When it comes time to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, there are obstacles that can get in the way of completing a first draft. This is, by far, the most important step to the process of writing a story or a novel, but there are an endless array of pitfalls standing between starting and finishing the project regardless of word count. Knowing how to overcome these obstacles are what separates those who wish they could be writers from the writers. Here are three techniques that I have found helpful when it comes to writing my own drafts:
Develop a Writing Routine and Stick to it
Raise your hand if you have ever thought to yourself “I should be writing, but I just don’t feel like it right now.” Yep, guilty as charged here as well. Yet I have never finished a writing session that I regretted doing, no matter how much I resisted it before beginning to write. It is easy to prioritize other things, and when you finally have the unplanned free time everything else sounds far more appealing than grinding out some words. As with most things, it takes time to develop a good writing habit. One of the best ways to accomplish this habit is to form a schedule or a routine and stick to it.
Some people advocate writing every day, and in an ideal world that is what we should all aim for. But there are pockets of time each week that we could pencil in the time to write. Find those times, even if they are only 15-30 minute windows, and dedicate one of those each day to writing. Set goals for each writing session, whether it be a time limit (I will sit and write for 15 uninterrupted minutes) or a word count objective (I will sit at my desk until I add at least 500 words to my current project). And stick to it. Figure out the times, and the requirements, that work best for you and then write. Don’t have email, Facebook, Twitter, or anything else open in another window. Put your phone on silent, if possible. Get your writing music playlist going before the timer begins if you are setting a time limit and don’t open it to change songs. Just write.
Relinquish control to your characters
If you are a planner, this advice will be paramount to the worst type of torture. You’ve spent hours developing an idea of how the next scene should play out. You dedicated months to detailing out a strict outline with a flow of events that take you from point A of the novel to point B in the novel. You know what the characters should do, what they should say, and what they had for breakfast for the last three months. But when you start to write they throw a curve ball at you and start to do something else.
This is the first draft, after all, and when it comes time to revise your work you can straighten them out and get things back on the track they were supposed to follow. I love the advice of Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird regarding the first draft. She calls it the child’s draft, and suggests that even if your character wants to quip, “Well so what, Mr. Poopy Pants” at some point, you let them. Because it may take pages of unproductive nonsense to get to a point where you write something so strong and beautiful and incredible that you would never have reached by more adult, methodical methods.
It is great to have a plan. But don’t be afraid to do a little pantsing while writing the first draft. Your writing mind might uncover an excellent addition to your story through very unconventional means.
Don’t stop, don’t overthink, just write
When I am writing my rough draft there is a little voice inside that wants me to stop. It hates the momentum I am building because it sees all the little things that I should fix, or could improve upon, or need to research more about to make sure it is accurate. It has taken time and practice, but I have begun to ignore this voice because it is a draft killer. It wants me to get bogged down in the details of the stuff I have already written, preventing me from ever reaching the completion of the manuscript. And we all have been guilty, or know someone who has been guilty, of getting completely derailed by this voice. How can you tell?
If your chapter one has been touched up a dozen times and still is not quite perfect, but chapter two still hasn’t been written. If you have abandoned projects collecting dust, not due to them being uninteresting but because the inspiration flamed out before you could get anywhere close to the end. If you’ve spent hours reading about the nuances of a culture or profession in order to be accurate before sitting down to write a page or two of a scene before moving on in the manuscript.
Avoid the pitfalls of listening to this voice! You will misspell words and write sentences in the passive voice. You will write choppy and forced dialogue. You can have a big [INSERT DETAILS ABOUT SMELTING IRON ORE HERE] in your first draft. You don’t need to fix the little things in order to continue! The most important thing, from my own experience, is getting to the end first. Then you can go back and revise to your heart’s content, spending weeks immersed in detailed research or hours rewriting a single paragraph until it is perfect. Because you will already have a finished product in front of you, something that you can say is written. You might spend years revising a manuscript, going over it 7 times before it is ready to send off (or before you get something other than rejections), but at least it will be done. Reaching the end is something every aspiring writer dreams of.
Not all of them make it there. Be the exception and write your heart out. You can clean up the messy stuff later.