Don't Think; Just Go
Y'all have seen my highly organized writing notebook here, but I want to reiterate that it didn't exist until the revision stage.
For first drafts, I am the perfect example of a "pantser." In the writing world, people tend to identify as a planners (those who have outlines and, you know, a plan) and pansters (those who write by the seat of their pants). While widely used, these terms tend to make it sound like planning is the right way and "pantsing" is wrong.
I've also seen this as architects and gardeners and I prefer those terms. Architects have a plan before they start and stick to it. They know all the layers and how everything will come together. The finished product is basically exactly what they had in mind. Gardeners have seeds and a vision for the end, but they have to change their plan as they go along because plants die or grow bigger than expected or things show up that aren't supposed to be there. The garden isn't exactly what they planned, but it's probably better than the original idea, because they've altered it as they found out what did and didn't work.
But what's that actually look like? I start projects with three things:
1. An idea for a character.
2. An opening scene.
3. An end goal.
That's it. I don't know anything that will happen in the middle. All three things above are likely pretty vague. But, I start. I write the opening scene I had in mind and ask myself what would logically happen next. What can happen to make things worse? What can go wrong? What would solve the problems? What would the character do here?
I figure it out as I go. Sometimes plots die and I have to change direction. Sometimes they turn out completely different than I thought, as if I'd actually planted sunflowers when I thought I'd planted daisies. Sometimes things I didn't plant show up and take over the whole garden. I'm just as surprised by plot twists as readers are because I genuinely did not see them coming.
It's fun and it's fast. I don't look back, ever. If I forget a character's eye color, I pick a new one. Age? Height? Name? Pick a new one. In the original draft of Definitions of Life, I only had one narrator instead of four. Said narrator didn't have a name (I referred to her as "Q"). One of the characters was anywhere between 11 and 14 years old, depending on the chapter. "Q" was in at least three math classes and had known her best friend for ten years and since she was five... but she was seventeen in the story.
Nothing made sense. Description as rare and inconsistent when it did exist. The plot direction changed drastically at least three times. There was one character who showed up a lot and seemed important, but at some point I must have realized she was useless because nothing ever came of her storyline.
It was not a good novel. But it was an amazing first draft. Why? Because it existed. It was done. All a first draft has to do is exist; everything else can be fixed later.
Q has a name now. There's four narrators, a plot that makes sense, and everything is important and ties together. I'm proud of the draft I have now, but I couldn't have written it if I hadn't let the first one exist. If I'd outlined and planned, I would have lost all the steam I had for the story.
I had to dive in and go for it and fix everything else later. Now, that example is pretty extreme and my first drafts aren't usually that messed up. But they are messed up. They aren't perfect. And they shouldn't be.
So if you're having trouble getting started, my best advice is simply to start. Open a document or grab a pen and write something. Anything. Don't think; just go. Have fun with it. Discover the story as you write. Don't worry about inconsistencies or quality, because this draft is just for you.
All it has to do is exist. Don't think; just go.
Do you let yourself have "crappy first drafts" as my professors and classmates call them? Are you a gardener?
For anyone interested in more advice on how to write as a "pantser" and why it might be better than planning, I highly recommend Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. You can find it here or linked on the resources page.