First Drafts-The Secret Ingredient

Some people see first drafts as the writer’s playground. No limits. No rules. Just a beautiful mess of semi-organized chaos. But first drafts terrify me. Sure I just blogged about keeping the faith; about how remembering that I’ve done it before is the secret to doing it again. But that’s the secret to all creative work. And that feeling can sometimes be hard to hold onto when you haven’t started something new in a few months.

But when it comes to first drafts there’s another means of conquering the blank page. See first drafts aren’t just a playground. They’re a desolate field ready for sowing. They’re a workshop. They’re an experiment. And they’re not about getting everything right on the first try. Or even most everything. The only thing you truly need to capture is the sentiment.

Emotions. That’s all you need. Because that’s the hardest part. Writing a book isn’t about constructing scenes, it’s about capturing moments. It’s not enough to just ask yourself what happens, but how do my characters feel about what happened? And more importantly how do I want the reader to feel about what happened? And maybe you don’t even know why or how but that can wait until rewrites.

So when I’m faced with a section that just totally stumps me–an action scene or maybe just a really important conversation–I don’t have to sit there mulling over the mechanics. All I need is one paragraph, one sentence, one word even. Love. Fear. Guilt. And that’s enough. Capturing the sentiment is enough because capturing the sentiment is everything. It’s the secret ingredient to conquering a first draft and it’s the secret ingredient to telling great stories.


16 thoughts on “First Drafts-The Secret Ingredient

  1. I think you captured the sentiment perfectly. It is about emotion! When I have to move on from a scene because I can’t quite find the words, I make sure I write a note about what the feeling is supposed to be. Hopefully, when I read back over it later, the words will come to me.

    • Sometimes things just need to simmer, but at least knowing your intent from the beginning will help the pieces fall into place later. Because once you’ve captured the right emotions, you’ve already conquered the most important part.

  2. If you have the emotion right in the first draft the rest will be window dressing – hard work without a doubt – but who’s afraid of hard work. Way more terrified of the blank page.

    • As long as you know your intent, the page isn’t really blank. The story’s there–distilled to the most essential emotions–it’s just up to us to get it down…somehow. That part is always easier said than done, but at least emotions give us a crucial starting point.

    • So glad it helped! I recently started the first draft of a new project and was feeling overwhelmed. I’ve always been a “pantser” but this will be the first sequel I’ve ever written meaning knowing the plot beforehand was more important this time. But when I couldn’t think of a way to start, I decided to try just writing one word, one moment at a time, focusing only on what I wanted my characters to be feeling. That seemed to help and now I have a solid first chapter to propel the rest of the story.

      • That’s awesome 🙂 I’m a ‘pantser’ as well so I totally understand how hard it can be to find motivation to work on something that’s already, in a sense, ‘done’, to find out where you, the writer, are supposed to have room to work in with a more rigid structure. And also how powerful it can be to just start with one word sometimes. Best of luck with your draft!

        • Thank you. I’m planning to jump back into it at the end of August and in the meantime I’ll be editing–another beast in and of itself. But in a sense, the same rules apply. I’ll just have to take a deep breath and tackle it one word at a time!

  3. Just love this post. I think these are things I needed to “hear” (read?) … and also things I need to keep in mind for myself. I’ve been stymied by my first drafts for longer than I would like to admit. Somehow, I find myself terrified of them … so afraid I’ll “mess everything up”. I need to loosen up and get over it, though. Thanks for the reminder!

    • I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I’ll feel so intimidated that I’ll do anything to avoid working. Once I start trying to find things to clean that’s when I know there’s a problem. But once I shifted my focus from plotting to just capturing what I wanted my characters to be feeling in that first chapter, it started to flow a lot more smoothly. Hope this helps!!

  4. This is so helpful to me right now. I’m in the middle of a first draft and getting panicked that I can’t pull it off. On the bright side, the only thing I’m pretty confident I’m getting right is the tone and emotion, so maybe I’m not in such a bad place after all.

    • If you’ve got the right sentiment, you’ve conquered the most important part. I constantly have to remind myself to slow down and stop trying to see a first draft in terms of the big picture. That’s when I start to feel overwhelmed. But if I just remind myself to tackle it one word, one moment at a time, then it feels a lot more manageable. And if I do screw up, I can always go back and try again. The good news is there is no one looking over my shoulder and my self-imposed deadlines can always be adjusted if need be. First drafts aren’t meant to be read, they’re meant to be emotional roadmaps for the next round of revisions.

      • I like that–“emotional roadmaps.” It’s true, too. I’m also revising a ms right now, and this is about the 8th time. Fewer than half of the words in the first draft still remain, but the tone and voice have stayed the same.

        • That sounds like my first book. It went through so many revisions that the final product looked nothing like what I’d originally plotted in my head–but at its emotional core everything else was the same. That’s also the problem with a YA project I’m working on right now. I hate everything about it except the sentimentality haha. Maybe that’s just because I’ve read it too many times. Or because I’m not used to writing YA. But for some reason I can never abandon something I feel has powerful emotional resonance even if the rest of it’s a mess.

  5. Great post … When emotion and character are in place, driving the narrative, planting those tonal roadsigns for yourself is a really good idea. Thanks for posting 🙂

  6. Thanks!! Emotion really is everything. And having those things in place guarantees not only a source of connection for the reader but a catalyst for conflict that will, in turn, push the plot forward.

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