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.