The First Draft

Image: Longhand pagesThere are many ways to start writing a book, both fiction and non-fiction. Without a first draft, you don’t have a book, just an idea. But a completed first draft is just that – a beginning and not an end.

Whether you sit down and start at the beginning and just write down whatever comes from your stream of consciousness, or you carefully plan and outline the whole thing from beginning to end, whatever gets you started has value.

Some authors of fiction start with an idea or a scenario, get that down then see where it goes. Some know exactly how the story ends, but not how it gets there. Others have the complete story arc mapped out in five acts – in their head, in a notebook or on a collection of post-it notes stuck to the spare room wall.

There’s no wrong or right way to start, so long as you start. But we can’t help thinking that at some point, unless you happen to be some kind of savant, you’re going to have to take stock and plan the completion of the first draft.

You might have key scenes or whole chapters, but the odds of starting at chapter one and simply ploughing through to the final chapter in a linear fashion is remote. Most of us simply don’t write that way.

For non-fiction, planning ahead is a major plus. Take a history book for example; an outline of the content would include the period to be covered, background, major incidents, key players, outcomes and consequences. Structure is key to the argument or focus of the text and whether this is a detailed examination of a set of events or persons, or a broad-brush overview of a particular period. It might follow themes rather than a linear narrative, in which case planning the connection of roots and branches within the a non-linear text is even more important.

History and educational texts may be the lucky inheritors of a tried and trusted syllabus, particularly if the author is a practising teacher, lecturer, researcher or even sports coach, writing around or drilling into their specialist subject.

Journalists often turn existing material into full manuscripts, or have the tools to go research new material in the course of writing.

All of these authors are used to working within established disciplines to turn facts into text, present an argument or describe real-world techniques.

Authors of fiction often have a harder time – unless you’re a former soldier/spy/diplomat/scientist/lawyer/policeman able to turn prior experience into detailed fictionalised plots.

For the rest of us, there’s the whole other realm of research and world-building.

The term world-building is usually applied to science fiction and fantasy, where the requirement these days is to establish an internally-consistent set of rules for the fictional world, be it magic, faster-than-light travel, religions, or planetary eco-systems. Throw a bunch of generic genre tropes against the wall and you’re likely to be scorned by critics and genre fans alike.

However, genre fiction is now full of specialist sub-genres where fuzzy broad-brush writing just doesn’t cut it, from crime to espionage to historical to steam-punk. If you’re relying on the detail of an autopsy, quantum physics, Napoleonic artillery, or the Tudor court to deliver key plot points, you’d better get busy and do some research. There is an enviable knack to glossing over heavy detail in favour of fast pacing and colourful characters; it may be akin to the expert salesman’s trick of faking sincerity (“fake that and you can fake anything!”) and selling you the dream over the reality; the truth is, few of us have it.

It is also worth thinking about the target audience; instructional texts are often aimed at particular readers or practitioners – beginner, intermediate or advanced.

Fiction might be aimed at a general audience, for example the airport-bookshop-impulse-buyer, or hardcore genre fans with a detailed appreciation of popular science, police forensics, courtroom procedure, or military aircraft. Who you write for will affect the level of research and detail that goes into the text.

Not forgetting character. This applies to fiction and non-fiction alike. Fiction may give you licence to invent anybody, however colourful or unlikely (“Mr Bond, I’ve been expecting you”), but non-fiction often requires a good deal of portrait painting of real people, living or dead (‘Churchill – hero or villain – discuss’). History and biography have to ascribe character and motivation, describing these accurately based on the evidence (research) in a way that helps the reader to understand those people.

Note that understanding is not the same as liking, empathising or sympathising. Oh, and you probably want to avoid libelling or slandering any living persons.

Finally, don’t forget your target word-count. Publishing is full of tales of the short stories that spun out into full-length novels. There are also legions of unfinished Magnum Opera that ran out of steam a few chapters in for lack of sufficient material.

We still stick to the rule of chapters of more or less similar length, so getting bogged down in a single chapter the length of three or four regular ones is a sure sign the structure needs more work.

We will look at tools and techniques of planning in a future post.

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