I always struggle to find balance when I write a first draft. I’m either tweaking adjectives and commas so obsessively that I fail to move forward, or I’m plowing ahead so blindly that I write myself into a complete mess of poor pacing, character inconsistencies, plot holes, the works.
I think many writers fight this battle. We know rewriting a single paragraph seventeen times won’t help us finish the draft, so we plow onward. We know first drafts are messy — always! — but we still want to give ourselves sturdy building blocks to revise, hence the need to noodle and tweak. It’s quite the conundrum. So what’s a writer to do?
I have a little approach I’ve been using for my last two books (TAKEN, and its sequel) that’s been working pretty well.
You know that saying, “One step forward, two steps back,” insinuating that progress can never be made? Well, this is sort of the opposite. Let’s talk about taking ONE step back, and TWO steps forward.
Every time I sit down to draft, the first thing I do is take a step back. I review the words before the blank page–not all of them, usually just a chapter or two. I let myself tweak things that feel unnatural, but I try not to obsess. I rewrite anything unclear. I make sure the character’s motives, feelings, reactions all seem natural and believable. I double check pacing. I flesh out anything flat and lacking (usually setting). By the time I reach the blank page, I’m so rooted in where I left off, that moving forward is easy. (Actually, who am I kidding. It’s never easy, but it’s easier than if I’d just sat down to face the blank page from the start.)
Then I draft. This is the two steps forward part. I get down some new words. I don’t worry about anything but making progress. I work towards reaching The End, and I write until I lose steam. Then I close my laptop and walk away.
I repeat the whole thing the next time I sit down, reviewing and tweaking the most recent of words before moving ahead to write new ones.
For me, refining as I move forward is critical. The moment I lose faith or confidence in my novel is always the moment I stall. Usually it’s because of something relatively minor. Big Event happened in chapter 8, when it should have happened in chapter 6. The main character said X when he should have said Y. These things eat away at me unless I fix them. Sure, I could fix them in revisions, too, but when I feel something is off, I like to address it upfront rather than waiting for later. Knowing I have a clean-ish mess to deal with in revisions is more reassuring for me than knowing I have a massive mess.
Sometimes stepping back is necessary to move forward. It’s such a simple concept, and an easy one forget during the mad dash to reach The End.
It goes without saying that works for me will not work for everyone. Even still, the next time you find yourself hitting a wall in your draft, or doubting your words, it may be worth trying this little one step back, two steps forward dance. I’m a big fan.
Now tell me: How do you tackle first drafts? Do you step back often? Do you plow ahead? There’s no right or wrong answer, and that’s the best part about writing—it’s a highly individual and personal process!