First Drafts

Hi. Barb here.

I’ve written about beginnings and the faith I try to keep with my readers. Now I’ve started writing the first draft of my next Maine Clam Bake Mystery.

First drafts are a struggle for me. Once I know the story, I love revising and doing research and all sorts of things. But since I’ve never successfully outlined, it takes the first draft to find the story, and sometimes that feels like pulling my own teeth.

As I write now, this sign is taped above my desk.

In 2011, I took an online course with Susan Meier via Pennwriters. It was easily one of the most useful writing courses I’ve ever taken. The title of the course was “Prepping for NaNoWriMo.” NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, when over 200,000 authors try to write 50,000 words in thirty days. The premise of Susan’s course was that during NaNoWriMo you were unlikely to run out of words; what you had to fear was running out of ideas, or in the writer world, running out of scenes. She is a romance author, and I have found over the years there is no one like a romance author to tell you to get over yourself, put on your big girl underwear and get writing.

I didn’t end up doing NaNo that year, because instead I wrote the proposal for the Maine Clam Bake Mystery series, but I’ve never forgotten the lessons of that course.

Could happen, might happen, should happen, must happen

One of Susan’s techniques is that once you have some idea of what your story is, even a vague one, you make lists of things that could, might, should and must happen.

The “must” happens are the things that make the plot grind away. They’re the underground mechanics. The “should” happens, I find, relate to character development and theme, ways of showing and not telling what the story is about. The “could” happens open out the story beyond the small boundaries you might be thinking inside. The flights of fancy. The “mights” are the things you’re feeling tentative about. They might happen, but then again might not.

I use this technique iteratively. In other words, I can’t sit down at the outset and do lists for a whole book. But I can do them for the first day, or to the end of the current act, etc.

 List of Five

The list of five means when you’re writing you always have somewhere to go next. It can keep you out of those awful cul de sacs.

  • Daily routines keep your story anchored in its fictional world. If your protagonist has a job, he or she needs do something about it before they go off adventuring. If there is a child, your protagonist must see to its care. Often the solutions to daily routines are not full scenes but paragraphs or even one sentence, but they can be enough to get you going on your way.
  • Logical next steps. You find a body. Someone calls the police. They arrive. They ask questions. Or, someone close to you dies. The work of planning a funeral begins. Friends and relatives must be told. And so on. It’s weird how sometimes when you’re writing, the simple question, “what’s the next logical thing to do?” gets skipped.
  • Twists-a force, heretofore unknown and probably unsuspected by the protagonist and the reader comes along and changes everything–our suppositions about what is happening as well as the forward direction of the narrative.
  • Turns–a character makes an unexpected decision and that changes the direction of the story.
  • Subplots–that’s a blog post all by itself. (And one I’m not yet qualified to write.)

Lists of Twenty

You’re writing along. It turns out, your hero and his sister’s boyfriend hate each other. It’s there on the page, the nasty interactions, the stinging dialog. But why, you wonder. Why this deep hatred? It obviously comes from history, it’s way beyond bad chemistry. You write and you write until you can’t write anymore until you know the reason for all this hate. That’s when you make a List of 20 reasons Joe and Tom hate each other. Meier emphasizes that it’s important to do twenty–without judgment. The first half dozen will be obvious. Your readers have read that book before. The next several may be ridiculous–completely outside the realm of your particular fictional world. But keep going. You’ll get there. The answer is very often in combinations of several of the ideas. Sometimes I pick one, move forward, discover it creates all sorts of character or story problems, and go back and pick another.


My husband and I are always telling our kids, “Do by doing.” Opportunities come from being active and participating. (Over-thinking and living too much in our heads is kind of a family disease.) The same can be true for characters. If they’re dead in the water, have them do something, because it will create a reaction, which will lead to the need to make a decision–and you’re off and running.


This actually comes from Joseph Finder, not Susan Meier. I have it here to remind me that though I can create a perfectly coherent world full of logical next steps, that won’t be very exciting for my readers. So reveal/reverse/surprise reminds me why this story in particular is worthy of being told.

What’s here is a tiny fraction of what was in Susan’s class. If you have a chance, take it.

And so, I battle my way through the first draft. You’ll notice that most of these are techniques for brainstorming by yourself. Because that really is the hard part of first drafts. Once you have something on paper, you can share it, with your critique partner or writers group or workshop class, but until then you’re all on your own.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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7 Responses to First Drafts

  1. Another wonderfully helpful post. Thank you. I also find the kitchen sink method works well in the roughest of rough drafts. I throw in everything that comes to mind, including the kitchen sink, and then take out the stuff that doesn’t work. I also outine as I go, writing down what happened in each scene. I seem to be incapable of thinking up what will happen much ahead of writing it, but having an outline of the story so far (in last week’s episode . . . ) makes it easier to see where it needs to go next. That usually means I have to go back and add earlier scenes as well as push forward. The Work in progress has made it to 35,000 words. They aren’t all gems and there’s much revising ahead, but that’s almost half a book and cause for celebration.

  2. John Clark says:

    Thanks Barb, this was great food for thought first thing in the morning and one I’ll save for those teeth grinding moments when I’m stuck.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    This is marvelous, and so helpful for what I am doing right now. Thanks.


  4. Liz Mugavero says:

    Love it, Barb. I’m going to tape the sign up on my desk today!

  5. thelma straw says:

    This is great – I’m going to keep notes on it for my wip! Thelma in Manhattan

  6. Barb Ross says:

    Glad people liked this! Remember, your mileage may vary.

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