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How do you approach your first drafts?

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TheRyustyNail

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Since I began my writing journey, one of my greatest struggles has been finding a comfortable way to approach the first draft of a new project.

It's taken many months and hundreds of thousands of words, but I've settled into a routine that I'm comfortable with. After outlining, I dictate my work using the "Landscape Method" and churn out as much prose as possible without stopping to edit. The goal isn't to create art, but, instead, to design a skeleton that I can later flesh out to meet my desired form and function.

The process has served me well, but I always seek to improve my craft and to grow as a wordsmith. So, my fellow denizens of Absolute Write, how do you approach your first drafts and what techniques have given you the most bang for your collective buck?
 

tangelo

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I've developed in a similar way. Been screenwriting for years, but transitioned into fiction recently. With scripts, I did a lot of outlining the first few years, then eventually became a pantser, and it seems to be holding true for fiction now. As long as I have a general framework in my head, I just write, and do so furiously. I don't stop to edit anything, as I've discovered it's my curse which keeps me locked onto those paragraphs for hours, or days, rewriting, over and over. So I sit down, and write from start to finish, never looking back. My first drafts of short stories are usually knocked out in 1 or 2 sittings now, but only because they are total crap at that stage. By the 5th edit, it's a story.
 

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Every project is different. Very short things (like a few thousand words or less) are generally written in one siting in a blaze of inspiration and hubris and sometimes alcohol. Longer projects need more than just that one bit of inspiration, otherwise I'll run out of steam/have no idea where I'm going and the project will flounder. What I usually do is I write a summary of the story (like what would be on a Wikipedia page) and that can be anywhere from a few paragraphs to multiple pages. I then break that up into "scenes" or "chapters" and then construct an outline, which I'll put more info into before I start writing.

I have ADHD and my brain is very particular so my system works best for me. I need structure or else nothing will ever get done, but I need flexibility otherwise I'll have no passion/creativity for what I'm doing. Some parts of the outline might be blow-by-blow descriptions of action, an entire conversation, or it might just be "they go to a new city and have some trouble on the way." What trouble? I dunno! I'll figure it out when I get there! On my current manuscript I had "[MC] gets more confident in her abilities" and I was originally thinking some training montage-type stuff. But once I got to writing that part, I thought it would be better to knock her down a few pegs, so she gets over-confident in a sparring match and her arm gets broken. This leads to trouble for her and some other characters, some characters interacting who otherwise wouldn't, honestly it all worked out much better than if it was just a montage.

I keep myself from editing or fixing things or I know I'll be doing that for forever and the first draft won't get finished. Sometime's I'll finish a chapter and leave a comment saying "This sucks I hate the ending" and then I fix it when it's time to edit the whole draft. Once I have the full draft, I know the story better, so it's easier for me to make a fix. I'll make a running list in a document or notebook of other things to fix, too, like "this is how that name is spelled now" or "put in foreshadowing for this".
 

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Aargh. My initial response to how I approach first drafts (at least for novella+ length stories) is with trembling and trepidation. I realize that might not be very useful in the technical sense, but it might be helpful to someone else who's developed a certain amount of anxiety over drafting.

It might also be worth mentioning here that this doesn't apply to shorts (anything under, say 8k). For those I just need a clear idea of who my protag is, what they want, and some notion of how the story ends. Then I'm ready to charge out and do this thing. In fact, I've even wondered if I should just say, "Screw it--I'm a short story writer," and leave it at that.

But I think the important point is that I need a certain amount of discovery writing in my drafts, aka pantsing.

I like pantsing. I pantsed the first seven novels I drafted. But out of those, only two were worth the work of rescuing--Snow White, parts 1 and 2. Before you doubt me, let me add that it took me SEVEN years to edit that thing, and I couldn't have done it without the help of some very talented beta friends.

So pure discovery writing resulted in a hot mess. Okay, note to self: don't do that anymore.

My next step was to hone my skills in the area of short stories, as well as to learn about three-act structure. I also took an expensive editing class, and all I have to say about that is: Don't. I got a lot more out of Save the Cat. The instructor wanted us to nail down every single scene in advance, all color coded so our drafts had this optimal blend of scene-sequel, character development, and advancing the plot.

Ugh--seriously? No, thanks. I've had fun and that is NOT IT. And okay, that's a bit flippant, but trying to be a pure plotter resulted in procrastination and a real lack of joy in my work. Pure plotting didn't work for me, either.

Of course not. My brain turns out to be this space where I've got to work out some sort of ever-changing synthesis of these two polarities. All I can say is if you're nodding along to this: I feel you. And it IS possible to tweak things until you find just the right spot, and writing is a joy again. But it's a moving target, and I'm never completely sure what it's going to take to hit it.

What I did for Golden Key, Stolen Legacy, and Bellerophon was this: First, I started with character. I had to have a person I wanted/needed to spend time with. Then I decided on the basic tale, which is quite often a reluctant hero who overcomes personal and outer challenges to triumph in some important fashion. And it has to have magic, and the magic can't be fully explained. Sandersonian magic systems leave me cold.

And in all cases but one, it has to have a unique historical setting. (I did recently draft an urban fantasy novella, set present day.) I actually didn't realize how much I miss the history component until I wrote a book without one. I usually do a deep research dive prior to drafting. I ended up feeling cheated of that step. And okay, I forced myself through, but I'm considering setting that thing in the eighties, since I've got a couple of sequels planned.

For some reason, living the era ahead of time, putting myself into the world that just got the Transcontinental Railroad across the US, for instance, matters. No idea why.

No kidding on that one, btw. I can't even explain my own brain. It's one reason why I'm really hesitant to pile a bunch of shoulds on people. After all, that index card thing works for a lot of people, apparently.

Then I'm ready to lay out my three-act turning points: inciting incident, point of no return, first pinch, midpoint, second pinch, dark night, finale/conclusion. Once I have those I'm ready to write. All actual scenes are discovery written. Setting has been internalized by this point.

I have no idea if that will work for anyone else, but it works for me. And if, like me, you live in the in-between of panters and plotters, all I can say is: something will work. You can try something like my "system" (calling it that seems far too formal) if it seems like it might be useful. But keep plugging away. Something will come to you. Pinky swear.

Just don't give up until you find it. : )

ETA: I usually edit as I draft. Just the first of many, to be sure, but it actually bugs me more to sail on ahead without addressing whatever problem it is that I've found.
 

TheRyustyNail

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I've developed in a similar way. Been screenwriting for years, but transitioned into fiction recently. With scripts, I did a lot of outlining the first few years, then eventually became a pantser, and it seems to be holding true for fiction now. As long as I have a general framework in my head, I just write, and do so furiously. I don't stop to edit anything, as I've discovered it's my curse which keeps me locked onto those paragraphs for hours, or days, rewriting, over and over. So I sit down, and write from start to finish, never looking back. My first drafts of short stories are usually knocked out in 1 or 2 sittings now, but only because they are total crap at that stage. By the 5th edit, it's a story.

I've developed in a similar way. Been screenwriting for years, but transitioned into fiction recently. With scripts, I did a lot of outlining the first few years, then eventually became a pantser, and it seems to be holding true for fiction now. As long as I have a general framework in my head, I just write, and do so furiously. I don't stop to edit anything, as I've discovered it's my curse which keeps me locked onto those paragraphs for hours, or days, rewriting, over and over. So I sit down, and write from start to finish, never looking back. My first drafts of short stories are usually knocked out in 1 or 2 sittings now, but only because they are total crap at that stage. By the 5th edit, it's a story.
Very similar. If I stop to edit a first draft I never stop editing. All the real work comes in the 2nd and 3rd drafts. I try not to go over 3 drafts or else the project drags on forever.
 
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TheRyustyNail

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Every project is different. Very short things (like a few thousand words or less) are generally written in one siting in a blaze of inspiration and hubris and sometimes alcohol. Longer projects need more than just that one bit of inspiration, otherwise I'll run out of steam/have no idea where I'm going and the project will flounder. What I usually do is I write a summary of the story (like what would be on a Wikipedia page) and that can be anywhere from a few paragraphs to multiple pages. I then break that up into "scenes" or "chapters" and then construct an outline, which I'll put more info into before I start writing.

I have ADHD and my brain is very particular so my system works best for me. I need structure or else nothing will ever get done, but I need flexibility otherwise I'll have no passion/creativity for what I'm doing. Some parts of the outline might be blow-by-blow descriptions of action, an entire conversation, or it might just be "they go to a new city and have some trouble on the way." What trouble? I dunno! I'll figure it out when I get there! On my current manuscript I had "[MC] gets more confident in her abilities" and I was originally thinking some training montage-type stuff. But once I got to writing that part, I thought it would be better to knock her down a few pegs, so she gets over-confident in a sparring match and her arm gets broken. This leads to trouble for her and some other characters, some characters interacting who otherwise wouldn't, honestly it all worked out much better than if it was just a montage.

I keep myself from editing or fixing things or I know I'll be doing that for forever and the first draft won't get finished. Sometime's I'll finish a chapter and leave a comment saying "This sucks I hate the ending" and then I fix it when it's time to edit the whole draft. Once I have the full draft, I know the story better, so it's easier for me to make a fix. I'll make a running list in a document or notebook of other things to fix, too, like "this is how that name is spelled now" or "put in foreshadowing for this".
Okay. You mix different elements of plotting and panting to create a style unique to you. I think most people fall somewhere between the two camps.

Do you ever use mind maps?
 

tangelo

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Very similar. If I stop to edit a first draft I never stop editing. All the real work comes in the 2nd and 3rd drafts. I try not to go over 3 drafts or else the project drags on forever.

Seriously. I stopped that nonsense years ago. I can't even look up at any words typed, or I'll start editing like an addict. OCD is real, yo.
 
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TheRyustyNail

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Aargh. My initial response to how I approach first drafts (at least for novella+ length stories) is with trembling and trepidation. I realize that might not be very useful in the technical sense, but it might be helpful to someone else who's developed a certain amount of anxiety over drafting.

It might also be worth mentioning here that this doesn't apply to shorts (anything under, say 8k). For those I just need a clear idea of who my protag is, what they want, and some notion of how the story ends. Then I'm ready to charge out and do this thing. In fact, I've even wondered if I should just say, "Screw it--I'm a short story writer," and leave it at that.

But I think the important point is that I need a certain amount of discovery writing in my drafts, aka pantsing.

I like pantsing. I pantsed the first seven novels I drafted. But out of those, only two were worth the work of rescuing--Snow White, parts 1 and 2. Before you doubt me, let me add that it took me SEVEN years to edit that thing, and I couldn't have done it without the help of some very talented beta friends.

So pure discovery writing resulted in a hot mess. Okay, note to self: don't do that anymore.

My next step was to hone my skills in the area of short stories, as well as to learn about three-act structure. I also took an expensive editing class, and all I have to say about that is: Don't. I got a lot more out of Save the Cat. The instructor wanted us to nail down every single scene in advance, all color coded so our drafts had this optimal blend of scene-sequel, character development, and advancing the plot.

Ugh--seriously? No, thanks. I've had fun and that is NOT IT. And okay, that's a bit flippant, but trying to be a pure plotter resulted in procrastination and a real lack of joy in my work. Pure plotting didn't work for me, either.

Of course not. My brain turns out to be this space where I've got to work out some sort of ever-changing synthesis of these two polarities. All I can say is if you're nodding along to this: I feel you. And it IS possible to tweak things until you find just the right spot, and writing is a joy again. But it's a moving target, and I'm never completely sure what it's going to take to hit it.

What I did for Golden Key, Stolen Legacy, and Bellerophon was this: First, I started with character. I had to have a person I wanted/needed to spend time with. Then I decided on the basic tale, which is quite often a reluctant hero who overcomes personal and outer challenges to triumph in some important fashion. And it has to have magic, and the magic can't be fully explained. Sandersonian magic systems leave me cold.

And in all cases but one, it has to have a unique historical setting. (I did recently draft an urban fantasy novella, set present day.) I actually didn't realize how much I miss the history component until I wrote a book without one. I usually do a deep research dive prior to drafting. I ended up feeling cheated of that step. And okay, I forced myself through, but I'm considering setting that thing in the eighties, since I've got a couple of sequels planned.

For some reason, living the era ahead of time, putting myself into the world that just got the Transcontinental Railroad across the US, for instance, matters. No idea why.

No kidding on that one, btw. I can't even explain my own brain. It's one reason why I'm really hesitant to pile a bunch of shoulds on people. After all, that index card thing works for a lot of people, apparently.

Then I'm ready to lay out my three-act turning points: inciting incident, point of no return, first pinch, midpoint, second pinch, dark night, finale/conclusion. Once I have those I'm ready to write. All actual scenes are discovery written. Setting has been internalized by this point.

I have no idea if that will work for anyone else, but it works for me. And if, like me, you live in the in-between of panters and plotters, all I can say is: something will work. You can try something like my "system" (calling it that seems far too formal) if it seems like it might be useful. But keep plugging away. Something will come to you. Pinky swear.

Just don't give up until you find it. : )

ETA: I usually edit as I draft. Just the first of many, to be sure, but it actually bugs me more to sail on ahead without addressing whatever problem it is that I've found.
You like to have an understanding of the character, setting, and basic plot points, but truly discover the story as you write?

I do a lot of outlining, but most of it focuses on worldbuilding, specifics details for fashion, speech, customs, and a detailed breakdown of my major characters personality and life before the plot. For the actual writing, I have goalposts, but how I reach those is completely organic.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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Okay. You mix different elements of plotting and panting to create a style unique to you. I think most people fall somewhere between the two camps.

Do you ever use mind maps?
Lol people ALWAYS say that to me whenever I tell them my creative processes. And I always say no, because my mind goes so fast that I might go A>B>C>D>E in a few seconds, but it takes several minutes to draw out the mind map, and if I just put A>E people will ask me how I went from "cats" to "submarines" and that takes even MORE time to explain it to them... I write down the final product(s) of these sessions, attempting to document the process in any form is a waste of time for me. It doesn't make sense to force myself to use a system that someone else invented for the sake of some other person to see every step of my process.

I AM using index cards/sticky notes/whiteboard markers to outline my interactive web novel, which some people do confuse with mind-mapping. It takes a really, really long time to outline this way, but I have to do it in such a graphical/intentional way because I need to track all possible paths (including fail states), variables, story flags...it's a lot! Here is a screenshot of the high-level overview which ONLY has scenes and none of the variables. It also doesn't show all the possible ways the player can go backward/up the "tree" or "reset" what they're doing...This project requires me to work with programmers for the Javascript, so I need to document myself clearly so that I can communicate all this to them. Everything is really organized and methodical, but that's because it has to be so we can make the state machine or whatever.
 
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Maggie Maxwell

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It took me a while to find the method that works best for me. I struggled with admitting that it's what I need because I had at least one major pantsing twist that morphed the entire story into something way better than I planned, so I spent too long holding onto that desire to do it again before I finally admitted I'm a planner. What I find works out best is for me to basically write out a very detailed synopsis, with a paragraph or two dedicated to each scene or event. Some are detailed step-by-steps, some are "this happens". I often have to change up points as the story morphs and various scenes change or don't work as planned, but it's enough to get me from point A to point T(he End). If I don't have the whole thing planned out, though, I get stuck.
 

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What works best for me is to write whatever scene comes to mind (or that I've been mentally chewing on all day), no matter where it is in the story. Then, about the time I get 30k words, there is enough written to start arranging in some sort of order and see if it's going in the direction I thought it was, or if I can go somewhere else with it. The order is often sort-of already there, but here is where the tweaking starts and I can generally then get serious about which scene among those written needs to be the opener (or if I need a new opener), which scenes are still needed, and how the whole thing fits together. There isn't usually a distinct first draft, second, etc. because I usually edit as I go. Sometimes I can't move on until a scene is to a certain level of how i want it. Now, of course it will still need the final touches in response to how the rest of the book develops, but of the six books I've completed each has been written this way. Generally, I can go from the first words to a finished full novel that I'd let a beta reader see and maybe consider querying in 9 months to a year, although additional revisions and tweaking can stretch on for as long as the need to.

The benefits are that I can get scenes out of my head to allow brainspace to think of new scenes, once the book is complete it doesn't need major overhauls, and it fits how I think. The downsides are that although I am usually good about closing plot holes, maintaining voice and avoiding inconsistencies, sometimes my novels feel like a succession of short stories, making the pace feel off and the plot arch uneven.
 

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I'm an extreme planner. I know absolutely everything about the story before I ever begin to write. I also view my story as a completed book from the start. I know every chapter, every scene, I know it hits all the proper beats, I know the characters and the world, I know everything up front and the actual writing is just translating it to prose. Of course, all of this comes over a number of years where I can roll it around in my head and work out the details so that by the time that book's turn comes up, I have very little planning still to do. It's all been hammered out already. Then, I don't have to worry *IF* the story is going to work, I can just enjoy the process of writing it.
 

TheRyustyNail

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It took me a while to find the method that works best for me. I struggled with admitting that it's what I need because I had at least one major pantsing twist that morphed the entire story into something way better than I planned, so I spent too long holding onto that desire to do it again before I finally admitted I'm a planner. What I find works out best is for me to basically write out a very detailed synopsis, with a paragraph or two dedicated to each scene or event. Some are detailed step-by-steps, some are "this happens". I often have to change up points as the story morphs and various scenes change or don't work as planned, but it's enough to get me from point A to point T(he End). If I don't have the whole thing planned out, though, I get stuck.
I work in a similar way. The main story beats are planned out before the first draft as guidelines, but I improvise and change the flow of the narrative as I work. Best of both worlds.
 

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I'm an extreme planner. I know absolutely everything about the story before I ever begin to write. I also view my story as a completed book from the start. I know every chapter, every scene, I know it hits all the proper beats, I know the characters and the world, I know everything up front and the actual writing is just translating it to prose. Of course, all of this comes over a number of years where I can roll it around in my head and work out the details so that by the time that book's turn comes up, I have very little planning still to do. It's all been hammered out already. Then, I don't have to worry *IF* the story is going to work, I can just enjoy the process of writing it.
Interesting. If you're letting the idea bake for years, I'm sure you have plenty of detail to work with and an abundance of time to examine every possible twist and turn in your plot. Do you have multiple projects planned at once, or do you stick with one?
 

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Interesting. If you're letting the idea bake for years, I'm sure you have plenty of detail to work with and an abundance of time to examine every possible twist and turn in your plot. Do you have multiple projects planned at once, or do you stick with one?
At the moment, I know the next 37 books I'll be writing.
 

TheRyustyNail

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What works best for me is to write whatever scene comes to mind (or that I've been mentally chewing on all day), no matter where it is in the story. Then, about the time I get 30k words, there is enough written to start arranging in some sort of order and see if it's going in the direction I thought it was, or if I can go somewhere else with it. The order is often sort-of already there, but here is where the tweaking starts and I can generally then get serious about which scene among those written needs to be the opener (or if I need a new opener), which scenes are still needed, and how the whole thing fits together. There isn't usually a distinct first draft, second, etc. because I usually edit as I go. Sometimes I can't move on until a scene is to a certain level of how i want it. Now, of course it will still need the final touches in response to how the rest of the book develops, but of the six books I've completed each has been written this way. Generally, I can go from the first words to a finished full novel that I'd let a beta reader see and maybe consider querying in 9 months to a year, although additional revisions and tweaking can stretch on for as long as the need to.

The benefits are that I can get scenes out of my head to allow brainspace to think of new scenes, once the book is complete it doesn't need major overhauls, and it fits how I think. The downsides are that although I am usually good about closing plot holes, maintaining voice and avoiding inconsistencies, sometimes my novels feel like a succession of short stories, making the pace feel off and the plot arch uneven.
I couldn't do it :) If I wrote scenes out of order I would get lost in a couple of days. I'm amazed you can keep the ideas organized over such a long length of time. It's crazy how different individual minds can be!
 
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If I wrote scenes out of order I would get lost in a couple of days.
That's so interesting. I am still figuring out my method of writing (I have a need to balance planning and pantsing but haven't worked up the ratio), but one thing that helps when I'm stuck is writing scenes out of order. It only works if I'm still brainstorming (and trying to get characters' voices/quirks in my head) or if I have a strong internal outline of the book so I know what's going to come before.

Is anyone else able to mentally zoom out and have the whole book's outline in medium detail in their head? For me it's a blessing and a curse. I can jump around and write/edit where I want and keep the details straight, but once I've locked my brain into an outline I have a hard time rearranging the main events like I might if I used index cards, for example.

I agreeā€”it is crazy how different individual minds can be! I love it!
 

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That's so interesting. I am still figuring out my method of writing (I have a need to balance planning and pantsing but haven't worked up the ratio), but one thing that helps when I'm stuck is writing scenes out of order. It only works if I'm still brainstorming (and trying to get characters' voices/quirks in my head) or if I have a strong internal outline of the book so I know what's going to come before.

Is anyone else able to mentally zoom out and have the whole book's outline in medium detail in their head? For me it's a blessing and a curse. I can jump around and write/edit where I want and keep the details straight, but once I've locked my brain into an outline I have a hard time rearranging the main events like I might if I used index cards, for example.

I agreeā€”it is crazy how different individual minds can be! I love it!
When I write the outline, I have one or two paragraph synopsis for each scene that guides my train of thought for the entire narrative. Part of the reason that I don't write out of order, is because I suffer from minor brain damage that creates memory loss. If I write outside of a linear system, I often forget what I wrote in the original scenes o_O
 
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What works best for me is to write whatever scene comes to mind (or that I've been mentally chewing on all day), no matter where it is in the story. Then, about the time I get 30k words, there is enough written to start arranging in some sort of order and see if it's going in the direction I thought it was, or if I can go somewhere else with it. The order is often sort-of already there, but here is where the tweaking starts and I can generally then get serious about which scene among those written needs to be the opener (or if I need a new opener), which scenes are still needed, and how the whole thing fits together. There isn't usually a distinct first draft, second, etc. because I usually edit as I go. Sometimes I can't move on until a scene is to a certain level of how i want it. Now, of course it will still need the final touches in response to how the rest of the book develops, but of the six books I've completed each has been written this way. Generally, I can go from the first words to a finished full novel that I'd let a beta reader see and maybe consider querying in 9 months to a year, although additional revisions and tweaking can stretch on for as long as the need to.
That's mostly how I do it, down to the 30K point. I do have distinct drafts, but it's mostly due to the breaks I take.

I have a general feel for the story from the very beginning, that I can't always put into words, or it can be very general and not worth writing down. Then I use scenes for brainstorming. I am most creative when I look at the world through my characters' eyes, and even just thinking about a scene is different from actually writing it down. When I am stuck, I often write throw-away scenes where the characters just sit in a white room and talk about the problem I have.
 

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I mostly write out a vague plan, so just how the overall plot progresses to get to the ending, character names and ages (I forget them near the start otherwise), and little things like that. Then I start writing and, as I go, I leave a note at the end of each chapter if I realise something needs editing later. It means I know what I need to do during editing and don't have to stop to do it right then (or risk losing it if it's not in the same document). It's taken a while to find this method, but it works well for me.
 

TheRyustyNail

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I mostly write out a vague plan, so just how the overall plot progresses to get to the ending, character names and ages (I forget them near the start otherwise), and little things like that. Then I start writing and, as I go, I leave a note at the end of each chapter if I realise something needs editing later. It means I know what I need to do during editing and don't have to stop to do it right then (or risk losing it if it's not in the same document). It's taken a while to find this method, but it works well for me.
I like breaking my writing into chunks. The first draft follows scene to sequel layout. Being loose leads to forgetting what I'm doing 3000 words in :ROFLMAO:
 
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Keilah

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I'm working on the first draft of my current project and at first I didn't need really need notes or much of an outline, but now I'm finding that outlining each chapter before I start writing it helps keep me organized. Overall, I look at the first draft as my attempt to get the story written down. It won't be pretty and will likely be full of errors and issues, but that's what editing and revisions are for.
 
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TheRyustyNail

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I'm working on the first draft of my current project and at first I didn't need really need notes or much of an outline, but now I'm finding that outlining each chapter before I start writing it helps keep me organized. Overall, I look at the first draft my attempt to get the story written down. It won't be pretty and will likely be full of errors and issues, but that's what editing and revisions are for.
Makes perfect sense. Doesn't matter if it's sloppy as long as it serves the purpose.
 

averyames

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It took me years and many manuscripts to finally sort out the system that works for me. I tried full-on pantsing, heavily plotting, and settled in the middle (as I think many writers do.)

I now do VERY rough zero-drafts. Some scenes may be summarized, there might be bracketed notes to myself like [go back and fix this in chapter 3], and they usually clock in at about 40k words or so.

Then I use that as the skeleton for a full draft before going into the rest of the beta reader and revision process.

Every writer is definitely going to have their own process. In my writer's group, we have everything from the 15-page-outline plotters to go-in-without-any-plan pantsers, and several of us in between.
 

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