WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Five: Reading Like a Writer

WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Four: Drafting a Scene

In Part Four you're going to try your hand at drafting a scene. Each post in Write Your First Novel is a series of short prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here.

One more thing before we start. Everything on the Itch is free; I don't monetise it through advertising or clicks or affiliations or anything else, but simply put it out under a Creative Commons Licence (and if you'd like to re-use any of the material, please check that link for how the Licence works). But, for the first time I'm going to ask that if you find the series useful, you pay it forward by donating to the UK National Emergencies Trust Corona Virus Appeal, to Unicef, or to your local foodbank or other charity working to help cope with this unprecedented crisis. 


Daily check-in:

How did you find it, immersing yourself in one of the places that might be part of your story? How did you find using the act of writing itself - using your hand to put words onto the page - to make what you imagine concrete? It's the process that teachers these days call "discovery writing", and writers call drafting: using the connecting of words into sentences to draw out and pin down what in a sense you already know, because your mind has already imagined it. Did you find yourself hesitating not because your imagination was buffering, but because what you were putting down was "not good enough" either in the imagined stuff, or in the words?

The thing is, if you refuse to write down "not good enough" material in "not good enough" words, you're giving your imagination and word-mind the message that it's not safe to let whatever it creates be created. It's like smacking a newly-walking baby's feet because they aren't neatly parallel, or correcting a child's grammar when they're trying to tell you what upset them so badly at school: don't be surprised if they're reluctant to try again, maybe ever. So when you're in this kind of discovery-writing, drafting mode, "not good enough" is good enough, for now; as Hemingway said, "The first draft of everything is shit". You - we - will deal with how you make it better in later posts.

Today's writing: 

Prose fiction - that's a novel or a story, to you and me - has only words on pages to tell stories, whereas playwrights have nothing but speaking bodies in space to do the same thing. But one idea from theatre that is very useful to us is the idea of the scene. Of course, unlike theatre and film, we also have the "voice" of the narrative to play with - the one that says Once upon a time or He had no idea that she was senior to him: the voice which you will catch me also calling "the narrator" or sometimes "the storyteller" even if they're not necessarily a person. But because human stories are made of human events - people doing things - mostly the writer's job is to get the reader involved and excited and what-will-happen-next-ish about those events. So let's have a go.

Paper or computer for this one - but I would say that if when someone suggests brainstorming or thinking aloud your reaction is to reach for paper and pen, then do this longhand: another helpful way to think of a first draft is not as your first shot at a final draft, which can seem very daunting, but as no more than a monster brainstorm.

1) Pick one of your people - preferably one you're beginning to know. If you want to work with a new one, pop back to Part One and then Part Two, and get to know them a bit better. To explain the exercise I'll call them Alex.

  1. Imagine Alex in a place - the one from Part Three or a new one (in which case you might want to do a quick all-six-senses to get to know it a bit). 
  2. Alex wants or needs to do something in this place: they have a purpose, a reason to act, whether it's to do or gain something good, or do or avoid or get rid of something bad. Decide what it is.
  3. But in this place there are other people, animals, buildings, terrain or forces (the tide, darkness) which are also there. These things - writers often think of them as obstacles - may want a fight or simply a chat with Alex, or a cuddle or a sale, or they may be quite impersonal, like a steep hill or a cockroach infestation. But whatever they are, Alex has to cope with the fact that they are in the way of what Alex wants or needs to do.
  4. Channel your inner sadist, and decide what obstacles you are going to put in Alex's way. One will probably be enough, though if two occur to you, that's fine; if you try for more in a short piece all that usually happens is that Alex's (and therefore our) attention to all of them is weakened.

2) Start when Alex actively, definitely sets out to get what they want or need, and rough-draft - shitty first draft, if you like - what happens. Write it in Alex's first person: for example, I ran forward and, I said, "Haven't you got a home to go to?", Don't, for this exercise, use third person (s/he, his/hers etc.) for Alex.

2) i. The full-dress version of this exercise includes one more thing, which you're welcome to think about, or to completely ignore. Obstacles are not always external: a rabid dog; the friend who won't sell the wonderful painting; the sudden appearance of an old enemy from schooldays. Some of the most interesting obstacles are internal to a character: Alex's fear of even tiny friendly dogs; how can Alex possibly tell the friend that the painting is a forgery?; Alex realising that they could finally get the better of the school-days enemy but only by giving up the original goal and acting now. Generally speaking, having one internal and one external obstacle isn't a bad recipe for a scene.

Whatever your obstacle(s) is/are, try to bring Alex up against one fairly soon, but if your pen seems to take a while to "write your way in" don't worry: sometimes that discovery writing - "process writing" it's often called - just is needed, and you (we) can sort it all out later.

If you find it helpful to know what size of piece you're aiming for, you could take 500-750 words as a nice round number; if we were in a workshop I'd probably give you twenty to thirty minutes; if neither of those feel helpful to think about, just ignore them.

The real way to know when you've written enough is to refuse to stop until the question which began with, "Can Alex get what they want/need, and will they?" is resolved in some way... All I'll say now is that you can let your pen discover what the resolution is, and it may not at all be the way Alex, or you, first wanted or expected.

That's it. When you've got that draft down read it quickly over, correct anything that stands out at you as obviously needing a tweak, but keep on remembering that not good enough is good enough for now. Then press Save, or put the paper somewhere the dog won't get it. We'll think about the next stage tomorrow.


Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, (currently on Amazon at 99p on Kindle and only just over half-price in hardback) was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD. This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University, is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader, and mentors and tutors individual writers. For more about Emma, click through to her main website.