First draft doldrums

To those many aspiring writers who are currently struggling with their first draft – take a moment. Writing fiction is a complicated task of plate-spinning while juggling balls, and breakages (and impasses) happen. It’s part of the deal.

A number of my students right now are frustrated with where they’re at with their manuscript as they come to realise that they need to go back to rework narrative, character development/motivation, or situation. That’s part of the deal, too.

For writers on their first draft, having an outline, or at least a map of what’s going to happen in the manuscript, is a sensible plan. You will deviate from it, and you should – that’s all about getting to know your characters better through the writing and for them to become more actively engaged in their own fate rather than simply being pawns moved around the page.

But many established writers decry the idea of outlines or plans in general insisting you ‘let it take you where it will’ or to ‘just get on with the writing’. That might work for some but clearly not for all. And there isn't a one size fits all answer to this.

There are tens of thousands of books available on how to become a good writer. Some of them are good, even amusing; most of them are confusing. Without question the best thing you can do for your writing is to become a good reader – read widely, across genres, and pay attention; and for your masterclasses revisit the classics.

For those of you who are struggling with plot right now, I recommend paying some attention to Stephen King, whose On Writing remains my go-to how-to book. He writes:

‘In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.’

He then goes on to say how he largely avoids plot.

‘I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story …

‘The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.’

Ergo, don’t be afraid to let things happen.

In respect to writing on the line and learning more on how to build this world from your imagination I highly recommend writing tips from three masters: Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell. And do invest in a copy of Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style.

There are of course, innumerable other authors words to choose from, but a few judicious guiding tips together with the library of books now stored in your head should help you find your way out of the labyrinth.

Good luck.

Oh, and apologies for the lengthy absence – it’s been a long winter of convalescence.