Top 10 Tips : Starting and Finishing the 1st Draft

10 Tips to finishing the 1st draftWith this year’s Nanowrimo, I will be finishing the first draft of a novel for the fifth time. It’s a great feeling, to reach that last page and set down that last period. Whenever I’ve done that, I always sit and stare blankly at the screen for a while. In slight disbelief that I did it. That it’s over.

However, getting there is no picnic. Writing is hard work, of that there should be no doubt. On top of the many hours of manually plugging away, possibly wearing out your keyboard in the process, there’s the planning and plotting, the doubt about what you’re doing, the research. And afterwards, there’s the editing.

But like the artist starts with a sketch, so does the writer. I thought, I would share my top ten tips to getting that first draft done, based on my own experiences as well as what I’ve read and heard from other writers.

01 : Hatch the plot

First thing you’ll need is a story to tell. Chances are, that you already have an idea, but that you’re unsure whether or not it’s good enough to last the entire length of a novel. My advice would be to apply the good old what-if technique here. Jot down your basic idea, then examine it by supposing that characters and circumstances were different than you thought. Explore how many different directions your plot could go in. Soon more and more ideas, twists and sub-plots will present themselves. That’s when you know, you’ve got a writeable story.

02 : Understand your characters

Take your main characters and write up profiles for them. Short one-page bios about their backgrounds, their passions and dreams, their most embarrassing moments and regrets. Having this kind of information in advance will prove a goldmine later, when your characters are put into the action, and you need to figure out how they react. Don’t do it for every character. Pick the five or six most important ones. You can always write up extra bios later, if new and important characters present themselves.

03 : It begins with the end

J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, has long said that she wrote the final chapter of the seven book saga a long time ago. This is a great idea, becuase it will give you a distinct goal to write towards. If you don’t want to actually write a chapter (personally, I think my stories flow better if I don’t write them in fragments), you should at least make a few notes on, how you want it all to end. Where will all your main characters be, when it’s all over?

04 : Write out scene-cards

Try to identify what the main turning points in your story will be and write them down on index cards. Include a brief (2-3 lines) description of the scene along with a location and the names of characters present, if applicable. Don’t bother trying to get every scene onto a card. The idea is that when you’re actually writing, you’ll start with the opening scene, while having the card next to you as you write. When that scene is over, flip to the next card and write whatever you need to write, to get your characters to where that scene begins. There may be lots of scenes in between, but you’ll still know where you’re going, and it will give you a sense of accomplishment, every time you get to move on to the next card in the stack.

10 Tips to finishing the 1st draft05 : Don’t forget that this is a draft

Throughout the writing process, you have to remember that a first draft is just that. A draft. Your main concern should be to tell your story, plain and simple. Try not to be overly concerned about the more technical aspects of writing, such as dialogue or description, and concentrate on the flow of events instead. Make sure your characters act like themselves and that the story progresses and eventually comes to its conclusion. And leave the details for the editing process. Practically no novels are written in one draft, but rather through many revisions and editing sessions. Don’t expect that your first draft will be any different.

06 : Find your writing space

Some prefer to write in the comfort of their home, some like to stay after hours at the office. I like to write in coffee shops. When deciding where to write, consider the following: Will you be able to relax there? Will you be able to concentrate? What I like about coffee shops is, that I have a clean table to start off with, I have someone to supply me with a steady stream of caffeine and I often use the other people in there as inspiration – when in need of a quick description for a character in your book, look at the person sitting next to you.

07 : Get rid of distractions

Clear your desk of unopened mail, disable your internet when you write and make sure you had something to eat (but not too much). If you go out to write, leave your cellphone at home. If you stay at home, close the door and tell your room mate to stay out. When you write, eventually your mind will tell you, that this is hard and that other things might be more fun. I’ve found that putting yourself in a position, where distracting yourself requires an effort, you’ll end up getting more writing done.

08 : Set daily goals and stick to them

Even if you don’t write every day, on the days when you do write, you should set yourself a goal. Promise yourself to write for exactly two hours or that you’ll write 2000 words that day. Don’t set it too high, or you’ll end up not making it. The whole point is, that it will serve a victory for you, when you get to the finish line. I used to say, that I’d write as much as I could, in the time it would take me to finish a tall latte, then take a ten minute break and do it all over again. But I’m a slow drinker, so that model might not work for you. It’s all about driving yourself forward. Not writing is the writer’s worst enemy.

09 : Never stop at the end of a chapter

I’m not talking about when you’re getting ready to finish the entire novel here, but rather the individual writing sessions. If you leave off in the middle of something, you’ll be wanting to get back to it and finish the scene you were writing on. Starting at the beginning of a new chapter or scene, requires more effort and will feel like a cold start every time. If you’re afraid to forget that brilliant surprise at the end of the scene you were writing, chances are that you’ll find time to write again sooner, than you might otherwise do.

10 : Keep it to yourself as you go

As soon as people hear that you’re writing a book, the first question will be: What’s it about? My advice is: Don’t tell them. There are two reasons for this. First of all, there’s a tendency, that once you’ve verbalized your plot enough times, you’ll eventually start feeling, like you’ve already told the story, and it will be a lot harder to do the manual work of actually writing it. The second reason is, that you now know that there are people out there, who are curious about your writing. That’s fantastic motivation for getting it done, so they can finally read it.

If this article inspired you, you might want to check out my iPhone app – WriMuse – which generates inspirational creative writing exercises on the fly, and if you’d like to read something of mine, check out Ghost Whispers on Lulu.

I Might Kill You

Plasticwrapped dead woman © Rasmus RasmussenAs a writer it happens that you meet people, who will want to be in your stories. Some literally ask for it, while others have something about them, which lends itself well to whatever you’re writing on.

A while back, I attended the opening of a new restaurant here in Seattle. As I made myself comfortable in the wine bar (where else?), I started talking to this lady. She was dressed in a sharp, navy blue dress that could probably serve as both a business outfit and something for a night out. She turned out to be a lobbyist, working for both republicans and democrats, helping them push issues through where ever she was needed.

There was definitely an aura of power about her. She worded every sentence carefully, as if the world was listening, smiled a lot and it was obvious to me, that someone like her would be an interesting character to put in a crime novel. So, when she asked me what I do, I told her about the books I write and added that I thought, I might kill her off in one of them. This luckily went over very well, and the stories she told immediately grew even more exciting. Thinking about it now, I probably should have gotten her e-mail address.

Though that time, the person’s job, charisma and even clothes were like taken right out of a novel, most often I am not this lucky. Usually, there are only bits and pieces of a person, which I can use. A barista at the local coffee place, where I often go to write, joked around one day and said: “I want to be in your novel.”

At that time, I was currently planning the plot of my next project, so when he said that, I started looking at him. His name is uncommon enough that it’d be good, and him being a skinny dude, barely out of his teens, his description and body language were perfect for a character I was going to add anyway. Okay, so I will have to change his profession, give him a few bad habits and so on, but that’s how it usually is. I don’t think he believed me, when I nodded and answered, that sure, I’d put him in there.

Modelling characters is one of the most important aspects of writing. If you do a bad job, your stories will be flat and fail to grip the readers. It really doesn’t matter if they love or loathe the character, as long as they believe in it and build up an idea of how this person would act under various circumstances. In my experience it is really the little details, that make your characters stand out, and what better place to find those than in the real world, where we are constantly surrounded by people. If you need characters, I suggest you go shopping and do a little spying on the other people in the store. You’ll be surprised what you can pick up.

When people want to be in my stories, I immediately begin to dissect them in my mind. Nearly anyone will have one or more qualities (and in this case, qualities also refers to less fortunate traits), that you can pick up and use. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a whole bag of qualities, and you’ll have an almost finished character right there, ready to get killed off in chapter seven. Or whatever else you might need them for.

The image used for this piece was shot by me and is available on iStockphoto.

Jack of all Trades…

Jack of all Trades
King of None

That’s pretty much me, right there. At least if I’m to say so myself. If you ask me what I can do, I will say that I am a decent writer, a decent musician and a decent photographer. I can draw a little, too. But if you ask me what I’m a master of, I’ll look at you and shake my head.

In retrospect, maybe I should have stayed with just one thing. If I had specialized in, say, music, I could have been an awesome songwriter. I’m sure of it. But most of my energy went elsewhere. If I had concentrated on photography only, I would have been amazing. But my interests have been spread out.

One could argue that I am better at what I do, because of my dabbling in many similar or at least somewhat related things, and I would tend to agree. But still, part of me wonders what if.

However, I would like it to be known, that I have no regrets. I am proud to be a multi-artist. Yes, I realize that there will be others who are better than me at everything, but if I can create something that other people will take pleasure in, whether that be a song, a book or a photograph, then my mission is done. I did not set out to be the best in the world at what I do, but I did set out to make some kind of impact. That’s all.

Later, I’ll talk about managing all of these creative impulses.