The First Draft Challenge by Bill Kirton

It’s a useful exercise for writers to stop now and then to think about how they practise the various skills of the trade. A few years ago, Richard Sutton, a writer friend, asked me to contribute a blog on writing the first draft of a novel. My answer then still applies to how I work.
Prelude to romance or murder? And who's the victim?
For me, first drafts are voyages of discovery. When I’ve done all the obvious research, I have a general idea of the destination and know the main events I’ll need to include as I go along. But it’s always possible that, on the way, an alternative route will present itself (or force itself upon me) and I’ll find myself going in an unexpected direction. So I hardly ever sketch out a detailed itinerary. For me, the important thing is to let the characters bubble away and develop until they’re ready to start interacting. Once I know vaguely who the main characters will be, I start thinking about them and ask the obvious questions. What would she/he do in specific situations? What if I put them into such and such a context? How would they behave? In other words, I get to know them better before I let them loose in the situations which will produce the necessary drama, suspense, atmosphere, laughs or whatever else I’m trying to provoke in the reader. And once they start making their entrances, I give them the space they need to be themselves.

I know it sounds slapdash, haphazard, but if nothing happens, if they won't commit to the scene, I know they aren’t real. They invariably surprise me and take me to places I’d never have conceived without the driving factor of their personalities. That doesn’t mean I don’t intervene and nudge them in particular directions – obviously I do, but it’s how they respond to my nudges that’s important. I’ve no idea how it happens, but I just find them deciding to do something or other which has consequences and makes the other characters react, and so it goes on.

It’s a technique I use in workshops. The class starts with no idea of what we plan to write, so I encourage them to put together things that don’t belong. I might, for example, suggest a “typical” scene – let’s say an old lady in an “ordinary” living room, lace curtains, slightly shabby furniture, no electronic equipment except an aging TV set, porcelain ornaments of animals, etc. She pulls back the edge of the curtains and sees … what?

I let the class suggest the sort of things she might see and almost every suggestion leads to possible plots, each of which you can change in turn by adding a detail:
  • They say she sees the postman coming up the path. I add that he’s not wearing his usual uniform, but a very smart suit, with tie, shiny shoes, etc. Why?
  • They say she sees a group of kids fooling around. I add that one of them isn’t fooling around, but just sitting on her garden wall, his back turned to the others, looking straight at the house. Why? Who is he?
  • They say she sees her cat ambling up the garden path. I add that it’s leaving a trail of something on the ground behind it. What? Why?
  • Or else I suggest she sees soldiers, or zebras, or a strange darkness even though it’s midday.

The real Fitzwilliam Darcy
And so it goes on. As I've said in previous blogs, it’s all about answering questions, especially the one that never fails to produce drama or conflict – “Why?”

But that first draft is, of course, just that – a beginning. When I have it, I can move to the editing phase and start focusing on structural aspects, moving scenes around, optimizing effects, ironing out inconsistencies, eliminating side alleys, polishing the prose or sharpening dialogues to make the most of where I’ve been taken. Frequently, when I return to a book I wrote a while ago, I have no idea how it came to have the shape it does. So I accept that, as writers, we’re in control of our material, but how it all works is a beautiful mystery.


glitter noir said…
Bravo, Bill. This is one of the finest descriptions of creative process that I've ever seen.
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm the same, Bill. when I reread one of my books it's a total mystery to me how it evolved and I find myself thinking 'Did I write that?' I think I must have an alter ego that takes charge of my fingers on the keyboard!
Andrew Crofts said…
Interested to see your WTF? picture. Had one of these "hot stone massages" on a weekend away with my wife the other day, (and very soothing it was too), but had no idea I looked so lovely on the table.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Reb. The cheque's in the post.

I agree with the 'alter ego' comment, Chris. When writing's going well, I'm not aware of anything except the fictional reality, so the 'me' has disappeared somewhere.

Sorry, Andrew. I didn't realise it was you or I'd have asked your permission to use the shot.
Greta said…
Well done, you. It's all about the characters. I was tumped in one particular story when I asked the main characters what they were going to do next. One rolled her eyes, the other folded his arms and stared at me. So I got that wrong. Turns out I'd forced them into a situation that wouldn't happen, so I had to scrap that scene and start again.

All power to the characters! Yes! (And ask why a lot)
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Greta. Glad to be reassured that it's not just me.
Sandra Horn said…
Oh yes! Thank you Bill - I have a story lying fallow because the plot I want isn't what the characters want/would do, I now see. Stalemate. Back to letting them take over...
Bill Kirton said…
It'll work, Sandra.
Richard said…
As always, Bill, your insight provides a helpful look at my own inscrutable process for pounding out a first draft. I probably could pay more attention while it's in play, and get a better understanding of how it works; but I like the surprises and mystery too much to get very analytical about it. We endeavor to persevere, in any case! ;)
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Richard. Your point is excellent - whatever we do, we mustn't let analysis or too much thinking get in the way of the pleasure and excitement of getting the words on the page/screen. They're separate processes.

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