“The first draft is pure torture for me. I hate every second of it.” ~ Judy Blume, Masterclass
It doesn’t surprise me that even a prolific writer like Judy Blume hates first drafts. They’re messy, unorganized beasts. As a writer, there’s nothing more painful than having thousands of ideas threading together in your mind but the second they hit the paper, they’re nothing like you want. It’s frustrating and leaves most (if not all) of us close to quitting.
But we don’t write because we want to. We write because if we don’t, life becomes a little too dull without our characters and their adventures. We write not because of potential success or recognition; we write because something deep inside our bones tells us we must.
Why then is the initial drafting process so difficult? Well, it’s simple – the thoughts are still formulating. It might seem like every iota of your story is constructed inside your head, but until all of it is put on paper, it’s impossible to comprehend everything that’s missing. And believe me, no matter how talented a writer you are, a lot is missing the first time around.
All writers use different tactics when it comes to outlining. Some do, some don’t. Some go overboard, others write a synopsis and go from there. My entire life, I’ve been a detailed outliner. In 2020, while stuck in quarantine, I started heavily outlining a novel. And I mean heavily. Every single aspect of the story was nailed down and for a while, I felt confident. It almost seemed like this was how it was supposed to be; planned to the point that all the work was done. By the time I finished, I was a month away from beginning an MFA certification program. I thought having such a descriptive outline put me ahead of the game.
Spoiler – I was wrong.
A week before the start of my program, I panicked, feeling stifled because I didn’t want to write a story I’d already written, despite it never making it to the manuscript stage. In a moment of rashness, I threw caution to the wind and scraped the entire project. Days before my first official day, I came up with a one-liner concept and four POVs that all sounded the same, both in my head and on paper. And you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world. Because if I hadn’t done this, I never would’ve ended up with a story I love and learned how to properly outline in the process.
I want to reiterate that different methods work for different people. There’s no one glove fits all when it comes to any part of the writing process. To make matters worse, it’s also often true that a variety of methods will work for one individual, depending on the project. The following is nothing more than an overview of the process I followed that helped my current WIP in the long run.
Before discussing outlining with my mentor, I was using Freytag’s Pyramid, a tactic I’d learned in a university short story writing class. While it works wonders for my short stories to this day, I don’t recommend it as the ‘end-all be-all’ outline for your novel. It’s certainly helpful for jotting down the major driving plot points, but in my experience, it’s not beneficial when it comes to narrowing down specifics. If you’re a pantser, maybe consider Freytag’s Pyramid as it’ll help keep you on track while also allowing complete freedom. But, if you’re like me and need structure, this probably isn’t for you.
On the opposite end of the scale exists academia outlining. I hold a B.A. in English and pursue academic writing on the side, so this method is deeply ingrained in my memory. It works phenomenally for my papers, and somehow, I thought it would translate the same with my creative work. I’m talking this is what it looked like:
i. Specifics: dialogue, characterization, description
1. Insert even more specifics here
I did this for every. single. chapter of a 27-chapter book. Remember how I mentioned I abandoned a novel because I felt I’d already written it? It’s because I used this method. When it came to crafting the first draft, I felt too restricted by the narrative I’d spent months constructing. Was I using the dialogue I’d already created? Was the room the same color and set-up as listed in my outline? Were the characters consistent? In the end, it only caused perfectionist induced anxiety and the first draft process, which is already terrible, became unbearable.
While this type of detail is crucial to a certain extent, it’s something to think about on the second, third, or even fourth draft, not the first. If you think this much planning from the get-go will work for you, then absolutely go ahead, give it a try. But you’ve been warned: this method restricts creativity too much in my opinion!
As I told you, I went into my program without any plan. It’s because I dreaded and feared outlining another book. I decided I wasn’t good at it and didn’t want to go through the heartache of discarding another entire project. I told my mentor as much, but she assured me it wasn’t that I was bad at it. Apparently, I just hadn’t found a method that worked for me. Her advice was simple, but effective: why not find a method that falls in the middle of the two extremes you’ve been trying?
It seems obvious now, but at the time, it was anything but. This suggestion forced me outside my comfort zone as I began brainstorming. The Hero’s Journey, while theoretically applicable to any story, is too action-based and not character-driven enough for my four POV literary fiction novel; the Synopsis Outline was once again too vague; the Snowflake Method was too convoluted for me to keep track of four different story threads. And then it hit me – why not give the infamous Save the Cat beat sheet a try?
I’ve seen it for years in writing vlogs on Youtube but was always too intimidated to try it because it seemed like you really needed to know your story inside and out before filling out each beat. But you know what? This outlining method was the perfect blend between Freytag’s Pyramid and my academic-like outline! While it forced me to truly think about and understand the story I’m telling, not once did it feel restrictive. In fact, understanding the structure of the novel (i.e., the percentage of the story a beat takes up or how many scenes should be in each Act) was the key to my outlining success. I’m not a math person by any means, but it turned out that something I thought would be too specific and intense for me wasn’t. It was just what I needed.
Completing a solid outline I’m happy with strongly influenced my first draft. Before, when all I had was a rough idea of the direction my story was moving, I was exploratory writing, meaning I wrote what came to me and logically put together what came next. I’m not mad I did it like this even though a large portion of this material is unusable. Although it’s being scrapped to help the flow of the story, there is still value in these random scenes, particularly in terms of character development. Without them, I wouldn’t know my characters inside-out the way I do today.
But I can see a difference in the first draft completed before my Save the Cat outline and after. Having a chapter/scene summary-based outline enables me to write freely while also having a directed purpose. It’s now possible to incorporate foreshadowing and accurate characterization early on because I know what’s coming. This isn’t to say I get it right all the time (it’s hard to write four distinct voices, especially the first time around) or that things won’t change. For now, though, having an outline I can rely on is making the first draft process significantly less painful and more productive.
So, if you think outlining isn’t for you because you’re bad at it or it seems daunting, I’m here to tell you to take that leap. It’s gritty work, there’s no way around it, but your novel and future-self will thank you in the end.
Judy Blume Masterclass Quotation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfNjOXsQOJA
Freytag’s Pyramid: https://writingitch.com/2014/08/21/7-step-freytags-pyramid/
Hero’s Journey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey
Synopsis Outline: https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/write-a-synopsis.html#
The Snowflake Method: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
Meet Beth Anne
Beth Anne is a die-hard fan of all things literary and fandom. Storytelling is deeply rooted in her bones. Her current WIP is a literary fiction novel about a 90s alternative rock band that explores the consequences of fame. She also writes fantasy, a genre she is devoted to both in her creative and academic work: her Senior Thesis, Modern-Day Fantasy: The Role of the Active Female, was published by both Sacred Heart and Johns Hopkins University.
When Beth Anne isn’t distracted by all her obsessions and writing, she enjoys playing piano, practicing Spanish & Latin in her pursuit of achieving polyglot status, and spending time with her three dogs: Bambi (14), Ginny (1.5), and Dallas (6m).