Process: First Draft

Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.

~ Ray Bradbury

I’m going to admit something right now that is somewhat controversial in the writing world. I am not a plotter. I don’t make storyboards or webs or charts or graphs or timelines. I just don’t. I never have (but I won’t say I never will). This little quirk of mine drove my writing professors crazy. They would assign plotting work, and I’d return with a completed story. When asked why I didn’t have an outline or the skeleton of a story, I’d shrug and say it isn’t how I write.

I’ll admit something else, too. As I write this, I’m wincing. I know plotting is super important to a majority of writers. I know I sound inexperienced and ridiculous and some in the writing world want to jump out of their chairs and strangle me through their computer screens. I know.

I also know not plotting causes major problems. I know it creates huge headaches when it comes to filling plot holes and can create stories that go on and on ad nauseam. I’ve thrown away my fair share of short stories and full-fledged manuscripts because of my lack of plotting. Hundreds of thousands of wasted words. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now and gotten down to plotting.

But (as I scrunch up my nose) I haven’t. I’m not sure why I’m so averse to it, but I am. Every time I’ve tried to sit down and plot, I’ve ended up with a prologue instead of a story line. Part of it may be impatience. I just want to write, damn it. Part of it may be the way my ideas come to me—in dreams and sudden revelations. My ideas tend to be very fragile, and if I don’t write them down in short order, I lose them. My stories proceed through my mind like movies. A scene comes to me and when I’m finished writing it, the next waltzes through the front door, demanding attention.

Sometimes, there are gaps in between scenes. For example (without spoilers), the prologue to the second book in the Changing Tides series came to me before the epilogue to The Wheel Mages. I wrote the prologue to the second book, then went back and tried to figure out how to end The Wheel Mages. I didn’t know what the end was at the time, but I knew it had one because the second book had a beginning.

My lack of plotting extends to this blog post too, for the record. I started it over a week ago and am just now getting back to finishing it. Fortunately, it’s easier to check for plot holes in a 900 word blog post than a 105,000 word manuscript.

Lack of plotting aside, the process for my first draft is relatively simple. I write all my manuscripts by hand, usually in the bathtub listening to Pandora. I find writing by hand to be more soothing than typing. It’s quieter, more romantic, and it forces me to slow down and examine my thoughts and my words in a more meaningful way.

Here’s the entirety of The Wheel Mages in handwritten, first-draft form.

I usually write in terms of scenes, not chapters (as discussed above, see how I connected that?). I transcribe onto the computer by chapters, usually at intervals throughout the process when I’m having difficulty finding the next scene. Typing (and self-editing along the way) helps me reinvigorate my brain and get my mojo flowing again (most of the time).

As cliche as it may sound, when it comes to the story line, I let my characters guide me. I have full on fights with my characters sometimes. They really do take on a life of their own in my mind, and occasionally they refuse to do what I want or expect them to do. I’ve actually said to friends before, “Alena is being stubborn and won’t get with it.” No joke. Don’t believe me? Here’s a screenshot:

Please don’t mind my language!

Annoying as it may be, allowing this to happen helps me avoid snags of disingenuity. The plot I expected may not be where the story goes, and I’m okay with that. I don’t want my characters to fit into pegs I’ve created for them. Real people don’t fit into pegs or molds or categories as much as we sometimes want to force them into those places. I want my characters to be real to me, because if they aren’t real to me, they aren’t going to be real to the reader.

At the end of the day, writing is intrinsically personal. Everyone does it differently. That’s what makes it art. It also evolves. We’re always learning. As Hemingway said:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

I try to live by that and allow myself to learn and observe and grow. I experiment. And I encourage everyone to do the same.


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