5 Questions Before You Write the First Draft

Photo source: kaboompics

Photo source: kaboompics

NaNoWriMo is coming! Are you ready to start writing that novel? Don’t know where to begin? Here are the steps I take when I’m beginning writing. This post is part of a series on the process of writing a novel. Even if you aren’t doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), this series will help you write that novel.

Questions to consider:

  1. Who are your characters?
  2. What is the story’s purpose?
  3. What is the conflict?
  4. What mood do you want to set?
  5. How will it end?

To answer the first question, write back stories for your characters and interview as many of your them as you find necessary. Although not known to the reader in its entirety, the character’s back story is essential for writing a believable character. The better you know your characters, the better you will write them. Some things to consider are obvious (their name, gender, age, interests, profession, etc.), but you should also think about what has happened to them and what motivates them. What was the family dynamic? This is worth considering even if the story has nothing to do with that.

Another important step is the character interview. I’ve done interviews with most of my characters and I always learn something new. When writing the first draft (as well as subsequent drafts), I often go back to the interview to make sure I am being consistent with their personality and history. The character interview is where you can begin to explore their voice and their idiosyncrasies when it comes to how they speak.

So what do you ask your characters? Rowena of Beyond the Flow recommends the Proust questionnaire.

Question two asks you to identify the story’s purpose. There is often a layered answer, but knowing it will help you make decisions – the biggest being how the story will end. The ending helps you make decisions about the direction of the story leading to it. There are many authors who recommend writing the ending first, and it’s what I’ve done in the second draft of my novel, so it’s something I will try in the first draft in the future.

Conflict is what is stopping your protagonist from achieving their goal. It’s also what keeps readers interested in the story. Poetic descriptions are nice and all, but the story must have a force pushing it forward – that is the conflict.

Once you have identified the purpose and conflict, you should create an outline. Some people go crazy into detail, for others it is a rough sketch of what will happen – a loose guideline. I’m more of the latter type of writer, because I know that I will surprise myself in the writing and I don’t want to feel trapped in the plot I’ve planned.

Mood is very important. It helps you set tone. When you think of your novel as a final product, how does it make you feel? I’m not talking about the feelings associated with finally finishing it, but the feelings it (hopefully) leaves in the readers. Think of your favorite books. What general mood did they have? What feelings and mood do you want to evoke?

My way of creating the novel’s mood is creating a soundtrack (or several). I hope the music will translate into what and how I write. Having a soundtrack is useful to return to in subsequent drafts, so you can polish the words to fit.

Leave room for flexibility and change. Allow the first draft to be a place of discovery. It is where you get to learn about the characters and the story they want to tell. You may soon find out that isn’t the story you intended to tell and that is fine – actually it’s great, because your story will probably be better than what you planned.

Come writing time, check your inner editor at the door. Send him on an extended holiday until you’ve finished the first draft. He’ll have fun going to town on the rewrites.

Remember: this is just the first draft. The faster you get it done, the faster you can go through the numerous drafts you will inevitably write.

How do you prepare to write the first draft? Any tips you feel I missed?

34 thoughts on “5 Questions Before You Write the First Draft

  1. Pingback: In Pursuit of Character: The Proust Questionnaire | beyondtheflow

  2. Uli, thanks for this very useful post. As you’d know well by now, I’m struggling to organise my thoughts and your steps should really help. I tried to repost it onto my blog but couldn’t so I’ve added a link at the bottom of the Proust Questionnaire. Thanks for the shout out too, by the way. Take care xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

    • The reblog button is hidden in the more icon. I had a few instances of my posts being reblogged on sites that only reblog and I didn’t like it, so I hid that feature. Glad you found this useful. I hope it helps.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for that Ula. I actually largely use the reblog thing to remind myself to follow up on a post. I actually read quite a lot of blogs and it’s hard to find your way back to something you want to action or explore. I found your post very useful and would love to reblog it if that’s okay xx Ro

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a pantser. I never know what’s going on, who will pop up, or how it will end. I like it that way. That being said, I don’t have a book published so perhaps I should start plotting, planning, outlining, or answering these question. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a panster when it comes to shorter stuff, but I discovered that to write longer things I need to plan. The pansting just doesn’t work for me then. That said, there are plenty of pros who do little planning. I think part of the fun is discovering what works for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great questions, and really useful tips. I mentor a kids’ writing group, and I’ll be passing this along to them. In fact, I’m going to send them a couple of links to recent posts because they’re so helpful. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. I don’t always interview my characters, but when I’m stuck with one that seems flat, it can do wonders to get the character outside the story and better understand his or her motives. This is going to sound silly, but I actually charted the horoscopes of my historical characters and it really enhanced a deeper understanding of them from the research. I don’t think I’m doing the normal NaNo, but inventing an interactive revision month instead. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s not silly at all. I researched weather and astrological events for my novel, even though accuracy is not necessary for my story, but anything that made me feel I understood that world helped.
      I’m also doing revisions, or a rewrite to be more accurate, next month. What’s an interactive revision?


  8. Hi Ula. Thank you for this post. I am a therapist and know all too well from personal and professional experience that history is key in understanding individuals and groups. I watched David Frost interview novelist Isabelle Allende about a year ago (rebroadcast). Allende discussed her process of writing. She described letting her characters speak to her and that she does not plan in advance. I think the combination of loose planning and allowing your characters to speak to you as you write is a fruitful one. Here is the link to the interview: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/frostinterview/2013/07/20137239654991718.html I hope you enjoy it! Warm regards, F.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think those questions could be useful even if writing memoir. You’re not making stuff up as in fiction, but you are trying to achieve an interesting narrative and cohesion – shaping and molding existing material into a story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • For me that can’t be planned. Others might find it useful. I couldn’t use scrivner for the same reasons but I know many memoirists that do. My memoirs tend to be stories already as they are more of an adult adventure tale than childhood incidences that need to be tied together to create cohesion. The characters are well known and the conclusion is known as is everything in between. My big problem is always the beginning and that I think would be similar for all memoirists.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: The Ultimate NaNoWriMo Writer’s Tool Kit | confessions of a broccoli addict

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