Want a one hundred per cent guarantee? Here it is. Your first draft will be the worst writing you’ll ever produce. It’s a necessary evil that must be cleaned up and tightened up. You’ll add, delete, and revise. In reality, writing is rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. But an initial draft, from the story’s beginning to its end, absolutely has to be your first priority, your first step toward a salable manuscript.
It’s so tempting to write a few pages or a chapter or two, then go back and play with them. Don’t. When you’re fiddling with what you’ve already written, your story isn’t moving forward. Your plotline isn’t advancing.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, turn off the internal editor while you write this draft and simply let the words flow. The faster you can get that story down, the truer to your concept the story will be. Write something—no matter how minimal—every day to maintain that narrative flow. Don’t let the story grow stale.
Staring at a blank page can be daunting. The mind freezes. By writing each day, this is less likely to happen because you become immersed in the story, in the characters’ lives. They come alive. They become part of your life.
In my Maverick Junction series, the small town is fictional. It doesn’t exist—except in my mind and on the pages of my books. However, by the time I’d finished the first book, I’d become convinced the town actually was real. After the third book, I’d have sworn I’d been born and raised there. I’ve visited Maggie’s boutique and can all but taste Bubba’s barbecue.
Here’s a trick I’ve learned to head off that moment of panic when you open your story file. Leave off each day in the middle of a scene rather than at the end of one or at the end of a chapter. It effectively avoids that blank-page phobia because you’re already smack-dab in the middle of a scene, and you know where you’re headed. You’re automatically back in business.
Acknowledge that this first copy will need to be fixed. It will need work before it’s ready to fly. Don’t worry about getting every word, every scene perfect the first time through. That mindset won’t get your book finished. Give yourself permission to not be perfect, to sometimes write badly. It’s a given that after you finish the story, you’ll go back and edit those first chapters anyway because by then you’ll know your characters inside and out. You’ll know what they’d do and how they’d react to situations far better than you did when you first started the book.
Nora Roberts, who has published more than two hundred full-length novels, the majority of which have made the New York Times Bestseller list, says, and this is paraphrased but close enough, “You can fix a bad page. You can’t fix a blank page.”
And she’s right. The first draft doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. It doesn’t even have to be particularly good. It can always be fixed. So turn off the editor and let the creative side of the brain have free rein that first time through, regardless of what you’re writing. Stop over-thinking the story and just write. Grammar? Forget about it. Punctuation? Who cares? This is about getting the story out of your head and onto the paper or computer screen. This is the truly creative part. Have fun with it.
Tune out the rest of the world. If you need M&Ms, Peppermint Patties, country or classical music gather it together before you sit down at the computer. Do not allow yourself to be sidetracked. Buy yourself a digital timer. There are some really inexpensive ones out there. Set it for an hour minimal. Your butt doesn’t leave that chair till it goes off. Then, get up, move around, raid the fridge for another diet Coke, and head back to your chair. Back to the world and characters you’re creating. Lose yourself to them.
Don’t fret the small details. Not sure what the temperature is in Austin during the month of May? Can’t remember who sang “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”? Type in double asterisks. When you reach the end of your story, go to “find” and locate these. Do your research and fill in the blanks.
Occasionally, a fact is integral to your story. You need it before you can continue. Go to the internet for that alone. Get in. Get out. If you allow yourself to travel to the web every time a question pops up, chances are great you’ll get sucked in. Think “‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the Spider to the Fly.” Chances are good something else will catch your attention or you’ll decide to read your email and, before you know it, thirty minutes, sixty minutes or more have flown by. Your story? Well, it’s right where you left it. No advanced movement. The internet, while a writer’s best friend, can become a huge time-waster. Hold off on as much as you can, then set aside one day to just dive into it.
If I had one caveat for beginning writers, it would be this: Don’t catch contestitis. What? Contestitis? Yes. Entering contest after contest after contest. Contests are an excellent tool, a wonderful way to garner feedback for your work. The problem comes when authors polish those first few chapters till they shine, then polish them some more with each round of critiques from contest judges. They never move past those pages, never finish the book…and that won’t get them published. Yes, those first pages, those first chapters are crucial. They are what captures an agent’s, an editor’s, and, ultimately, a reader’s attention. But there needs to be “the rest of the story”.
Something I’ve learned? Once you finish that first draft, once you type “the end”, do not send it off to an agent or editor yet. It’s not ready. Like a little child who’s been playing in a mud puddle, the manuscript needs cleaned up. Now is the time to bring in the editor part of the brain.
Don’t start revision right away, though. Let the story rest for a bit. Use this time to do the things you’ve neglected. Cook an actual meal for your family, clean the house, catch-up with the pile of laundry that’s accumulated.
You’ll be amazed at how much this helps. You’ll return to your story with fresh eyes and an uncluttered mind. As you read through your draft, there will be moments of greatness. Moments when you’ll think, “I wrote that? Seriously? Wow.” There will also be sections that, well, stink. Those you’ll fix—in the second, third, and fourth passes. You’ll add layers, depth, check grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Even the greatest literary masters don’t get it right the first time through, so how can we, mere mortals, expect to? The first draft is only that. The first draft. A beginning.
Whatever else you do, when you finish that first draft, take time to celebrate! You’ve done it. You’ve written a book.
The luxury of staying home when the weather turns nasty, of working in PJs and bare feet, and the fact that daydreaming is not only permissible but encouraged, are a few of the reasons middle school teacher Lynnette Hallberg gave up the classroom to write full-time.
Lynnette grew up in Pennsylvania’s Alleghany Mountains, moved to Upstate New York, then to the Rockies in Wyoming. Presently she and her husband divide their time between Southwest Florida’s beaches and Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. A finalist in RWA’s Golden Heart Contest, PASIC’s Book of Your Heart Contest, and Georgia Romance Writers’ Maggie Contest, she’s published five books as Lynnette Hallberg.
She’s currently writing as Lynnette Austin for Grand Central Publishing. Somebody Like You, Nearest Thing to Heaven, and Can’t Stop Lovin’ You are the first three books in her Maverick Junction series, contemporary romances set in Texas.
Which comes first? The cowboy or the Big Apple? CAN’T STOP LOVIN’ YOU pits handsome veterinarian Brawley Odell against hometown girl Maggie Sullivan. Maggie views the invitation to design heiress Annelise Montjoy’s wedding gown as her golden ticket out of Maverick Junction, Texas. At every turn, though, she bumps into Brawley, her high school sweetheart. He’d left her for college and a career in Dallas. But, now, country right down to the tips of his cowboy boots, he’s returned to take over old Doc Gibson’s practice while Maggie dreams of escape to New York City’s fashion district. Brawley’s never stopped loving Maggie. Can he talk her into hanging around long enough to give him a second chance? Long enough to talk her into designing a dress for her own wedding-to him?
Somebody Like You, Nearest Thing to Heaven, and Can’t Stop Lovin’ You are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble in print and digital versions.