Write It Sideways

3 Ways to Work Through a Difficult First Draft

Today’s post is written by Christi Craig, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Christi!

It’s December, and plenty of writers are still coming down from the NaNoWriMo buzz.

I haven’t seen the statistics, but I assume a fair share of participants made it to the finish line and a significant number of folks didn’t. I’ve done NaNoWriMo twice, the first time figuring out that I can write 50,000 words of a first draft in just under one month, and the second time discovering that I can also choke after 20,000 words.

I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo this year, but I dove into a similar collective writing experience last October. With a small group of writers, I put all my energy into crafting a workable first draft of a 10,000 word story for an anthology. Ten thousand words, easy enough.

As with NaNoWriMo, there were daily check-ins, virtual cheerleaders on Facebook, and a deadline for completion. And just like cranking out the first draft of a novel, my stomach sank at the thought of wringing so many thousands of words out onto the page.

I had plenty of false starts, with doubts of ever reaching the end. The beginning was never good enough; I returned again and again to page one. I changed the first line, changed it back; killed off the mother, then just gave her cancer; then turned back one more time, thinking Geez, cut the drama already. Like pulling teeth…or (worse) like pulling on a hangnail, going back to the beginning, when you’re desperate to reach the end, stings every time.

Those false starts were not in vain, though, since I learned something from the experience.

One, whether it’s a first draft of a novel, a memoir, a short story, or even a blog post (I won’t tell you how many times I restarted this post…), getting past the first page—sometimes, the first sentence—can be the biggest challenge.

And two, there are several ways to approach a story; employing one or all of those approaches helps us find our way to the end.

1. Write from a different perspective.

Starting over can lead to a new direction or, as in my case, a new protagonist.

In my short story, the protagonist began as a young man who found himself working in the back rooms of a funeral home. But after I wrote a quarter of the way through the story, the energy dropped off.

Frustrated, I went back and wrote from the perspective of his co-worker, a character who had stayed mostly quiet until I turned the spotlight on her. Then, she had lots to say and plenty at stake. Enter, my new protag.

2. Write in present tense.

First drafts can be written in present tense. Believe it or not, finished (and successful) novels can be written in present tense. Jenna Blum did just that in Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers (one a New York Times bestseller and the other a Boston Globe bestseller). When asked about her choice of tense in writing those novels, she said this:

I wrote both [stories] in present tense because, as one of my Grub Street novelists…once said, the present tense is ‘the tense tense.’ The reader doesn’t have the security of retrospect. . . . [T]he reader is strapped into the immediate experience with the character.

The first draft of my novel-in-progress unfolded in present tense, and the experience I had as a writer was exactly as Blum describes. Getting my main character’s story onto the page was like riding a roller coaster for the first time. I had no idea how to brace myself for the curves; I could only ride the momentum.

And, I could only look forward. A cathartic experience, I really did write 50,000 words in 30 days.

3. Be dramatic. It’s okay.

Like I mentioned earlier, I jump straight to the drama when I write first drafts. It’s almost a genetic reflex, painfully so, and I’ve been told more than once that my characters tend to be too depressed, too serious, too…everything.

However, I’ve learned to accept that my first drafts allow me to pour out that early drama onto the page, so that eventually I find my way to the real meat of the emotion, and to the crux of the story. During my October craze-filled-short-story-writing frenzy, I nixed a ton of unnecessary drama in the final drafts of that story, but I couldn’t have made it to the end of the early draft without letting myself go there in the first place.

In a post on Intrepid Media, Jael McHenry (author of The Kitchen Daughter) offers some first-draft pointers, and she mentions NaNoWriMo as a valid approach. She says:

Perfection is paralyzing. . . . Momentum is your friend. . . . A bad draft is better than none at all. . . . [and] NaNoWriMo isn’t a way to write a book, but it’s one good way to get a book on its feet, off and running, or at least out of the gate.

Get the book on its feet. Get the story started. Go.

What approach will you use today to push through that first draft?

Christi Craig writes flash fiction and short stories, and is currently at work on her first novel. For more about Christi and her writing, visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter or friend her on Facebook.