...and what to leave out. Or, rather, what bits are worth spending your time on, and what bits aren't. Now, before you read any further, know that THIS IS WHAT WORKS FOR ME. That doesn't mean that it will work for you. So don't come to my house with pitchforks and torches demanding I return your wasted time and recompense your other emotional damages. You won't get shit. And maybe I will spray you with vodka from my window. Or something. Anyway. Since you asked, here you go. (Proceed at your own risk. I warned you.)
THE THINGS TO WORK ON IN THE FIRST DRAFT:
1. The order of things.
In other words, the precise order of how your characters get from point A to point B. They're like points on the map of the story. This is how I do it. I spend lots of time visualizing these points before I even start writing down what happens there. They are kind of like these messy combinations of locations and characters, like snapshots of scenes, like where what happens and who does what. I create Pinterest boards for each of my books and I often spend up to an hour a day looking for art that matches what I have in my head. The places, the people, the atmosphere. This is crucial as it allows me to see the story in my head as real.
2. The internal thoughts.
Curiously, I spend lots of time on these in the first draft only to cut them out almost completely from the finished book. I do these for me. They are like notes that help me explain what is going on inside my characters' heads and hearts and livers and so on. Everything they feel or think or sense I spell out. It could be actual thoughts or lines of dialogue (and that dialogue usually sucks but I don't care because I know I will cut it out later) or even long bits of narrative. I don't really pay attention to what shape they take, I just spend my time writing them in. Then, in later drafts, once I know what the hell is going on, I cut them all out. Well, most of them anyway.
3. The backstories.
Again, these will go under a knife later. Maybe some will remain, but not many. And yet I spend a lot of time articulating them, and again this is for myself. I need to know where my characters come from, who their parents are (or were), where were they born, how were they raised, what schools did they go to (or not), their first jobs, first loves, first heartbreaks, and on and on and on. I cram in as much of this stuff as I can, and then in the very last draft I cut it all out. Because by then I know which of those details it's important to keep and which of them are redundant and take away from the story.
Well, what is story without action? Nothing. It's not a story. In a story something happens all the time. So I spend a lot of time on thinking and then writing down what happens. These bits are kind of like bridges that connect the points on the story map outlined earlier in point 1, it's like bridges where all the action happens, where the story moves quickly from scene to scene. This happened! Then this happened! Then this happened! This is really the meat of the story. In the first draft I spend a lot of time stringing these together, but they are usually pretty thin, meaning, the action is pretty scarce as I am not familiar with it yet. These bridges are the things that expand the most in the later drafts. I like to think my finished books have mostly action in them, even when it doesn't look like action (I'm sneaky like that).
THE THINGS TO LEAVE OUT (OR BARELY TOUCH):
In Draft 1 all of my dialogue is a placeholder. I don't know the characters well enough yet to know what they will really say, what they will really mean and want to say (or not say), and so I just write down a couple lines here and there and move on. I know it will all change and expand later.
Most of my descriptions expand exponentially in Draft 2, only to be cut down again in Draft 3. But in Draft 1 I only do quick sketches. Funny enough, in Draft 4, or whatever the last draft number is, the descriptions go back to sketches, only now I know exactly how little I need to say to paint a very big picture. It takes many drafts to arrive at this point. Less is more (and it's the hardest to write this way).
3. Any kind of sense.
At this point I'm not worried if my story is making any kind of sense or not. I just write down whatever comes to mind. I know in the future I will start seeing a distinct pattern and will start fitting details into that pattern, and cutting out details that don't fit. Until then it almost doesn't matter if anything makes any sense as long as some kind of a semblance of the story is developing and moving forward.
This I actually hardly spend time at all, least of all in Draft 1. I might quickly look up something, but because the story will change, it makes no sense to waste time looking something up that might not even be there in the final book. It's in the last draft where I dive into certain details and research them. Aside from that, nope. I spend my time on writing.
That's about it, folks! The first draft is really just some bones to hang some meat on and wrap in some skin and add shape to later on. It's messy, it's malformed, it's weird, it drones on and on for no reason but to drone on and on from beginning to end. And that's it's main purpose. To be born in its entirety. That is, actually have a beginning and an end. And hopefully some middle in the middle. When that is done, the first draft is done. At this point I set it aside for a couple months and try to forget about it. The better I forget it, the easier it will be to write Draft 2.
So there you have it. Now you owe me all that vodka that I sprayed on your heads from my window. Send it here. Also, send coffee and tea and chocolate and Etsy gift cards. I'm rather fond of Etsy lately. Or send plain cash. It looks very nice as wallpaper, I hear. I have an itch to try it.