Just tell the story.
You have an idea for a story, that’s what has got you started on your first draft. So tell it. Just get the basic story out in whichever way you find the most comfortable, whether it’s hand written notes or typed straight into your computer, or like me, a combination of both. Just let the story come. It might help to visualise the finished story as a building, perhaps a beautiful house standing in its own grounds. The first draft is akin to the foundations of this beautiful house. It doesn’t look like much yet but that’s because it’s only the foundations. You will build the rest up later. Give yourself permission to create a loose and somewhat scruffy first draft.
Don’t worry about the mess.
Writing is a messy business but you’re not going to show anyone else, so relax. By the time another human being gets to see your story, you will have tidied it up a bit. You will have got rid of the rubbish and tightened the whole thing up with the words and phrases you knew you wanted but just couldn’t bring them to mind in the first draft stage. The first draft is like a winter garden. It’s sparse, a bit bland and not particularly interesting. But keep going because you know that by summer you will have cut out some of the dead wood, planted lots of new things and after a lot of hard work, the whole thing will end up a picture of beauty, or horror, or intrigue, depending on your genre!
Don’t bother stopping to check facts.
I used to stop every few minutes to check this fact or that fact – what’s that poison called? Does it have a taste? Is this or that against the law? What shows up in a post mortem? How long does it take to get from here to there by public transport? Etcetera, etcetera. All of this is important but it doesn’t need to happen in the first draft. Remember, the first draft is only the foundations of your building. The rest of it is important but you can come back to it all. If you do it now, there’s a good chance you’ll get sidetracked and then you’ll forget where the story was actually going. Sometimes you need to check something because it might be critical to the story, but other than that, avoid dipping in and out of Google, Wikipedia and your every increasing stack of reference books for the time being.
Don’t stress over grammar, spelling, punctuation or word choice.
This is on the same lines as the previous paragraph. What I am trying to get across is basically don’t stop for anything! Just keep going and get the first draft out. Chances are you will then go through several phases of editing and re-writing, so you can pick up on all those spelling and word choice mistakes then. I have days when I couldn’t even be trusted to spell my own name correctly and if I stopped to check every word, then I wouldn’t get very far at all.
What if it’s not working and I want to change things half way through?
Suppose you’ve been writing in the first person and you suddenly realise it would be better done in third person – should you go back to the start and change it all? No! Just carry on from the point you are at in the third person, or whatever it is that you are changing – new location, different time period, etc. Then, when you do the first edit, you can change the rest. My reason for working like this is that if I stop and go back to the beginning every time I think of something new, then I’m not really progressing very far with the whole story. If I don’t get it down on paper, I’m going to forget where I wanted it to go and all the little details I had planned along the way. I know I’ll be editing it later, so it’s counterproductive to go back and start editing now, before I’ve even finished the first draft. After all, another couple of chapters later and I might have decided to abandon that idea and go back to how I had originally planned it!
Do I have to write it all in the right order?
No! Quite often, a scene will come to my mind that I know I will want at some later point in the story. Should I wait until I get to that point, and risk forgetting it, or should I write it now? My advice would be to write it now. The late great PD James worked in this way too. Give it a heading such as: The body is discovered, or whatever is relevant to your story. I work using a combination of notebooks and typing directly into the computer. The notebooks I prefer are cheap exercise books of that sort that children have at school. They’re so cheap that I don’t ‘save’ them for something really brilliant. I scribble and doodle anything and everything that pops into my head down into them. So, if I think of a scene for later on, I’ll start a new page and give it a big heading so that I can find it easily when I get to the point in the story where I want it. If I happen to be at the computer when this flash of inspiration strikes, I’ll just start a new page in my draft document and give it the heading that seems relevant. I always use a table of contents so that I can quickly jump to whichever chapter I want. During the draft and editing stages, the chapters will all have names that enable me to find the sections I want. Only right at the final stage will I go through and change them all to the more elusive ‘Chapter One’ etc. I find it easier this way to locate, merge and move sections around as I feel necessary as the story takes shape.
When it’s done, leave it to rest for a while.
When you’ve done, saved and backed up your first draft (I email mine to myself), let it rest. Put it on the back burner and let it simmer. Go out and have a break. Do something else. Forget about it for a while. Maybe even start a new project. Then, when you do come back to it, you will be reading it with fresh eyes, dictionary and thesaurus at the ready.
I hope you have found some of this useful. Please feel free to share this with anyone you like.