Monday, July 19, 2021

Getting Past the First Page

Beginning writers are always asking me about getting started on the first draft of their book. Starting to write can be such an overwhelming process, and that first draft can seem like a very high mountain to climb. Thirty thousand words? Sixty thousand? How about writing a hundred thousand? At times like this, that first draft can appear to be an insurmountable problem. Even with the most detailed outline, a writer might worry or obsess with that first line of a book.

 To me that opening line can become a real issue. Staring at that blank sheet of paper or empty page on your computer can be overwhelming. When I first began writing news stories many years ago, that first page problem was really problematic. I can still remember being so frightened of writing that first news story. It was a simple story – a college spring graduation. I can’t remember what I wrote that day, but I do remember it seemed an overwhelming task because I knew thousands of people were going to hear that story as read by the anchorman. Even worse, I knew I didn’t have endless hours to get it just right.

 Over time I got over that fear, and now, sitting down at the keyboard and getting started with just a few ideas has become so much easier. I realized that the best way to get started is to … well… get started. Get those first words on the page and the next will come, and the next and the next. In these days of computers, it is easy to fix those first lines later. Back in that story about my first story, if we were writing directly onto a script page, fixing that page was not that easy. It usually meant starting over on a fresh page of script… which in those days was five pages with carbons…  

 Now the advice I give to beginning writers is to just type up those first lines.  Now they can be fixed and often times I find myself doing just that. But the story is never going to be written if you spend too much time trying to get that first line just right. You might even find that the perfect line will come to you once you get the entire first chapter written.

The perfect first line might also come as you are plotting the book and be ready to write it down if it comes to you. I always recommend that writers keep a pen and paper hand to write down ideas, and these days, getting that first line can be as easy as tapping the words into the notes section of your phone or recording them.

If they don’t  come immediately, look to your characters. What are they going to be doing on the day that changes their lives and thrusts them into your story? What is happening around them/

Keep that first line in mind as you are plotting or as you develop your characters. What is the beginning action point that begins the story. Also keep in mind that the words you write down for that first page can be changed later. You’re not going directly to air, as some of my stories often did. Having that happen day after day resolved my fear that the first line might not be perfect.

Get down what you think is good and then if you need to fix it, know that you have the luxury of fixing it later. The point is to get started writing!! Right now I have just started writing the second book in what I call my "Blues" series, featuring a television anchorwoman who had to solve a crime to save her life and her career in the first book. Now she is coming back and having to save a friend who goes missing. Part of the fun of writing this book has been just letting go and that is the fun part of writing the first draft where you can do just about whatever you want.

The first draft can be as detailed or as sparse as you want it. Ask around and authors will give you a variety of different ideas on how they write their first draft. Some will want it as detailed as possible. As I’ve written in previous classes, some authors like Suzanne Brockman consider their detailed outline as their first draft.

Others turn in their first draft as the finished product. Again, look for what works best for you and then write it that way.

Here are some things you do want to set up in your first draft:

1. Characters -- give as much detail as you can. Keep in mind you can always remove things or move them around and place them later in the story.  I always name all my characters, even the minor ones with the idea that I can change their names later if I don’t like them. If you’ve done your story charts you should have a good idea of who your characters are by now and  they might surprise you as they begin to take shape in story form.

2. Setting -- provide a good idea of where and when your story is taking place. Again you can go back later and use that to give you an idea of what you want to include in your story. This is especially true if you are writing fantasy. You will need to provide a good picture of the world your characters inhabit. If you include some of that detail in your first draft you can always look for ways later to spread out the description over pages so that it doesn’t all come at once in one big information dump.

3. Premise -- you do want to get the story problem introduced early in the story so look for ways to do that in your first draft. Again, you can fix details or move things around later as long as you begin to define what your story is about. If you have written up your plot with plot points, an outline or story board, or even have a general idea of where you’re going, you should be able to bring it into play to get the story going.

If you do have a detailed outline, you might even want to begin with that and then just expand it, just as Suzanne Brockman does. As I’m mentioned before, you might also start with your plot points and then write the scenes around each of them and start stringing them together or do the same with chapters.

Those are the things you need to look to include in your first draft. What don’t you need to worry about:

1. Don’t worry if your first draft is not complete or if you don’t include things. If you get toward the middle and you realize there were story plot lines or elements you should have placed up higher, you can always make notes to include those things or scenes in editing. Sometimes I keep a separate word file where I’ll make a point of things to fix in the re-write or second draft. 

2. Don’t even worry about your spelling on that first draft. Again, you can always run spell check later.

3. Don’t worry about coming up with just the right phrase or perfect metaphor. That is what editing is for. Again, you can spend time thinking things through during the re-write or edit. Sometimes I find myself surprised at how well written some of the sentences are in my first draft. Other times I cringe -- did I really say that?

4. Don’t worry about showing this first draft to anyone--whether it be a critique group, your husband/wife, mother or sister/brother. You can, of course, but keep in mind, it is a rough draft, meant to be fixed. Don’t take their criticism as a death knell to your work.

5. Don’t worry about how long it takes you. Some writers can churn out ten to 20 pages a day. Others struggle to get one done. Again, keep writing. It’s the only way you will get the story on paper.

6. Don’t worry that it sounds just like that last story you wrote, or if you’re re-using phrases that you loved so much last time. Again, this is what editing is for.

7. Don’t obsess on page or word counts. As I noted before, some writers are faster than others. The point is to keep going. You may also find that some days you too can turn out huge amounts. On other days you might have to pull the words out of your pocket!

8. Don’t keep revising and revising. Yes, sometimes it pays to go back through the last five pages when you start out the next day, but read them over and make minimal changes. Use that read over to re-acquaint yourself with where you are going. What you don’t want to do is get fixated on “fixing” those pages. It can cost you your spontaneity and you’ll find yourself constantly re-writing instead of moving forward.

And while we’re discussing writing and re-writing, let me bring up another trap many beginning writers fall into in writing the first draft -- don't get hung up on word counts!

Also, don't get fall into the trap of writing only to win contests. One of my writing friends had a thing about entering contests. As a result she had her book outlined and a synopsis written, but she didn’t go much beyond writing the first three chapters. She kept rewriting them to get them perfect in order to win or final in a contest. Then when she would get feedback from the judges, she would rewrite those chapters again and re-submit to more contests. In the end, she finally gave up trying to write a novel because she could never finish the book. However she did final in numerous contests. She even won a few.

Another friend (who did eventually get published) kept rewriting her first three chapters to submit to agents and editors. She did the same process as the above friend who was entering the contests. She would receive feedback and then try to re-write to the agent or editor recommendations (when she got them -- most of the time she simply got rejections). Luckily she did keep improving her writing and in the end she didn’t complete her novel until someone asked for the full manuscript. Then she wrote that first draft in two months. Of course it was rejected, but she had a finished product and then she was able to edit and eventually sell it.

Don’t let yourself get caught in that situation. It’s wonderful to polish those first three chapters for contests or to submit, but don’t get fixated on them. The morale of both these stories is that contests and submissions are great, but you won’t get published until you have a full book to offer and that is where first drafts come in. A first draft is still a full book and a starting point. 

In the long run, the goal is to keep working and get the job done. You'll reach your final goal of finishing the book and be ready to begin submitting or sent to an editor if you are going to publish yourself. No matter what, keep going!

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