Organize your thoughts each day.
It’s hard to begin writing anything with only a vague idea of what we want to write. Those empty moments when we’re not sure what we want to say are when self-doubts begin to rise, Excuses invade our minds, and we decide we don’t really need to write today after all. If we begin each day knowing where we want to start, we can begin with focus, avoiding the “monkey mind” Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones.
One trick I use is to write an outline before I start writing the first draft. For a novel, my outline is a blueprint of what I think will happen in each chapter. Notice I said what I think will happen. As most writers will tell you, once you’ve started writing often the story or the characters will take you in a different direction than you intended. Those first ideas are simply a tool to get you thinking through your story, a way to get you writing something. If the ideas aren’t coming for me one day, then I’ll do a free write. A free write is simply that–a brainstorming activity where I’ll write whatever comes to mind about a character, the setting, the theme, or the plot. Sometimes if I’m really stuck I’ll start freewriting about something that has nothing to do with my story just to get the words flowing. Don’t skimp on the prewriting. As a long time writing teacher, I know that a lot of students want to skip over the prewriting process. But I think you’ll find prewriting time well spent. There are writers who do all right without any prewriting, and that’s great. For me, the more I write, and the longer I teach writing, the more I find that the idea-gathering process makes for an easier first draft.
Where do I begin each day? Wherever I want. Most days I begin with my chapter blueprint and type out my ideas for the next scene the best I can. I say the best I can because my first drafts are little more than quick descriptions, bland character interactions, and a ton of banal dialogue.
“Hi! How are you?”
“I’m great! And you?”
“Oh, you know. I’ve got that leaky wart on my big toe…”
I’m not kidding, by the way. My first draft dialogue really is that bad.
For me, the first draft is only a fleshed out outline. As I’m writing a first draft I keep pushing forward, one word after another, until I’m finished with the story. I give myself few rules while writing first drafts. Writing a first draft is hard enough without following arbitrary rules I’ve set up for the sole purpose of making myself more miserable. As long as I’m producing words that push the story forward every day, it’s all good.
You don’t have to outline as your prewriting activity. That’s simply my preference. I know other writers who outline, and they do it to keep their thoughts organized, as I do. Others find outlining too stifling, like they’re trapped within the imaginary boundaries they’ve created. They prefer to take a creative leap each day and see where the story carries them. That’s why I love writing fiction. You don’t have to do anything. There’s no right way. Everything about the first draft is about toying with words, playing with ideas, exploring possibilities. Explore away.