This is my great writing discovery: the 0th draft. It’s the draft you write before your first draft, basically a reconnaissance in force. It may only be half the length of the finished novel. It may be a mess, it might be written on scraps of tablecloth, but it has:
A beginning of some sort, a middle and an end.
Characters – ideally at least three to start with.
Setting – this is the place/s where the story happens.
Situation – this is the thing that starts the story rolling and keeps it going. It’s the “What would happen if…?” question. “What would happen if a homosexual man went to war in 1939, got taken prisoner at Dunkirk and fell in love with the commandant of the POW camp?”
I just came up with that and I rather like it. I might even write it. There is an infinite number of what-if questions. Some are more fun than others. How do you tell which are the good ones?
Memorise this: extraordinary people doing something ordinary: good.
Ordinary people doing something extraordinary: good.
Extraordinary people doing something extraordinary: not so good.
Ordinary people doing something ordinary: bad.
Any kind of people not doing anything: worst.
This is why soaps are full of lost babies, cheating husbands, criminal wives, murder, incest. Soaps are the quintessential ordinary-people-doing-extraordinary stories. The Incredibles – maybe one of the best animation films ever made – is about extraordinary-people-doing-ordinary.
Comic books are full of the extraordinary doing extraordinary things: that’s why they often get quite dull after a time (Superman beats up another Badguy, yawn) unless some sheer genius like Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman comes along, picks the whole genre up by the scruff of the neck and turns it upside down.
My mother gave me another good tip: think about what everybody else will do. Then do something different. Or the opposite. Or the one in the middle.
More on the 0th draft in a moment.
[Actually, more on the 0th draft in Patricia Finney's Writeritis, available on Kindle from Climbing Tree Books and coming soon in paperback.]