character name (even throwaway people who never come up again) into the database, including their function, any physical description, or any other information such as phone number, address, type of car, or favorite music. Now, when I need to know what I named someone earlier in the story or in a previous novel, it’s right there in my Excel database (Zeke Palmers; morgue assistant; short, with gray ponytail). For information about how to set up a file like this, see How to Create a Character Database.

As a general rule, I like to get the whole story down on the page before I do much rewriting, but I’ve learned to stop at 50 pages for two reasons. One, I like to go back and polish the first chunk of the story in case an agent or editor asks to see it. Two, I usually give this first chunk to a few beta readers to see if I’m on the right track. So far, I have been.

Do your first drafts suck? What’s the worst problem you’ve encountered in a first draft?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out in September. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.


Tory said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, L.J.!
Thanks for the writing tips.

My big problem in my (mainstream) novel was figuring out where to begin (vs. leaving pieces as backstory), what time order to introduce scenes in (I have a psychotherapy segment, so could have introduced things as flashbacks), and generally how to make the plot work.

What helped me was reading _The Heroine's Journey_ and following that as an outline.

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, LJ! Thanks for the great post. I already use some the suggestions you offer, but I love the idea of the problem journal and the evidence file. I'm definitely going to start using those.

My first drafts aren't too awful, as a rule. But I do like to give myself permission to LET them be crappy rather than sit and stare at the screen while trying to think of the perfect word.

By the way, I'm reading THE SEX CLUB right now and love it! I expect to finish it tonight. I guess I can quit wondering about those panties now.

Joyce Tremel said...

Thanks for hanging out with us, LJ.

I do a lot of revising as I go along, so usually my first drafts are really more like third or fourth drafts. I've tried just plowing through the first draft, but I can't do it.

I keep an Excel file in which each chapter has a separate tab. On each chapter sheet, I break it down into scenes, along with date and time it takes place, any evidence, questions, etc. I then add a tab for characters, and one for general notes of things I don't want to forget. The tabs get more detailed as I go along. When I begin writing the book, I might only have a sentence for each chapter--just a general idea of what's supposed to happen.

Jenna said...

Thanks for visiting, L.J.

My first drafts don't usually suck either, although I don't outline. Like Stephen King, I do feel that it stifles creativity. If I know the whole story, there doesn't seem to be any point in writing it. That said, about halfway through, I have to stop and write a timeline, since I get to a point where I can't keep all the threads straight in my head. But I don't outline forward more than a few chapters at a time, mostly because I don't know where I'm going after that. What I do do, is clean things up as I go along. Read over what I wrote yesterday and fix it before I get started on today's writing. And if something occurs to me on page 100, that I needed to elude to on pages 25, 50, and 75, then I'll go back and fill in, rather than push forward to the end, and then go back. It makes for more work (because it might change again), but the benefit is that once my first draft is done, it needs only minimal tweaking.

I think it bears saying, though, that the point of the whole 'first drafts suck' thing, is for a beginning writer (someone who would read a how-to book) to give him/herself permission to write a bad draft in the knowledge that many of us do it, and it turns out OK anyway. Doesn't mean the first draft has to suck, but it's OK if it does, because it can be fixed. But if there is no first draft, because the fledgling writer got too disgusted with him/herself to continue, then there's nothing to revise.

My humble 0.02.

Karen in Ohio said...

LJ, will you please post a link for the characters again, maybe the whole address? All I got was "link". Thanks.

What a great blog. I'm in the very beginning stages of a book, and have been struggling with how to organize, so this is timely for me, thank you so much.

And another book to read! I'll look for The Sex Club.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for asking. I hope you find it useful.

Karen in Ohio said...

That was quick! Thanks!

Meg said...

My first ever first draft sucked. My next first draft isn't sucking so much. I learned a lot from the first of the firsts.

For starters, not proofreading at all is a very bad thing. I'm doing that this time around and I'm catching so many little things that I won't have to deal with later.

It's all a big learning experience. :D

Rebbie Macintyre said...

Good post, LJ. Thanks!

Annette said...

Hey, folks, a couple of the links were broken earlier, but I think I have everything fixed now. Sorry for the inconvenience.
--The Management at Working Stiffs

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Great post, LJ. I particularly like the portion about the QUESTIONS/PROBLEMS because I think that's something every writer encounters. Along the way, you have to work through what could be glitches--either in your thinking, your narrative, or your characters' motives. I believe Elizabeth George mentioned this in her book "Write Away."

Joanna Campbell Slan
Agatha Nominee--Paper, Scissors, Death

~Sia McKye~ said...


Nice article. I agree, the first draft doesn't have to be crap. I can see where an outline would be crucial for Suspense/thrillers--especially time lines because so much does happen and so quickly it's easy for an author to lose their place.

Personally I don't write by detailed outline, but since three of my stories have elements of suspense in them, the timeline was important. But I do keep a file open, and I have notes on MC goals, conflicts, and motivations in a the file as well.

Now, the paranormal I've started, lived in my head for almost a year. I knew exactly what I wanted to have happen. When I knew the opening scene, I wrote it down. At that point, I knew I needed an outline because I'm creating a world and characters so I needed to keep them straight. That's where an outline was vital--major plot lines and time frames. In doing the outline, I was able to sketch out the subsequent books I will write as part of the series. So while I'm a pantzer, this pantzer also see the validity of outlines. :-)

L.J. Sellers said...

I may not have mentioned this, but despite having an outline, I'm always open to better ideas, and I often modify the story/outline as I go along. The details of the climax scene almost always play out differently than I expect.

Anonymous said...

Applause, applause! Your post is right-on and I'm printing it out to attach to my story board.

I'm a careful -- and veeeery slow -- writer. Save everything, every scrap until a book or article is printed. Revise constantly.

But in going through what I call "the attic" I've come across first drafts and I'm always surprised at how good they are. They just didn't fit into what I was writing at time. Saving them for another time. It works for me.

Thanks again for your post. Very timely for me. I'm at the mid-point of my second book, and making notes for #3 and #4.

Pat Browning

Lisa Logan said...

Good post! Hemingway went so far as to call first drafts "excrement," and I can't say that I agree. Still, this theory can benefit authors who feel if their first draft isn't perfect they aren't good writers.

I rarely outline or plot anymore, as I turned to character-driven stories. They talk, I transcribe--and characters are pretty darn good at telling me the story apparently, because with rare exception now my first drafts aren't half bad. Hardly ready for prime time, but much closer to final polish than the first couple of full lengths I wrestled out, complete with detailed notes, outlines, etc.


Anonymous said...

I think Stephen King said that outlining doesn't work for him, but he didn't say no author should outline.

L.J. Sellers said...

What I should have said is that Stephen King says outlining stifles creativity. He also has a lot of great advice for writers in his book On Writing.

Helen Ginger said...

Great advice, LJ. I so agree about the timeline. It's important to keep it straight. In my own writing, I plot it out. When I'm editing for someone else, it's not at all unusual to catch where the author has lost track of time and gotten the sequence of events mixed up.


Anonymous said...

What a great post. After about twenty rewrites of my first novel, I vowed to use an outline in future, even for short stories.

I've heard people say they feel hindered by them in some way, but I don't understand their logic. After all, it's an outline, not a contract. Like you, my original outline changes as the novel progresses, but it's so much easier to add things (or take them out) if you have an outline to show you when and where to make those changes.

I also liked your suggestions about keeping an evidence file and a character database.

Thanks :)

Gayle Carline said...

The first draft of my second book, indeed, did not suck, and the difference was that I outlined the second book, something I didn't do with the first one. That being said...

If I'd tried to outline my first, very sucky book, I believe I would have failed. I didn't know where I wanted it to go (and it shows), and every time I thought I knew how it would end, something would change.

But writing that sucky book gave me the courage and impetus to write a good book. I got all of my bad habits out of the way on the sucky book (adverbs, passive writing, you name it), told a story with a beginning and an ending, and did it in 90,000 words. If I could write 90,000 bad words, sure I could write that many good ones.

In Freezer Burn, I think I accomplished my goal. I just hope my readers think so, too!