Writing The First Draft

Out on the trail. New terrain opens up in every moment and the wild words explore it. They are precise, vivid, awake. They flow, unfurling and expanding as they go. There are no stilted or jerky expressions- there are dramatic pauses and sharp sentences purposefully placed to affect the reader in certain ways. When the words are in short tight form, they are channeled faster and must be contained more strongly. When a longer form is chosen the words have time to meander and weave. Here they must be held from dispersing over too large an area.

Tracking The Wild Words

You have an idea. You know it's the story you need to tell. Now it's time to write it. 

The below points will guide you as you go out into the wilds with your project. They will show you how to tell the story you need to tell. You also have a template here that can be used for any future project of any length or genre.  

The Writing Environment

-Create a private writing space for yourself where you will be undisturbed.

As you prepare to write the first draft, the first thing to do is to set up your writing environment. Build your writing nest, tree house, den, or dray. Take care of this space. Decorate it with flowers, or pictures, or quotes from storytellers, whatever will remind and inspire you. Explain to those you live with the purpose of the space, and what you need from them to sustain it. Remember that anyone who sits down at his or her desk for a period, regularly, and makes the commitment to go into that place of imagination and research, deserves to be called a storyteller or writer, and to be supported by others in that role.

-Make a timetable

Remember the importance of choosing a project length that fits with the time you have available to write. As long as it’s realistic, in a way it doesn’t really matter what your timescale is. A timescale focuses the mind, and provides a sense of containment for the work. When you’ve decided on a do-able timeframe, pin it above your desk, or on the wall in your tree house.

-Find a regular slot for your writing

Decide how much time you can give to your writing. It’s helpful to have a regular slot in your life, be that a couple of hours a week, or full time.  Again it’s very important that you’re realistic. This will give you a rhythm, and allow your instinctual self to work unconsciously between writing sessions. Some writers prefer to write only spontaneously, when they feel inspired. There is nothing wrong with that if you wish your writing to be an occasional pastime. If you want to complete a novel or full-length autobiography, only writing when you feel like it probably won’t be sufficient.  In my opinion, the major downside of writing only when the inspiration grabs you is that you will often avoid facing fears. Often the most satisfying experiences of the writing process arrive on the days when we have to drag ourselves to the desk and write through fear, anger or jealousy. When we stay steady in the face of those feared emotions, we come out into the light strengthened and empowered by that process.

-Once you’ve decided to commit that time to writing, just do it. Don’t beat yourself up that you can’t do more. Let your only expectation of the process be that you will fulfill your promise to yourself and sit down at your desk, on your tree stump, (or wherever you’ve chosen your dedicated writing space to be), for those hours. If you don’t feel creative, sit there anyway until the time is up, even if you don’t write (I’ve done this many times and always ended up writing something!)

On some days, the journey of the writer is to try and find a form and containment for fictional characters and a world that seem uncontainable. At other times, when our fictional world refuses to come alive at all in the way that we would wish, our job is just to keep plodding on and not give up.  What ever the day brings, you will cope. More than that, you will thrive. You were built to do so!

Tips For The Writing Process

-Chunk the process down

It’s not uncommon that even just the idea of sitting down and writing that autobiography, novel, short story, poem, screenplay, or article, can immediately send us into overwhelm- characterised by an inability to think clearly, and to sit down to the task in hand. So, go step by step, with bite-size pieces, so that you feel confident and in control of the process.

-Use your structure

You’ve got a setting, hero, objective, opponent and disaster. You’ve given consideration to a premise. You know how many pages, or words, approximately, you can envisage your story running to.  You know, give or take a few pages, where the end of act 1 will fall.  You have good idea of what the event will be that sets your hero off on her or his journey to achieve their goal for the rest of the story (acts 2 and 3).  You understand what will enable the high point of tension. And you know what will lead to the fall in tension, and fortunes of your hero. Perhaps you even have an inkling as to what will happens at the end (although that’s not something you necessarily need to know yet).

-Then just write it

Once those structural markers are in place, write from instinct, trust your natural storyteller, and tell the story without consciously using writing techniques or tools. Make occasional reference to your markers to see if you are on course. Focus on connecting with your passion for the story. And just write. And just love the story, unashamedly, obsessively.  

-Look out for those voices, or ‘people’ inside you who may try to sabotage your work. You can spot them by the messages they keep repeating, which are designed to subdue or belittle you. 

-Turn your opinionated thinking mind off, completely. Despite your valiant attempts it may still try to get in your way, hurling out undermining messages.

If that happens, do the following:

1. Thank the voice for trying to help you.

2. Tell it very firmly but non-aggressively to go away and leave you alone.

3. Reassure it that you will be open to hearing, at length, what it has to say when you come to the second draft 

4. Come back to your experience of your body in your writing space. Look around. Engage your senses, Can you feel your bottom on the chair. What colour are the walls? How does the room smell? How do you experience the texture and temperature of the writing materials?

-Recognise that not all of the first draft writing process involves physically writing.

One of the most difficult things as a writer is to know when to take breaks. How can we tell when we’re semi, or unconsciously trying to run from fear, and would therefore benefit from staying with it? Conversely, how can we judge when a break is a positive move on the part of our organism to resource us, or restore equilibrium? The truth is, we can’t always know. But each of these monthly newsletters includes an experiment to help you to have increasingly greater awareness around this, to be more intuitive.

It can be helpful to move from your writing space at intervals to give your unconscious space to work. Hold a question in your head, for example ‘where would that character go today?’ then do manual tasks. Try washing up, or walking. It’s very important however, that you don’t start mentally doing something else e.g. thinking about what’s for dinner. Remember, you are still writing. Hold the mental space clear for answers to rise up. (If you cage a bird it might stop singing, but when you let it go free it may well come back and sing at your window. It’s a bit like this.)

-Set yourself up for the next day

Before you leave your desk at the end of a writing period, decide on your task for the next session e.g. to ‘write from the high point in act 2 to the end of the act’. When you come to your writing space again, do the assigned task. Nothing more. Nothing less.

-Remember. There is nothing to ‘get right’.  And there’s nothing you can do wrong.

The point of the first draft is to get the fundamentals approximately in the right place. Always make sure your first draft is about the right length, otherwise you’ll find it hard to gauge if the plot points are in the right place. Also, try in the first draft also to get the sense of the dialogue in, and to make sure the right people are talking to the right other people. If you’re feeling tired one morning and just can’t think of a good piece of speech you might just put in,

Rod tells Tim the story of how he was attacked.

Don’t beat yourself up about the fact you couldn’t think of something better. You can replace it in the second draft.

You Are Not Alone



Remember, you are not alone when you sit down at that desk. Many thousands of others have taken the same journey before you. Many others are doing it right now (you’ll find some of them in the Facebook group). And yet more will come after you, walking in your footsteps, grateful for the path you’ve laid. I’d like to share with you the words of Hannah Kent, from her book Burial Rites. Her willingness to lay bare her vulnerability within the storytelling process can help us to feel less alone.

Finally in possession of the facts I had yearned after for two years, I no longer had any excuse not to write my book. Even as I write this article, my hands grow sweaty in remembrance of the trepidation and terror I felt. People speak of the fear of the blank canvas as though it is a temporary hesitation, a trembling moment of self-doubt. For me it was more like being abducted from my bed like a clown, thrust into a circus arena with a wicker chair, and told to tame a pissed-off lion in front of an expectant crowd.  Sure, I had written short stories before. But that, to me, was no consolation: just because I was a cat-person did not mean I knew how to conquer a beast.
…Publication certainly hasn’t extinguished my fears about writing. But these fears have by now become so familiar, that, rather than inducing creative paralysis, they light a fire under me. It is writing, after all, which keeps me burning. Yes, it terrifies me, and it vexes me, and there are many days when I will actively sabotage my own practice. Some days writing is no more than a repeated chorus of muttered expletives, and a hammering of the ‘delete’ button. Yes, there are days when I am able to somehow sever myself loose from the temporal world and fully enter the lives of the characters. Sometimes I do feel that I am putting the best words I can think of in the best order possible, and there are moments when the writing comes swift and thick and pure. I am grateful for these times. But most days fear is my shadow. It drives my writing as much as my love for it does. Perhaps it’s supposed to be this way. Perhaps the only fiction worth reading-the writing that ensnares you wholly, that lays siege to your heart-is that which is born of love and terror, slick with the blood of it’s creator.

The writing process is terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The bad news is that my experience is the same as Hannah’s, that the terror does not get less the more you write. The good news is that neither does the exhilaration! Increasingly we understand what happens in the brain during the creative process. I’ll leave it to James Zull to explain…

…Dopamine is released in the newest region of cortex, the part that we use to create ideas, make decisions and plan our action Thus, we feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions. And since creativity is based on the decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things that we have thought of ourselves. Freedom and ownership are part and parcel of the neurochemistry of the arts.

-James E Zull‘Arts, Neuroscience and Learning’

The Balance of Structure and Content

Having pinned down a basic structure before you started writing, it’s important to know that it is still ok if things change. The structural markers we’ve put in place are friendly guides to point the way. They are there to nudge us back into the flow of the creative stream if we get beached on the bank. They are there to re-orient us when we lose our way. When, however, they become points that are so fixed that nothing will shift them, we’ve got a problem. If that happens, we’re no longer going into the unknown. Then our story dies on the page. 

So, despite the narrative arc you’ve carefully constructed, stay open to the idea that things may change. Information may end up being revealed in a slightly different way, or at another time to that which you’d envisioned.  Act 3 may be longer, or shorter than that one-fifth ratio. You may have told your lead character to go one way, only to find that they choose their own route as the story unfolds, and you are required to follow. 

Stick to the structure, but don’t stick to it- I’m not making things very easy am I?!  It’s a balance, and we can only learn it by practicing it. If you find, in a first draft of a project, that you become a little inflexible and your supportive container (that flower pot brimming over with fragrant sweet peas), becomes a cage with iron bars, just learn from it. Say never mind and resolve to do it a little differently next time. Conversely, if the pot of sweet peas gets out of control and you trip in the tangled stems, or if you are lost in the sheer rampaging abundance of it all, and almost faint from the overpowering fragrance, again, forgive yourself and adjust the balance in favour of a bit of strong fencing.  Make pro-active choices with each new piece of information that comes in. Never beat yourself up, about anything. It’s utterly counter-productive.

You are an animal, and nothing if not flexible, adaptable and able to learn. It will be different next time, and the time after, and the time after that.

And if the idea of having to carry on writing and writing and writing in order to learn, seems too much, or uninteresting, perhaps it’s time to re-consider your life path as a storyteller. Whereas, if the idea of taking the material that is words, and shaping it, appeals to you, well, this storytelling lark is most definitely for you. Do it for the sheer love of the materials in your hands, and the joy of the surprise of every new form that emerges.

All good wishes for the writing of the first draft. Trust that the animal that is your wild words knows who it is. It knows its territory. Don’t think it’s either all your responsibility, or all your fault. Neither are true. You’re just along for the ride. Hold on tight.

Why not post a victorious photo of yourself in the Facebook group, clutching it in your hand! 


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