What Should You Focus On While First Drafting?

Photo credit: Brian Stetson on Flickr
I've frequently talked about how first drafts are meant to be terrible, and how I worry about nothing while first drafting except getting the story down. I've said time and time again that anything messy in the first draft can be fixed with revisions, but you can't edit a blank page, so getting the words down first is the most important thing.

But what's involved in "getting the story down"? What should you focus on getting on the page, rather than saving it for later?

As is the case with many things in writing, this answer is going to vary writer-to-writer. But after completing sixteen first drafts, this is what I've learned to focus on while getting the story down for the first time:

  • The plot. Technically I worry about this while plotting, not first drafting, but the first draft is where I take note of whether or not the plot is working as it should be. A lot of times I can't really tell for sure whether the plot is working the way I wanted it to until the first read through and revisions, but while first draft I at least get a sense of the flow and the way one scene leads into another and how they stack up together.

  • The characters. The first draft is really where I get to know the characters for the first time. This is where their personalities start to shine, where their interactions with other characters tells me about them, where I get glimpses into who they are and what makes them tick. By the end of the first draft, I don't have a full picture of my full cast of characters, but I usually have a pretty good idea of how the main cast behaves and how they get along (or don't). 

  • The story. Ultimately, the first draft is where I follow a lot of gut feelings. It's not uncommon for my plotted scene card to say one thing and the scene itself to turn out another way entirely. Arguments happen where I didn't plan them—and so does kissing—flirting crops up between characters I didn't expect, and sometimes new plot ideas hit me along the way. I pretty near always follow those gut instincts and go wherever the story takes me, regardless of whether or not I'd planned for it before. And sixteen first drafts later, I've yet to regret going with what felt right as I wrote rather than with what I'd originally planned.

So those are the main things I try to keep in mind when putting words on the page for the first time. What do you focus on while first drafting?

Twitter-sized bite:
What do you focus on while first drafting? @Ava_Jae shares some experience and thoughts. (Click to tweet)

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