So, you’re done outlining and ready to move on to the next step. Well, welcome to the meat and potatoes of novel writing: drafting. This is where you’ll put your ideas to paper and create what will eventually become your completed manuscript.
But first, you must tackle the dreaded first draft. Here are some tips.
To Edit or Not to Edit?
Some of the most commonly expressed writing advice I have seen is not to edit your first draft. The question is, is that good advice, or is it bogus? Can you edit as you draft? To start things off, here are my thoughts.
As I said in my post on outlines, you have to find what works for you. A first draft will never, ever, no matter how much you edit or how hard you work, be perfect. A large number of writers find this freeing, and they slap down their first draft as haphazardly as they please. They know, in the end, they can go back and fix it. The most important thing is just getting it down on paper.
But this doesn’t work for everyone. I personally find it incredibly distracting when I know something is wrong with a previous chapter, or if I’ve accidentally created a plot hole, or if a better way of doing something occurs to me and I need to make a change. I have to go back and edit when I write, and I try to make things as clear and perfect as I can as I go. Do I still need to edit in the end? Absolutely. Am I wasting my time editing as I go? Probably. Do I do it anyway? Yes. Because I know, if I don’t, it’ll bother me so much I’ll be incapable of writing more until I fix it.
All that is to say, everything I am about to tell you to do in this blog post can be fixed, added, changed, and improved over time. There’s no need to try and get it exactly right during the first attempt. There are going to be problems with your first draft, and that’s okay. If you feel the need to go back and make changes, do it! If you find it easier to keep going and worry about it later, do it! Remember, you do you. There are no rules.
The opening is arguably the most important scene in the book. It’s the first impression your book will make on your reader, so make it count. You can find loads of advice out there about what not to do. “Don’t start with your character waking up.” “Don’t start with description.” “Don’t start with a sex scene.” “Don’t start with a dream sequence.”
Often, there is nothing “wrong” with starting a book in any of these ways, the problem is that writers do it all the time. They are tired, worn out, and unoriginal. I once beta read three books in a row that all began with the main character waking up from a dream. Sure, you can do it too. No one is stopping you. You can do anything you want, especially if you do it well. But bear in mind you will be doing something that thousands of other writers have already done.
This is especially important if you plan on querying agents and publishers. Your book may be fantastic! But if you begin your book with a character waking up, the first impression your story is going to make is “ugh, this again?” and the agent/publisher may not get to the fantastic parts because they gave up on the first page.
So, what should you do?
Start with action!
No, that doesn’t mean begin your story in the middle in a battle. It means begin with something happening. Don’t write a passive scene where nothing is going on. Start your story off by showing your main character doing something. Something:
- Compelling or
- Irrelevant to the story
- Gimmicky or
- That literally every person in the world does every day such as brushing their teeth or getting dressed
Whatever your character is doing, it needs to show who they are and hint at what they want. Show the reader your character through action and behavior.
Note: This does not mean explain your character to the reader! A reader doesn’t want read, “Sally was nervous to find out if she got into college.” A reader wants to read about Sally’s shaking fingers as she struggles to click the email from the college, about her getting her mom to read it because she can’t bear to, about her closing her eyes as her mother tells her the news.
Hence, the classic rule of writing: “show, don’t tell.”
Stay away from explaining things if you can possibly help it. This includes world-building. Build your world by showing your character interacting with it, not explaining how it works in lengthy paragraphs (this is called info-dumping).
Think about how movies are made. It’s pretty rare that a movie will pause for a narrator to pop up and say, “This is Dave. Dave is 5’11” and is kind of a jerk. People like him though, because he’s a guy, so it’s okay for him to be a jerk. If he was a woman, people would like him a lot less. Blah blah blah.”
You learn about Dave through seeing him behave on the screen and how others react to him. So it should be in books as well.
Once you have an idea of what you want to do for your opening, make sure you include these five things:
1. Characterization – Your readers will assume the characters introduced in your opening are the main characters. While this is not always true, it’s important to keep in mind and make sure you’re managing reader expectations.
That said, normally you want to ensure you’re including a fair amount of characterization in your opening chapter. As previously stated, hint at who your characters are and what they want. A flat plot can easily be recovered by interesting and compelling characters, but the most interesting plot in the world would be hard to get into with characters who are boring. Here are some tips:
- It’s fine to have an unlikable hero, but there must be something redeeming or relatable about them.
- Strong female character does not mean a woman with a sword. A strong female character is a female character who is a full person with a developed personality.
- Diversity is good, but be respectful toward other races/ethnicities/cultures. Avoid stereotypes. If not sure, ask. To be safe, consider not writing POV characters outside of your own experiences.
2. Clear setting – Ensure your reader is grounded in the setting. Your readers need to know where the story is taking place. Don’t create a scenario where the characters are walking around in white space. Again, you don’t need to explain the setting, simply make it clear through hints and character behavior/action/interaction where the story is taking place. Some writers like to go all out on description while others tend to be more minimalist. Either approach is fine, as long as the reader knows where they are.
3. Foreshadowing – A reader should come away from your opening scene feeling like they have at least a vague idea of what might happen in the story and where the conflict might lie. Do they need to know exactly what’s going to happen? Absolutely not. But they do need some clues or hints as to what might be coming, otherwise they will wonder why they should keep reading. Give the readers something to look forward to and wonder about. Let them know if they keep going and stick with the story that they will be rewarded.
4. A hook – This is ideally the first sentence, although it doesn’t have to be. This is a line that tells the reader: “Something interesting is going to happen. Keep reading.” It draws the reader in and gives them a feel for what is coming. Let’s take a look at The Hunger Games.
The book opens with the dreaded waking up scene (oh, no!). The opening sentence is, “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” Meh, nothing really there tells me to keep reading, but if I do, it goes on:
“My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did.” Still nothing super gripping there, but we do get a sense of dread and a hint at the setting.
And by the end of the first paragraph, we have our hook: “This is the day of the reaping.” Everything before that is essentially setting up the hook, so when you get to it, it has full impact. You wonder what the “reaping” is. It certainly doesn’t sound good, especially not if it causes bad dreams. What’s more, given that it’s happening that day, we can expect the mystery to be revealed quickly. It’s the line that grabs you and says “Keep reading. You want to know about the reaping.”
Without this line, the first chapter of The Hunger Games would be Katniss waking up and going about her day. We would have no reason to care or wonder what she is doing or why. There’d be nothing keeping the reader invested. That single line tells the reader to prepare themselves for something that’s coming, something big.
5. Quality writing – This also encompasses voice, and I will cover it more in a later blog post. During the first draft you shouldn’t worry much about the writing quality. Quality comes from polish, which happens during revisions/edits.
Don’t Forget the Rest of the Book
The first three chapters often get the most attention. It’s important to really grab your readers and keep them turning those pages, and the first three chapters are your chance to get your claws in. Unfortunately, this sometimes ends with writers pouring so much effort into their first three chapters that the remaining chapters begin to unravel and don’t get nearly the attention they need.
This often leads to the dreaded “muddy middle.”
Personally, I like to think of the mid point and turning points of a book to be their own climax. So, instead of writing one 80,000-100,000 word story, you’re writing 3-4 smaller interconnected stories, each with their own beginning, middle, and end. This makes it easier to focus on each section of the book and keep the entire thing compelling from start to finish.
What might work for you is simply writing down all the scenes as you imagine them in your head and then later going through and weeding out the good ones or the ones that work together.
Some writers like to skip ahead to write their favorite parts. If that works for you, go for it, but I caution against it. It can lead to going through the motions and simply “filling in the blanks” you left behind, which, in turn, can lead to lagging bits. Remember that if it’s boring for you to write, it’ll likely be boring for readers to read.
People don’t really talk about endings the same way they talk about openings. This is likely for two reasons:
1. If your readers have made it to the ending, well, the hard part is over. The reader has made it this far, they’re probably going to finish.
2. People already have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to do for the ending (I’ve found). Endings seem to come more naturally, and people feel very strongly about them, so in the end (ha) they’re going to do what they’re going to do regardless of tips and tricks.
However, I do have some notes to keep in mind when crafting your ending.
- It’s not always necessary to kill your villains. Sometimes, the more powerful ending is to keep your villain alive, knowing they were unable to defeat the hero.
- Think through your twists, don’t just do something random. There needs to be some foreshadowing along the way, and it needs to make sense, otherwise your readers will feel cheated. People like being able to try and figure out what’s going to happen. The trick is finding the balance between not being too obvious but also not just pulling something out of a hat.
- Killing off characters the reader is not attached to has no impact.
- By definition, romance should have a happy ending.
- By definition, horror should have an unhappy ending.
- Cliffhangers are a dirty sales trick to get readers to buy the next book.
- Don’t introduce new characters (Who even are they? Why would the reader care?)
- End the story where it needs to end. Give your readers enough information to fill in the blanks on their own. There’s no reason to walk through the entire rest of the character’s life tying up every last tiny little lose end that might possibly exist.
It’s important to set goals for yourself. I’ll keep this section short because only you know what an appropriate goal is for your life. Some people will say “write every day” but that’s not realistic for everyone, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t “keep up” with other writers. It’s not about speed. It’s about getting it done. Set goals, but set goals that work for you. Then, stick with them.
Websites and events like 4thewords.com and NaNoWriMo help some writers stick to their goals. 4thewords is set up like a video game where you defeat monsters and earn points and items through writing. It’s great for people who love games and want a challenge. Bear in mind though that it is not free, and it also has increasing difficulty—meaning, it’s not great for those who want to stick with a steady pace.
NaNoWriMo is a community-based event where you attempt to write 50,000 words in a month. Participants cheer one another on and lay on the pressure. However, for many writers, the 1,700 word-a-day pace is too high, and a good number of participants are not able to finish.
Stay turned for pt.3: REVISING coming soon!