Mission Improbable: from idea to first draft

Hello again world! I promise not to angry vent this time, despite the deep everything-ness of everything. That way lies madness. This way? Just a simple blogpost about writing, attempting to demystify the process.

Last month I was talking to Cathi (Celtic Duchess) on Twitter, and she asked me how I start in on writing a book—whether I outline or just hit the ground running. I’ve wanted to go into my process for a bit just because a lot of starting writers I talk to seem intimidated by the steps, so Cathi gave me a great excuse to get on that. (One might say… a great excuse to write it down? 😉) Here goes nothing!

A good first draft is like this triumphant, oddly shaped carrot: technically complete, but it needs more time to reach its full potential.

I think most people have some loose ideas that, when put together, might make for a decent book. I talked about where ideas come from in a March episode of The Beans, and the main thrust was this: ideas are cheap. It’s putting time and effort into them that makes them worthwhile and transforms them into stories. When I look at my body of work, I don’t think the ideas I chose to spend time on are super unique or interesting. They just reflect thoughts and feelings I was having at one point in time—things I liked and things I didn’t like and things I wanted to address. Images that just happened, that I grabbed onto as worthwhile. For our study of ‘idea to draft’ I’ll use an old story I’ll probably never rewrite to discuss particulars. The story was called ‘Trespass’ and I wrote 50,000+ words of it in 2011 for NaNoWriMo then stuck it in a drawer. Without further ado: the process.

1) Inception

The first step is just having an idea, and then turning it into a bigger idea. The story I’m using as a case study here came about from listening to ‘Close to Me’ by the Cure on repeat. The line “if only I was sure that my head on the door was a dream” made me imagine someone in a half-dream state leaning against a door. (I know. This is… really very basic. I told you I was demystifying stuff.)

The image unfolded in my head. The person is confused (why are they there?) and barefoot. They’ve sleepwalked somewhere—where?

It becomes something of a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Maybe thanks to Robert Smith, I imagine the person is a man. The setting fills itself in as fantasy because that’s what I wrote at the time. Through the door is a library, and inside that library is a fellow student doing a spell (this story is now set at mage school, keep up…) for peace and tranquility. The main character wandered there in his sleep out of a need for peace/comfort/presence of mind because…

…because he is doing a multi-day spell/ritual that puts his sanity at risk. What’s that dangerous, sanity-challenging spell? I continue filling in the blanks according to my preferences and whims:

The dangerous spell is a ritual to resurrect someone. Who? Naturally: his dead twin brother, who wasn’t a mage and died in a hunting accident. The spell will pull his brother’s soul into his own body so he can talk to him again.

WOMP! There’s the snowball rolling downhill. You start with a song lyric, or a thought, or an anything, and you let it sit in your head. Images form. Maybe you start from the other end, and think “I want to write a story about a haunted castle in Scotland”. It’s a different start point, but the same principle. You fill in the blanks until stuff starts falling into place in a way you like. Anyway: now I have a story about a young man resurrecting his prematurely deceased brother. At a glance, it will involve:

  • a focus on platonic love
  • ghosts / soul magic
  • a plot that somehow interacts with the main character’s predicament – ie, a plot where a body housing two souls will be important

2) Planning/outlining

Back in the day I probably would have just started writing and hoped the answers would come to me. I did everything by feel, although I realize now that the framework was my intrinsic understanding of storytelling. I’m pretty sure everyone who likes and engages with fiction has this sense, but relying on that alone was slow and got me stuck a lot. I still write slowly and get stuck a lot, but I know better how to un-stick myself and push through. Un-sticking includes going back to this planning/outlining phase occasionally.

So: I’ve had an idea. I want to write it out. First I might sit down with a notebook and have a brainstorming session on characters and plot, answering several questions:

    • what’s the MC’s backstory?
    • who are the other important characters? (brother, mentor, maybe a love interest or rival?)
    • what will the general thrust of the story be?

You might notice the third bullet-point is an impossibly broad question, but I can narrow it down for myself. What do I want for this story? I know I don’t want the MC or his brother to be villains. I want the resurrection to ‘work’, and to play with what it means to have two souls inhabiting a body. I want banter and a shared goal for the main character and his brother. Because I’m not making the conflict about the resurrection itself, it needs to be adjacent: something related, where the MC’s predicament is relevant but not the whole story. This means other forces have to be at work. It’s easy to make this soul-related by having it pertain to other mages also doing resurrecty things, but being evil about it. I acquire my villain: some nebulous group of mages is using soul magic to [DO SOMETHING EVIL] and the main character must find out what/why/how they are doing it. In the process, he will learn [SOMETHING ELSE]. He will have to face what he is doing and possibly give up on resurrecting his brother fully to stop [EVIL THING].

I would then take a stab at outlining. At the very least I’d put my broad idea here into an outline format. The book ‘Save the Cat Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody has a fantastic guide on story arcs, and I might reference that. My writing partner Ash helpfully excised the information as a fill-in-the-blank worksheet for us to use. The most useful part for me is asking the following questions:

  • What is your MC’s problem, or a flaw of theirs that needs fixing?
  • What does your character want/what goal are they pursuing?
  • What does your character actually need? (What lesson will they learn in the end, through exposure to the story?)

I also write down some cookies. Cookies are scenes and concepts that make you want to write. In the case of my mage story, I loved the thought of the nerdy mage brother being judged by his more active, athletic twin for not looking after his body. The twin brother making the MC exercise would be a cookie for me.

So there’s my messy process. Inevitably, I will fill in half an outline, get enough of an idea for the story’s broad strokes to get going, and then… get going. I’ll pull out the outline and add to it when I’m stuck, but that’s it.

3) Writing

This is the part of the process that’s just like exercise or cleaning the toilet or washing your hair. Hopefully it’s more fun than that, but by and large you just do it. My mage story started with my main character walking through the door set down by Robert Smith and being confronted by the other student doing the spell that made him sleep-walk there. They had a confrontational conversation where little bits of the set-up were explored. Every scene you ask “where am I going next?” and then go there. It can be really fun and really arduous, sometimes at the same time.

4) Losing your way and then finding it again

Writing tens of thousands of words isn’t easy, at least not if the words are meant to make sense in order. Looking at how far you have to go before a draft is done can feel incredibly overwhelming. I’ve been trying to think of analogies for non-writers, and the following is a stupid analogy but it was the best I could think of. Here goes: the losing-your-way part of writing a book is like living in a world where worn-down shoes are a valuable asset you can sell, and you look down at your almost-new shoes (an investment) and think of how much more you’re going to have to walk in them to wear them down properly, and you have a moment of doubt. The shoes are no longer new to you so you know all the places they rub, and maybe they don’t look as good away from the shop as you thought they would, and will anyone really want to buy these shoes at the end, when you’re finally done with them?

The analogy is really, really stupid. I should stick to fiction. But anyway: it’s hard. I sometimes think it gets easier with each book, but it remains hard. It might be easier if you pick a format and stick to it, but I haven’t done that and so I continue to punish myself. When I lose my way, I first ask myself if there’s a problem in the plot or tone or character interactions that I need to fix. Often there is. If there’s not, I remind myself of a few things:

  • my specific cookies for the project
  • that I’m tired of the book because I’m spending so much time on it every day, not because it’s a steaming pile of shit
  • if I keep going the book will eventually be finished and I may learn to like it again
  • there are solutions to plot problems and saggy pacing bits that I won’t be able to see until I’ve finished the draft and gotten some distance from it; nothing is unfixable

If none of this works, I may set the draft aside for a bit and focus on other things. If it does work—great! Back to step 3. Eventually step 4 stops kicking you back to step 3 and you make it to 5.

5) Bathe in the sweet glory of finishing a first draft

There’s really no rule for how to celebrate this sort of thing, but I think it helps to have a treat planned. Conspire with your loved ones to make this a special moment for you, or conspire with yourself to open a bottle of prosecco and watch something you love. Just make it nice for yourself so you don’t fall into a deep depression of “what now?”

And that’s it! There really is no magic formula. It’s just staying in touch with yourself and your process, making the time, and keeping going. A first draft isn’t the finish line, but it means you have something to work with. If I’ve made all of this sound super unmagical, devoid of muses and all the things that make creators seem fancy, I’m very sorry! There are lots of special moments, but you can’t plan them in. You just make space for them and hope they come. I hope this is helpful or at least interesting to someone out there… and happy writing!

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