HOW WRITING A FIRST DRAFT IS LIKE CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN
How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. How do you write a first draft? One page at a time.
Of course it's not that easy, but writing it one page at a time is a good way to turn that mountain of a novel into something less intimidating.
Here are some tips:
1. Give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft. We've all heard that advice, but at the same time there's a balance between expelling garbage and rewriting the same paragraph fifteen times before you move onto the next. As my mother used to say, "Just do your best." Don't overthink every word, and DON'T keep rewriting the beginning over and over before you finish the first draft.
2. Let the prose flow. It's a rare writer who doesn't have a critic on his shoulder, but try to ignore it. Tell yourself these words aren't written in stone. They can always be changed.
3. Protect your seedlings. Deb Caletti, a friend and a National Book Award finalist, once said we need to think of our novels as seedlings in a garden. We wouldn't allow someone to stomp on our tender plants before they've had a chance to grow and develop. We should be just as cautious with our early drafts.
Which brings us to another question. Should you show first draft material to your critique group?
That depends. Is your critique group supportive and helpful or do they always try to find something to bash or nitpick? Do they try to turn your romance novel into a thriller or a mystery? Do you walk out of the room feeling stopped? Do you get so many different opinions you no longer know which one is right? Avoid negative critique groups and writing instructors who belittle you. Trust your instincts.
I was fortunate enough in the beginning to belong to a group of intelligent writers who inspired me and gave me good, honest advice. I walked out of the room feeling I could make my novel better. Find a group like that, or if you like the members of your group but they're chronically negative, talk to them about being more encouraging. They may not be aware their comments are demoralizing. Simply rephrasing them from "this stinks" to "I think the book would be better if...." may solve the problem.
4. A benefit of freeing yourself from first draft criticism is finding your own "narrative voice," that distinctive writing and storytelling style that makes you unique. Many writers begin by emulating a famous author. I once interviewed a college professor who won a major prize in poetry. When I asked how his poetry had changed over the years, he said early on he had tried to imitate British poets, but over time and with practice he developed his own voice. That's when he won the award.
5. What to do if that first blank page paralyzes you. I tend to see my story unspooling like scenes from a movie. The most dramatic ones may occur later in my novel, but that doesn't mean I can't write them first. When I wrote The Starlite Drive-in, a story about a woman who confined herself to her house for five years, I visualized the scene in which her lover leads her outside into the lush, fragrant grass of freedom. So I wrote that scene first. Later, when I incorporated it into the plot, I made a few small changes, but the imagery and my feelings stayed the same. If you're having trouble getting started, consider finding the dramatic scene that most inspires you.
Yes, it's hard to climb that mountain, but what an amazing view from the top.