Writing and You: A Field Guide – Before the First Draft

I feel obliged to open this post with a small disclaimer. 

I have resisted blogging about the writing process here. This was partly because I wanted to let the site take shape a bit before I started on any running projects, but mostly because I was concerned about looking presumptuous. Stephen King published his first novel in 1974, he published his exploration of the writing process 26 years later. And I am not Stephen King. I don’t want to sell myself as a more talented, more accomplished writer than I actually am, and so this series of posts will not be an expert’s masterclass. Instead, I’d just like to talk casually about where I am and what I’ve learned in a way that might help others. 

Before the First Draft.

I have never been much of a planner. For a long time I assumed fiction was written in the same way it was read; the writer begun with the first sentence and then worked their way to the last until the book was done. The world is full of people who begin stories but don’t finish them; I’m sure that half completed novels outnumber the completed by a hundred to one because people don’t plan. The problem with writing on the fly is that it’s too easy to write yourself into an awkward corner. Your story might take an unexpected twist that you just can’t reverse out of. Even worse, you might pace things wrong and arrive at your conclusion far too early. It’s not impossible, but it usually makes a sloppy first draft and leaves a lot more to be ironed out later.

Part of the problem is that we begin writing with only half formed concepts. You see writers who can talk for hours when asked “what is your book about?” Unfortunately, they seem to clam up when you ask them “what happens?” Often our ideas will come in the sort of spoiler free blurbs you’ll see in the Radio Times, high concept summaries that don’t really constitute a narrative. Take Jurassic Park as an example. (I will assume you’ve seen it. If you’re worried about spoilers, tough. You’ve had twenty years to seem the film.) Everyone knows what Jurassic Park is about.  If you ask people, you’ll probably get an answer like “There’s a theme park with cloned dinosaurs, then they escape and try to eat people.” That’s a pretty good blurb, it tells you what the film is going to be about without giving away plot details. In other words, that’s a summary for an audience, not for a writer. It tells you nothing about the narrative thread that travels from two palaeontologists being recruited to inspect that island and the circumstances that lead to them evacuating in a helicopter at the end.

To use an example from my own work, the initial premise of my story Time Trial was “time travellers arrive in a place where time travel is illegal.” This premise was enough to get the ball rolling, but to write the story I needed a much more developed idea of who the protagonists were and what would happen to them by the end of the story. (I’m not going to spoil this one as it has a much smaller audience than Jurassic Park.)

I am still not much of a planner. I don’t have the patience to sit and plan a novel in minute detail. Even if I did, I find the results to be sterile and lacking in tension. However, I’ve seen enough good ideas get written, seat of the pants style, into a disappointing stagnation that I’ve learned to do a bit of basic idea development before putting pen to paper. This doesn’t involve much, just making sure I have a basic idea of beginning, middle and end. Most of the time, things will change as they go, but having that vague outline to hold onto keeps the work ticking along nicely and makes the results much smoother.

  • The first time I attempted writing a novel I had no planning. I knew how it was going to begin of course, and what I wanted to explore but I hit a brick wall early on. I think I ended up writing like two maybe three full chapters that I might have saved on a floppy disc (that’s how long ago this was). Next time I planned a little but I got bored with planning quickly and started the writing, I made it 8k in, about as far as my outline had gone in detail before I lost steam.
    With short stories I find I only need a general outline, but with something like a novel I think a good outline is necessary. And it doesn’t take out spontaneity because you can always change you outline as you write if you find something better along the way.