Friday Morning, 32°F and foggy
Listening to ELP, Rondo Pt. 3 at The Lycium

I was hanging out on a writers forum when someone complained about struggling with how to begin their first draft of a novel. “I just can’t get it started. Nothing sounds right.”

The experienced writers were quick to weigh in with  “just write it,” “don’t worry if your first draft is crap,” and Hemmingway’s assertion: “all first drafts are shit.” This is 100% correct. But only helpful if you understand why you need to just write go ahead and write your novel, and what purpose that serves.

The reason we say “just write it” is that if you’re struggling with where to begin, what you really need is to get out of your own way. Quit worrying about whether you’re starting in exactly the right spot, what it sounds like, how it flows or (worst of all) what people are going to think when they read it. If you’re smart, nobody is going to read your first draft. You’re going to revise and polish a second draft (at the very least) before you let another set of eyes on it.

Your first draft is your most important 

Wait, what? Don’t let this fact intimidate you. Your first draft is the most important because without completing it you will never write the second, third, fourth or fifth draft you need to polish your manuscript to the point of publishability. Many if not most authors throw away far more words than they ever publish. This is especially true with the words we write when we’re first starting out as novelists. So get to work on that first draft, and quit worrying about starting in the exact right place (you won’t) or making it perfect right out of the gate (it won’t be).

There’s this dumb idea that would-be writers get, that the ability to write well is something you either have or you don’t have. It’s not true. You can no more sit down and write a perfectly engaging novel the first time you try than you can sit down a knit a perfectly beautiful and flawless sweater the first time you pick up a set of knitting needles and a skein of yarn. Whether you’re knitting or writing, there is a learning curve that nobody gets to skip.

The more you write, the better you get at it, and the better you get at it, the more you’ll want to write. Thinking you can produce a great novel on your first try because you read and enjoy great novels is like thinking you can knit a beautiful sweater on your first try because you buy and wear beautiful sweaters. The truth is, you’re never going knit a beautiful sweater until you’ve knitted a lot of ugly ones, and unraveled thousands of bad stitches, and allowed yourself to make mistakes, and learned to fix them.

Murder Your Darlings

The best thing I’ve ever done for my writing? Learn to be unflinching about throwing out anything that doesn’t serve the story. Or unraveling the story back to the point where it started to suck. This is what people mean when they say “murder your darlings.” I have deleted whole chapters, scenes, descriptions, strings of great dialogue, and even solid characters that I’ve absolutely loved. Just because something is beautifully written, gut-wrenching, unforgettable or hilarious doesn’t mean it serves the story.

Unless you’re one of those planners who pre-plan every scene before you begin writing, you may not even be sure what your story really is until you’ve written it a few times. And that’s fine as long as you stop worrying about the perfect opening sentence and get writing.

Over the various incarnations of State of Love & Trust, here’s some darlings I murdered:

  • I got rid of one main character’s entire point of view and demoted her to a secondary character.
  • I promoted a different (much more interesting) secondary character to a main character.
  • I took a really minor character and turned him into a major character.
  • I got rid of two well-written and well-rounded secondary characters.
  • I fleshed out another minor character because doing so better characterized her former lover (a main character).
  • I relegated one of the main settings (a place I’d researched heavily) to a setting that is visited only briefly.
  • I rewrote a frustrating main character to be more relatable.
  • I rewrote a “too nice character” character to give her some backbone and bite.
  • I rewrote a threatening character to provide comic relief (a role that suited him better).
  • I cut out a detailed scene that was subtle, evocative, and emotionally wrenching because it didn’t serve the story.
  • I took the story from a third person narrative told from the points of view of Characters A and B, to a first-person narrative from the point of view of Character C and third-person point of view of Character A, to a first-person narrative from Characters A and C. (Character B was the demoted main character.)

Now granted, that’s extreme. But it started out as my first novel and I had a lot of learning to do. In the interim, I wrote several other novels, always returning to State of Love & Trust armed with what I’d learned along the way. The key is, I could end every last one of those bullet points with “because it served the story.”

I lost track of how many drafts I wrote of SOLAT over the years. What I’m certain of is that the story got stronger every time I revised it.

You have to be willing to write, explore, question, cut, change and revise until the only things left are the characters, situations, scenes, settings, narrative and points of view that serve the story. You will never get down to any of that while staring at a blinking cursor worrying that you’re not starting your unwritten novel in exactly the right spot, with just the right words.

You don’t have the right words yet. Get comfortable with beginning with the wrong ones, then start writing.

If you’re still stuck, deliberately begin with the wrong words. “Nobody gives a crap. No one is ever going to see this but me. The hell with it. This is what happened …” then begin. Don’t worry whether it’s too early or too late, or whether your deathless prose will make your dream agent swoon.

You can figure all of that out sometime after you’ve completed the first draft.



CC0 public domain image by Oadtz via Pixabay.