Telling Myself the Story: Composing a first draft

It’s fortuitous that this topic falls here, at the end of November, as I’ve spent the past 26 days frantically drafting Book 2 of the Aven Cycle as my NaNoWriMo project (with intermittent work on two other projects at the same time). It’s also a bit unfortuitous — I’ve been so busy drafting that I haven’t had a lot of time to think about how I draft.

What leaps to mind, though, is a quote from Terry Pratchett, one of my most-admired writers. “The first draft is just telling yourself the story.”

I’ve always been a non-sequential writer. I compose scenes as they pop into my head — and I almost never write even a full scene, start to finish, all in one go. I hit the major points — the high actions, the vivid images, the scintillating conversations — and then I play connect-the-dots later. Sometimes I write scenes that are gorgeous in my mind, but which end up not connecting to anything at all. Sometimes I invent characters who end up being entirely extraneous. Sometimes I write scenes that utterly contradict each other.

I never let that bother me, at this point. I’m telling myself the story. I’m finding out which bits belong and which bits might have their homes somewhere else, in some other story that I may or may not ever tell. I’m exploring a house with many rooms, some of which have secrets worth uncovering, and some of which don’t. It’s organic and tends to be heavy on dialogue and emotional conflict, but lighter on plot and structure.

What all of this means? My first drafts often take “hot mess” to a whole new level.

Like I talked about a few weeks ago, this month I threw my outline for Book 2 out the window and started writing scenes more freely — far more in my usual mode of drafting, letting the characters wander into each other and have conversations until I can figure out what’s important to them and what they want to be doing. This means I’m about to have 70k of what I wrote to the outline and 50k of what I’ve written without it. December is going to be a challenge as I attempt to shuffle those two pieces back together, toss out what isn’t working anymore, and figure out where the holes still are.

Here’s what I already know some of those holes will look like:

  • Because this book is multi-POV, I’ll have to spend some time balancing — making sure we don’t go 200 pages without hearing from a POV character, for example. I suspect I’m heavy on my heroine and lighter on the secondary protags who are off in another country for the first half of the book.
  • Military matters. There’s a war in this book, and I know those are the bits I’ve been avoiding writing. The good news is, I think I’ve found some good work-arounds in these past outline-less weeks that are going to make that much more compelling.
  • Because my characters are spatially separated for the first half of the book, I’m going to have to devote attention to my timeline (and make sure that my legions aren’t traveling at the speed of plot).
  • I know I’ll need to attend to my pacing, which is often all over the map in my first drafts. At least this time, because I did have that outline at the start, I know I actually have exciting incidents to work with; sometimes the first draft is really conversation-heavy without much actually happening.
  • Connective tissue in general. The things that get us from one exciting incident to another, from one emotional point to another. It’s not the sort of thing to get bogged down in — “enter late, leave early” is solid advice for writing scenes — but I have to provide enough context that everything makes sense.
  • I’ve written some scenes multiple times. Sometimes, from different perspectives; sometimes, from different perspectives, but often, just because I wanted another crack at it. I’m going to have to compare and contrast and either decide which version I like best or else meld the things I like about multiple versions together.
  • The above particularly applies to the climax of the book. I have four different ways to end the magical conflict that forms the most dramatic action. I couldn’t decide which way I liked best, so I just wrote all four of them. I’ll need to figure out which one actually serves the story the best.

Apart from having started with an outline, though, this isn’t wildly different from my usual way of getting a first draft. I find the character arcs and major plot beats, and then I smooth out where the joints between them show. I tell myself the story — then I set it aside for a little while, work on something different, and then, when I come back, figure out what I need to do to tell it to someone else.


From Unseen Fire is the first book of the Aven Cycle, a historical fantasy set in an alternate ancient Rome. Pre-order from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, or your local indie bookstore!

Author: Cass Morris

Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.