Turning the Amateur First Draft into the Professional First Draft

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A first draft is a long way from done. So how do we get to done? Obviously, the next step after a first draft is a second draft. Right?

No, actually. The next step after a first draft involves making sure that it’s a PROFESSIONAL First Draft.

As Shawn Coyne says:

“An amateur first draft is a series of scenes that don’t have beginning, middles, and ends, that don’t have valence shifts, that don’t have any values at stake, that are riddled with clichés…There’s no real thought about the global movements of value shift for the chosen genre.  Most likely the writer hasn’t even made a clear genre choice.  So the obligatory scenes and conventions of the story the writer wants to tell are not on the page. There’s no global arc. It’s just 60,000 words one after the other. And it will most likely have to be put in a drawer.  It’s not a first draft.”

Then what’s a Professional First Draft? Here’s my basic definition:

  1. The genre conventions are (mostly) there
  2. Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end
  3. The global story has a beginning, middle, and end

Unfortunately, most of the time our first attempt at a novel doesn’t arc properly and we don’t produce anything close to a Professional First Draft. It’s an Amateur First Draft, and not something you would want to spend hours and hours putting onto a Story Grid Spreadsheet.

Sure, you’ll be able to see in glorified living color that your draft doesn’t work, but a Story Grid Spreadsheet is an enormous investment of time. For many of us, we waffle between fear of The Spreadsheet and knowledge that we are NOT ready to benefit from it. This uncertainty can leave us hanging. We feel great that we’ve written a book, but we don’t know how to move forward without grinding out fourteen columns of pain.

The answer: put your first draft through a targeted rewrite to get it to the spreadsheet-worthy draft. Here’s a checklist of Amateur First Draft issues, all of which I discovered in two of my own manuscripts buried in a box under my desk. Use this list to cut out the dead wood and beef up the overall story arc in your first draft before embarking on the Story Grid Spreadsheet.

My 7-Step Process to Get to a Spreadsheet-Worthy First Draft

(click for a checklist-style PDF: Story Grid First Draft Checklist)

Make a list, find the dead wood

List out your scenes and number them; write a description of what happens that’s no more than a sentence or two, and note the word count of each scene. I recommend that you use a method that allows you to see all of your scenes at once, in order. I use Ulysses, and put each scene on a “sheet.” You can use Scrivener, which will give you a similar view, as well as its corkboard view. You can also use a notebook or index cards, or even a spreadsheet. Don’t overthink this; the description of each scene should be the answer to the question, “What happens?” If you find scenes that don’t “turn,” flag those, because you will need to either delete them or fix them—but not yet.

Split your story into Beginning Hook, Middle Build, Ending Payoff to check your story arc

Shawn’s rule of thumb is 25% Beginning Hook, 50% Middle Build, 25% Ending Payoff. However, that is normally the RESULT when you’ve written a story that works! Instead, you may see problems here if your numbers are “off.” Sometimes when I start a book I ramble and explain as I try to get going, and my Beginning Hook ends up being much too long. I saw this immediately in one of my novels; the Beginning Hook was longer than the Middle Build! That’s all right; that’s why we’re doing this before we try to build a great big spreadsheet with all the material we’re going to delete anyway.

Uh-oh is right! That’s a ridiculous beginning hook!

Next, look for the Inciting Incident, Progressive Complication, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution in each of those three segments. Note them down on your list and assess them critically. Are the Progressive Complications in each section becoming “progressively” more complicated? Does each Crisis moment have higher stakes? Is each Climax (protagonist’s decision) increasingly irreversible? Is the Ending Payoff surprising but inevitable? Do the Resolutions of the first two sections lead into a big Inciting Incident for the third?

If you told your story to a friend based on these three sections, would it be exciting?

If you see problems with this skeletal view of your story, rejoice—it’s easier to fix this perspective now than when you are deep in the weeds doing scene work. My stories both suffered from complications that were too tame and crises without truly high stakes.

But wait, don’t fix anything yet. Just take notes. Seriously! If you start fixing before you know everything that is wrong, you’ll drive yourself mad.

Look for missing genre conventions and obligatory scenes

One of my books is a contemporary romance. When I re-read the manuscript, I decided that my “quiet” heroine was actually just boring. But thanks to Story Grid, I knew that choosing an internal genre to torment my lead characters would result in a more interesting love story, so I decided that this book would be a Love Story External Genre with a Worldview/Maturation Internal Genre. Some of this was already baked into my romance plot, but my goal was to create something that was less “quiet,” so I would need to have my characters do things that would demonstrate personal growth even as their personal trajectories clashed with the romance story.

The other book is a historical romance, longer and more complex. I knew that Love Story would be the External Genre, but I didn’t really have any thoughts as to Internal Genre until one of my Story Grid editor colleagues pointed out the obvious status themes in the story. Wow! That was a major a-ha moment. So that book would have an Internal Genre of Status Story.

I made lists of the obligatory scenes and conventions for the genres I had chosen, and started looking for them in my scene list. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of a love triangle in one of the books—oops, that’s a big fail! I also realized that the antagonist in the historical romance wasn’t villainous enough, and that I was shying away from what should have been a shattering all-is-lost moment.

Make a list of missing scenes and conventions. You’ll need to have all of these in your Professional First Draft. Also note any obvious weak moments, especially in the obligatory scene list.

Create a new Foolscap with an improved Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff

Now you’ll reconstruct your Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff. Use a blank Foolscap or just a sheet of paper. After I split my manuscript into the three major parts, I saw that I needed more and better conflict, and I knew that I needed my complications to get worse and more irreversible as the story went on. I also had my list of missing obligatory scenes and conventions—I made sure to get all of those in my new plan. My Beginning Hook was too long and wordy but all of the requisite pieces were there—I could cut the verbiage later. It was the Middle Build where things went flat, so I focused on making the Crisis more powerful, with a Resolution that would take us right into a big, stressful result and fuel the Ending Payoff. Remember my missing love triangle? I invented a new character to create some trouble between the hero and heroine, and then escalated it.

This process was actually fun, because I was thinking about real people (well, fictional real people!) and what I could do to them. In my historical novel, my heroine runs away when she realizes that she can’t stop the villain from being villainous. The hero steps in to foil the villain’s plans, and then chases down the heroine. But this is way too easy and not satisfying enough. I began to think about how I could twist the knife so that the complications would be dire and more drastic decisions would be called for from both hero and heroine.

That was when I realized that the internal genre was the important missing piece. I hadn’t known about internal genres when I originally wrote the book so I just wrote what the characters did, and not why they did it. If you had asked me why they were doing what they were doing, I would have answered that it was because they love each other, since it’s a love story. But it’s a much better story when the characters are driven by their own internal wants and needs. The conflict between these wants and needs with the global genre is what makes a book dramatic. Why does Mr. Darcy save the Bennetts? You could say that he does it for Elizabeth, but a large part of the story is his own growth as a person. He does it for his own sense of honor and generosity. This confluence is what makes Pride and Prejudice not just a good romance, but a great romance.

Fortunately, these questions are easier to answer AFTER you’ve written a first draft, even an amateur first draft. Think “aspirationally.” Write your plans out, but in terms of the story you WANT to write, not the draft you already DID write.

Is the Core Event on your new Foolscap?

I had not focused on a single Core Event as the turning point for the global story—oops! Everything needs to build toward this Core Event. It’s what the reader is waiting for. It typically comes toward the end of the Middle Build, and the Resolution drives you into the Ending Payoff.

In my historical romance, the Core Event is a moment where the hero learns something about the heroine that she has spent the entire novel trying to hide. The villain tells him the secret, and is about to reveal this secret to the world. It works just fine as a Core Event, except I didn’t build up to it terribly well and I pulled my punches by resolving it too easily when it happened. Frankly, it needs to be more awful and more shocking than the way I wrote it.

This was made evident when I realized that the logical internal genre for this story was the Status Story. A Status Story is a type of Hero’s Journey where the protagonist is forced to decide whether achieving status is worth betraying his own sense of honor or morality. The Core Event is the moment where the protagonist makes that decision. It combines with the Love Story well in that this can also be a Proof of Love moment. When I realized this, planning the crisis in the Middle Build was easy. And fortunately, the scene itself in my draft was good. What wasn’t good was the lead-up and the resolution of the scene. The scene would have felt more dramatic if the events leading up to it had created more of a sense of dread for the reader, and if the hero were obviously conflicted about whether he wanted to save the heroine’s reputation or not (what a cad, right?).

Make sure you know what the Core Event of your novel is going to be, and make sure you know when it needs to happen. The events leading up to it and resulting from it will need particular care. If you did a bad or sloppy job here, it’s worth spending the time trying to fix it.

Use Wants and Needs analysis to check your Ending Payoff

At the beginning of every story we have characters who want things. Typically,  these wants conflict with their true “needs.” As Shawn points out in The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling wants to rise in the FBI, but needs to deal with her past trauma. Her wants and needs conflict with each other over the course of the story, and it makes for great drama.

When I reached the Ending Payoff for my contemporary romance, I was stuck. I had planned the new Middle Build by throwing a nice little Molotov cocktail into my protagonist’s life and creating a crisis that was deeply upsetting. I knew that this was a Courtship Romance, which means “happily ever after” is a requirement; I also knew that the internal genre was Worldview/Maturation, which means that my characters need to learn something. How would I engineer a surprising but inevitable end?

I went back to Wants and Needs. In the Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling goes into the Ending Payoff risking the thing she’s always wanted (the FBI) in order to do what she needs to do (prevent another murder). My suggestion: write out your wants and needs specifically for your protagonist. You can have multiple needs, too, from scene to scene, as long as they are facets of the “big need.” For example, my hero “wants” the heroine, but “needs” to actually let her choose the other guy, and when asked, “needs” to help her get to him. That’s the only way in which he will grow as a person and understand what it’s like to not always win his battles. I wrote this out and kept it in front of me as I planned the Ending Payoff.

Finally: use a graph to map out your new arc

When you’ve got that new-and-improved story plan in hand, there is one last way to check your story arc. Grab a piece of paper and a crayon and graph your novel. No, don’t do a big, complicated thing—this is why I suggest a crayon (I use a whiteboard so I can erase). Do a rough graph with the value scale of your global genre on the Y axis and with the X axis representing scenes. Then for each scene, ask yourself if you are closer to the ultimate positive end (in a Courtship Romance this would be Commitment) or ultimate negative end (Hate Masquerading as Love).

Ideally, you want to see a graph that shows dramatic movement over the course of your story. If you don’t reach the ultimate peak or valley of your genre’s value at stake, then your novel is going to feel flat. If you zig and zag too much from peak to valley, you’re going to make your reader seasick and exhausted—zigging and zagging is great, but not from extreme to extreme in consecutive scenes. In particular, pay attention to the Middle Build, which tends to get monotonous if you aren’t escalating your progressive conflicts and making them more and more stressful for your protagonist. See if you can up the stakes by having the internal genre value move in the opposite direction from the external genre value.

The graph is also a tool for the personal journey of your protagonist. I try to draw a quick sketch of each character’s proximity to the top or the bottom of the Y axis for the internal genre. In my historical romance, the internal genre is a Status Story, so the value range would be “selling out” at the negative end and “success” (in achieving status) at the positive end. In the photo of my white board, I am trying to get my hero through the middle build, and knew I needed to have his personal sense of self-worth and honor tank before I could throw him into an incident designed to prod him into doing something hero-worthy. These quick graph sketches are useful because you can impose other trajectories on top of whatever you’re working on. I can put the heroine’s state of mind on top of this, as well as the global romance plot (by having another Y axis with romance values from love to hate to hate masquerading as love).

Writing your “new” first draft

The secret here is to WORK AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN. You’re not writing a second draft. You’re simply filling in the gaps in your first draft and ditching anything that doesn’t move. Give yourself permission to do a less-than-perfect job, because what you want is to get to the point where you can spreadsheet the draft and start to do some serious editing. All you’re doing is CPR.

First, look at your list of scenes. Remember where you marked  out the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff? Find the scenes making up the fifteen big events (Inciting Incident, Progressive Complication, Crisis, Climax, Resolution) that you’ve re-designed in your new-and-improved story plan. If you need to write new scenes, note that in your list and stick them into the right places.

Look at the proportions. Are your Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff in a roughly 25%-50%-25% format? Note any weak scenes or subplots that aren’t related to your global story. When you go into the manuscript, you want these flagged so that you can eliminate anything that isn’t important to the story. If this makes you nervous, just save your snippets somewhere.

If you have the reverse problem (e.g. the middle build is too short), note this as well. Did you have any missing obligatory scenes? A good rule of thumb is that these, too, are often distributed in a 25%-50%-25% format. Out of eight obligatory scenes, for example, it often works to put four in the middle build.

Now you can start your rewrite. Work one piece at a time (Beginning Hook, Middle Build, Ending Payoff). However, as you write, check back on any graphs that you might have used to create that new and improved story plan, and any Wants and Needs lists. As you move through each scene, ask yourself where you are on that graph and where the characters are with regard to acquiring what they need.

At the end of this draft, celebrate! You’ve got a Professional First Draft. You fought Resistance and won. You can now enter the realm of the Story Grid Spreadsheet, which is a rite of passage indeed. You’re past probably 99% of all writers out there, and the odds are terrific that you will go on to complete a book that works.

(Shawn says you can take a few days off now before you head into the Spreadsheet. LOL)

About the Author

Maya Rushing Walker is a novelist and a certified Story Grid editor who works out of her 1700s farmhouse in northern New England. In her past life, she has been a banker and a diplomat, and has lived in a number of far-flung destinations, such as Cairo, Tunisia, and Jerusalem. Visit her website at www.mayarushingwalker.com to download a chunk of her work in progress. Need accountability? Visit her editing website at www.apollogrannus.com to sign up for her butt-in-chair motivational newsletter.
Comments (19)
Author Maya Rushing Walker


Marcus Ewton says:

Good stuff here! I appreciate the step by step analysis of how to review and improve the first draft based on key story elements.

Maya Rushing Walker says:

I hope it’s helpful for you, Marcus! The great thing about Story Grid is that I can write a terrible first draft and know that everything is going to be re-examined and put through all the right questions eventually. It just lets me write without trying to go in and out of editor/writer mode constantly. Also, this process will stop me from moving forward on a story idea that is too terrible to save! And maybe I can even recycle some of the scene work or characters in the future, but before I’ve spent too much time fretting.

Anne Hawley says:

Wonderful, insightful piece, Maya! I wish I’d had such clear, forgiving information before facing my first novel’s rewrite. When I churn out the pre-first draft of the next one (it’s coming! oh so slowly), I will be following your guidelines! The very concept of a first draft prior to a PROFESSIONAL first draft is wonderfully liberating.

Thank you for sharing your personal examples and pictures of your actual notes. It brings it all home in a concrete way.

When can I read your historical romance?

Maya Rushing Walker says:

Thank you, Anne! My novels were simply not spreadsheet-worthy, period. They were pleasant, competently-written, and boring. The worst kind of deception is where you can’t really find anything wrong with the material, it’s just not interesting. I’m hoping that by being strict on what I call a “first draft” I’ll be able to write something as exciting and page-turning as Restraint!! There’s nothing quite so satisfying as a juicy historical novel! I’m still working on mine, alas…I hope that I will be able to spreadsheet it and then do a really good second draft within the next couple of months!

Maya Rushing Walker says:

You’re so welcome! I am down in the trenches, revising away, with lots of colored pens and my trusty white board. As soon as I feel my drafts are “Professional,” I will be headed into Spreadsheet territory with Anne Hawley’s post from last week!

Cathy Perdue Ryan says:

The timing of this is perfect for me. I have three terrible first drafts just right for this next step. Thank you so much. Very clear intention for each task and each one makes a logical contribution to the whole. The examples from you own work illustrate perfectly. I can do this!

Maya Rushing Walker says:

YES, you absolutely CAN do this! My goal was to reach the people who are hesitating over the spreadsheet because it looks so big and scary. The spreadsheet is an important tool, but it’s also a finely-focused tool. Sometimes we need a blunt tool to get things into shape before reaching for the fine tool. You’ll get to a point where you know you’ve hit all the big things, and that’s when the spreadsheet is your best friend. You can do this!

Daniel says:

Super helpful advice, thank you! I could use some clarity on the Core Event, though. My instinct would be to put the Core Event at the climax of the novel, somewhere in the Ending Payoff, but you’ve stated it probably goes near the end of the Middle Build. I’m wondering if I’m mistaken on what the Core Event is. Do you have a couple examples from any well-known works?

Maya Rushing Walker says:

I’m so glad you asked this question because I think I spoke a little too generally in my article about where to place the Core Event in your novel, and there are many ways to look at this. Have you seen the article from a couple of months ago, “Discover Your Story’s Core?” If you scroll down to the end, Anne and Leslie have provided a wonderful chart covering all the genres and the various Core Values/Core Emotions/Core Events. In some genres, the Core Event probably occurs in the Ending Payoff, such as with the Performance Genre (Rocky, for example–the “big fight”). In a War Story, the “big battle” will probably occur near the end. In the action-oriented genres, this seems to be consistently true. But in other genres, it’s not necessarily a given, and sometimes it’s hard to decide what the genre is, too. For example, is the seventh Harry Potter book a War Story? a Society novel? a Status story? a Worldview/Maturation plot? An Action/Adventure novel? If Harry Potter is about class warfare and requires a Revolution, your graph will look different from a Worldview/Maturation graph. One of the best examples I can think of is To Kill a Mockingbird, where the trial is in the Ending Payoff. But the trial is the Core Event only if you think that book is a Courtroom Drama or a Performance Genre story. The most dramatic moment for me is when Scout sees her father trying to stop a lynching, and inserts herself into the incident because she sees that one of the attackers is a family friend. But that’s a Core Event for a Worldview/Maturation plot, and it happens at the end of the Middle Build, I believe. It’s the moment where the Protagonist changes. In the Status/Worldview/Morality content genres, I think this often happens toward the end of the Middle Build, and it propels you into a dramatic event that makes sense for the development of the protagonist. In Rocky, the Big Fight may be the Core Event for the External genre, but if you are deeply invested in Rocky’s development as a person, the moment that matters is when he realizes that he may not “win” the overall fight but he can stay standing long enough to be proud of what he’s done. In action-based genres, it might be better to put the Core Event in the Ending Payoff (such as in Silence of the Lambs, when Starling is in the dark with the killer), but in all of the really terrific stories I can think of, you can also point to some big event at the end of the Middle Build that absolutely affects the Protagonist’s behavior in the Ending Payoff. Clarice Starling only gets to that final scene because she decides to ditch her previous belief system and act on her own convictions.

In short, I think that as the creator of your story, you get to make these decisions yourself; if you want to do a James Bond type of story with little internal development of the main character, then most likely your audience just wants to see him defeat the villain, and there shouldn’t be any major story development after that event. But an external James Bond story with an internal Worldview story needs two big moments, and I think if you graph both of these storylines out (quickly, with a crayon!), you’ll see that one of those moments (probably the Worldview “all is lost” moment) will make the most dramatic sense right before your hero enters the big fight with the villain.

Thank you so much for asking, I hope some of this is useful to your work!

Daniel says:

Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed reply! That’s a really helpful answer, and I’ll take a second look at the post you linked to as well. Thanks again!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

This is a great article. It will be a helpful link to send my editing clients. Thank you for sharing.

Maya Rushing Walker says:

Thanks so much, Rachelle! I really appreciate all the discussion and feedback that I get from the entire Story Grid Certified Editor team! Your Status article is in my kit of go-to references as I beat my books into submission!

Miles says:

I have just spent the better part of two days methodically going over this post and taking detailed notes that I can use later along with the checklist you provided. This is truly invaluable information for me right now, as I have just finished a tortured first draft and am about to start the revision process Ordinarily I would have just jumped into what would have been a faux second draft. Now I see that there are huge gaps in the manuscript I need to work through before I really start the process of writing the second draft. Thank you for this.

Maya Rushing Walker says:

That’s awesome, Miles! I am right there with you. The last thing I want to do is to carefully analyze dozens of scenes that need to be cut, combined, or massaged into shape. Shawn’s advice has always been to stay at that “macro” or global analysis level as long as you can before diving into the scene work, and my rough drafts are really not ready for the spreadsheet. You are saving yourself time and heartache by demanding better from yourself. My only advice is to DO IT FAST. Otherwise it turns into perfectionism and Resistance! GOOD LUCK!

Maya Rushing Walker says:

I’m glad! I hope that this helps you to kick out a much better version of your first draft so that the spreadsheet is much more manageable!

vldixon1701 says:

Loved this! I did use something similar, but not nearly so detailed for my last book’s “second draft” and it helped clear away so many cobwebs! Cheryl Klein calls them her “TRUCKS.” I forget what it stands for, but each chapter is broken down into scenes (if necessary) and there are three things to ask for each scene: Then what happens, Because of who? What are the consequences of failure? However, I love how you took that same idea and blended it with Shawn’s Grid work. I am definitely taking things a step farther for the next book! I can’t afford to spend so much time writing each novel.

Maya Rushing Walker says:

Thanks so much! I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment about TIME. Some people want to write the Great American Novel, or perhaps a single memoir that involves an important family event. However, most of the writers I talk to want to write a lot of books. As a writer I’m always thinking about creating the workflow that will help us to write lots of books (GOOD books) in a reasonably time- and cost-efficient manner. So if you can make your first draft as “professional” as possible before hitting the spreadsheet, I really think you’ll be able to conquer the spreadsheet stage more quickly and with less angst. I also think that if you know you have a procedure in place to clean up that first draft, you can give yourself permission to write more freely, which I hope translates into more risk-taking and more interesting ideas. Good luck!


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