Four Rules for Surviving a First Draft

2.      Have a plan.

There is an exception to Rule #1, when it isn’t just a good idea to stop writing, it’s necessary. The exception occurs when it is time to make a plan. What time is that? I’ll show you. I’ve watched hundreds of my students work on first drafts, and their enthusiasm levels follow a pretty consistent pattern. It goes something like this:

Enthusiasm-Graph

When you first start the project there’s an initial wave of inspiration and excitement which you can surf for a while. For many, this is the most fun part of the writing process. For short pieces it’s all you need. But for long form, that wave eventually crests and crashes and most people stop writing. Those drafts look like this:

Enthusiasm-Graph-DEATH

Death is bad! Obviously, we can’t stop writing, so we have to figure something else out.

Enter the plan.

There are a few reasons I think of this first crash site as the perfect time to get your planning suspenders on and start scribbling on the walls. First, when the inspiration wave arrives it’s best to climb on and ride, but inspiration rarely arrives in the form of an outline for a whole story. Second, when designing a plan you need to know what you’re trying to achieve, and that’s difficult to know until you’ve put a few words on the page and started to see ideas take tangible shape.

The initial hit of inspiration usually comes as a scene, or a character, or even just a really striking image. So when you start on that fist wave, you’re not usually building something vast and abstract like a plan for a novel. You could hold back and refuse to start your story until you’ve worked out all its twists and turns, but this would engage your inner critic before you’ve got anything tangible to criticize. Critics are inherently restrictive, and in order to keep on writing, we need to be careful when we let that jerk off their leash. Refer to rule one; ten wonky chapters are much better than one carefully crafted. Once there are a few words and ideas on the page, then you can take a step back and look at where it might be going, and what sorts of cool things you can do to get there.

As to what goes into an outline, tricks and tips on making a good plan could fill a book, but I’ll lay out a few of the pieces of advice I find myself repeating most often.

  1. A plot is just a sequence of events where each causes the next. Pixar developed a wonderful plot structure that goes: Once upon a time there was a _______, and every day they _______, until one day _______, and because of that _______, and because of that _______, until finally _______. This is by no means the only plot structure out there, but it’s a completely satisfying way to look at the question of how to make a story interesting. The critical advice here is to look at an event you know is part of your story and ask “what happens because of that?” And keep asking, until you get to the end.
  2. Consider events from the point of view of your antagonist. It’s easy to get caught up looking at the events as they effect the protagonist, which can lead you to run out of ideas. But the excitement of the story often flows from the intensity of the challenges, which will be motivated by the antagonist.
  3. Use the beginning at the end, and the end at the beginning. This is worth doing at every level: the normal Chekhov’s gun of putting any detail that matters in the second act into the first act too, but also in the big sense that the climax or conclusion can mirror the opening sequence in a way that reflects the characteristics of the theme. Endings are hard, so it’s often helpful to remember you don’t have to come up with a completely new thing: you just need to re-imagine the beginning thing.
  4. Have no fear. Go there. Try it. Do the thing. Filling your outline with exciting, edgy, interesting ideas is how you gas up your tanks with the energy you need to get through the rest of the process.

But whatever you do with an outline, don’t overthink it because…

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