The Job of a First Draft

The dreaded start of a project. It's stopped many a creator in their tracks. The blank new beginning and trying to find the correct way to begin can be paralyzing. Well, I'm here to help with that and help you put your start into perspective. I have advice that has been given to me, tricks I follow myself, and an uncomfortable truth that will (hopefully) make your first drafts more exciting for you. I am a writer, but I think you'll find that many of these tips can be applied to other forms of media.

What is a First Draft?

Okay, we know what it is. By definition we all know what a first draft is. What you might not know is that if you consult the dictionary you won't reach anything to do with creating until around the fifth variant for the word. It is defined as "a preliminary sketch, outline, or version." It's, and say it with me now, a...first...outline. It isn't going to hop out into the world and tell everyone that you can't spell "bureau" for the life of you. It doesn't care that you need to look up where a semicolon goes or that you had to google what a bird looks like or doubled checked the spelling of cat.

Think of it as a pile of dirt. Now in that dirt you can do anything you need. You can plant ideas, you can turn it into clay and mold it, or you can start mining for gems. Whatever image helps you in the way you work or write is fine. No matter what you do though, it is still dirt. It is rough and unfinished and not very good on a dinner table. No matter what, your first draft is still based in dirt. That's fine. It'll get harvested or baked or left to go forge the metals or cut the gems you started when you go back into it to edit.

Think of it as a place to organize and flesh out your ideas with a certain level of chronological order. That said, don't be afraid to jump to the things that you want to write. You can reorder it later. Leave yourself notes and keep moving. Do not stop and do not go back to edit. Keep pushing forward until you reach the end and then let it sit for a bit. Give yourself a bit of time, about a month, before going back into the fray in earnest and fighting through your notes and missed scenes to fill in the gaps and reorganize your plot. Trust me. Keep going. If there's an issue or a major plot hole just leave a note and go. You are suddenly interested in the jackalope that trotted through the field even though it has about nothing to do with your plot? Excellent. Go spend some time with it. You might just find a plot point or bit of character development.

I got through my whole first draft before I realized that my protagonist never found the body of her team member that was murdered at the start. She just...magically knew it throughout the rest of the story despite never encountering it. I mischaracterized her, I forgot to include anything at all about her former partner, and flat out had notes that said "fill in chase scene here" because I couldn't be arsed to deal with it and because I didn't know about some of the things yet and had to come back and build them. It's fine. I came out of it with a manuscript. Admittedly, it reads like something that lost a battle with a lawn mower after being power washed through the upstairs window of a burning house, but it's done and now I've been able to work on getting it in order. A publisher or reader does not see your first draft. They just don't, and you are the only one that has to know just how rough your rough draft was.

A Rough Beginning

We've had it drilled into us again and again that our first few seconds of a piece of content matters the most. Whether you're writing, drawing, making a film, or designing a garment your first impressions are everything. Yes. In your final draft that is true. If it gets you writing start wherever you need to. I don't care if you have to start with a knock knock joke or start in the middle of a sentence. You might realize that you started in the middle and need to back track or that you started waaaay before the actual story as a while. That's all fine. Just start.

I honestly usually start with a throw away line or a quote from a story or poem with a similar feeling to what I'm trying to accomplish. Starting with dialogue is another way to stop worrying and connect with your character immediately. One of my friends seriously writes "Starting sentence here" and then starts with their second sentence. Sometimes that second sentence actually becomes the first sentence and sometimes it really is a later sentence. I don't care if you have to write the word "penis" ten times to psych yourself up. Just. Start. For crying out loud I can't read your story if you never start it.

Any Tips Before I Set Off?

Absolutely! Trust your project and your instincts on your first draft. You might not know why you're doing what you're doing or not know where the answer to your quest is, and that's fine. Peter Beagle got through all of The Last Unicorn without knowing where the unicorns were until the very last moment. It's okay to feel lost in your first draft or not know how to really explain your gadgets or magic. Use it and get used to it and the more you talk about it the more answers will come. Don't be afraid to write pages and pages of mundane uninteresting things for your characters to interact with. It will help you understand how they'll act when things really go wrong.

If you prefer to write action write your fights and chases first and come back to fill in the calmer bits to connect them. You'll start to get a sense of what connects it as you move on. Trust me, it's hard to stick to just one type of scene over and over. Heck, start thinking about your characters in different settings that they might not normally encounter in the first place. It can give you a good idea of what is and isn't malleable about them and what really drives them. How much of them is circumstance and how much is their indelible personality? I can't say this one enough either. Do. Not. Go. Back. You will get caught up and bogged down in the detail and minutia of creating a world and you do not have time for that in a draft. Sprint through it like you're being chased and deal with the consequences later. Kill your protagonist and pick up a new one if you have to. I believe in you. Now run.

Hey folks, my name is Bailey and I’m part of the staff here at Nerdolopedia. You can find me pretty much anywhere online. I’m most active on tumblr, twitter, and our discord. Be sure to leave comments and questions for me. I’m more than happy to offer advice if you aren’t sure how to word things with your DM or players! Have you ever had a tricky situation like any of the ones mentioned? Let us know how you handled it in the comments.