New novelists often wonder how they will transform a humble story idea into the 80,000-plus words it takes to make a finished book. Ideas are all around. Anything can provide the germ of a story idea: a frazzled-looking person on the bus, a conversation with a neighbor, a summer thunderstorm. Our brains start playing the what-if game and writing a backstory for those real-life observations. The real test is whether we can nurture that seed past the first few thousand words.
If you’re feeling intimidated by the first draft, consider these tips to get the words flowing.
Write down every idea you can.
After the original seed implants itself in your mind, stay vigilant for related ideas. You might think of them in the shower or while you’re trying to fall asleep at night. A real-life conflict might inform a yet-undeveloped character relationship. Record it all. Use a notebook or, if you prefer digital, your phone’s voice memos or notes app.
These tidbits of inspiration will give you more seeds to sow alongside that first one. Some will help mold your main storyline while others will provide subplots and character complexity.
Don’t worry about structure quite yet.
When I start a new novel, I write the scenes as they come to me. New developments reveal themselves as I write. The first draft is usually a voyage of discovery, a scratchpad to figure out how everything fits together.
Don’t worry too much about structure in the first draft. If you think too much about the final polish, you’ll hold yourself back from trying things out. Modern word processors make it trivial to rearrange and rewrite in later drafts. Use that to your advantage and let yourself write freely to get your ideas on the page.
Give the first few chapters to a trusted critique partner.
Don’t share too much of your first draft before it’s finished — you don’t want to invite drafting by committee — but early feedback on your first few chapters can save you a lot of headaches.
In a finished manuscript, the first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. It also determines whether the reader will keep reading or put your book down. Sharing it with your critique partner or writing group can shine a light on weak points you need to consider as you continue writing: do readers connect with the main character? Are the stakes clear from the beginning? Does the first chapter give an accurate sense of what the story will be about? Opening-chapter feedback can help guide your writing in subsequent scenes.
Do worry about stakes right away.
There’s one structural element you should never put off until later: stakes. Stakes refer to what your main character wants or needs and what might get in their way. These stakes will inform every chapter of your book. They fuel your plot and urge readers to keep reading.
When you let your critique partner or writing group see those first 1-3 chapters, ask if the stakes feel clear. This is also a good time to consider how you want your main character to grow and change throughout the book. Character development often ties closely to stakes. If you know early on what your character wants, what threatens it, and what they’re willing to do to get or keep it, you’ll have a much stronger story when you finish your first draft.
Just write already!
The more you try to prepare to write your first draft, the less prepared you’ll feel. Don’t bog yourself down with too much outlining, mind-mapping, research, or revisions. Those can come later. As the old cliche goes, you can’t edit a blank page. Just jump in and start writing!