The First Draft as Scaffolding
Written by
Pamela Olson
November 2014
Written by
Pamela Olson
November 2014

After finishing a memoir, I had the crazy idea to write a novel next, which is basically the opposite of a memoir. Memoirs have all the raw materials in place—the characters, the settings, the action. The writer ‘just’ has to string them together so they express some idea or lesson or theme. In fiction, you start with an idea and have to fill in all the characters, settings, and action yourself.

To me this felt like a lot of pressure. I was paralyzed by fear that my first draft would reveal my pitiful lack of imagination, that it would be a travesty, that it wouldn’t remotely resemble my vision. I was worried I’d sit down to write a key scene only to find I wasn’t clever enough or creative enough at that moment to get it right.

People talk about “shitty first drafts,” but somehow I thought that didn’t apply to me. I sometimes write blog posts that are more or less good to go on the first draft. Why shouldn’t I be able to write a novel the same way?

Of course, novels aren’t blog posts. If writing a blog post is like making a popsicle stick birdhouse, writing a novel is like building a cathedral. Unless you’re very lucky or very talented—one of those rare geniuses who can write deathless prose straight into an evolving structure—it’s not something that can be done well on the fly.

But then there was an even more paralyzing thought: I didn’t know exactly where the story would go, so what if I did sit down and write a beautiful chapter only to have to delete the whole thing later on?

Needless to say, it was not easy to do my best work embedded in this fog of fear.

What finally broke me out of it was thinking of the first draft as scaffolding. A large, unwieldy placeholder, a rough shaping-in. Scaffolding is not meant to be a cathedral—it’s only meant to show you where to build it. Once you’ve blocked it in fairly thoroughly (without worrying too much about polishing it), you can look at all the chunks and see how they fit together. You can arrange them into the shape that makes the most sense given their general colors and dimensions. These rough wooden shapes are much less painful to move, modify, or cut than big blocky chunks of granite would be. And it’s easier to see them objectively if you haven’t been sweating over them for days trying to get them just so.

This framework (no pun intended) allowed me plow ahead with my first draft with much less fear. And now that I’m writing around a frame instead of into thin air, it’s so much easier to craft the individual pieces in a way that helps the overall structure hang together more elegantly. And it’s psychologically easier because I know I’m polishing something that will almost certainly stay.

If you’re lucky, the scaffolding itself will have some gems embedded in it that can be used wholesale. But for the most part, you’ll be tearing those scaffolds down and replacing them with carved and polished rock and finely turned-out stained glass that will let the light shine through in glorious colors.

How do you get over the terror of beginning—and actually finishing—a first draft?

Pamela Olson is the author of the award-winning memoir Fast Times in Palestine. She’s working on her first novel, The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom. To pre-order the novel for $5, visit the book’s Kickstarter campaign. To read Chapter One, click here.

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Karen McManus on Poking Holes & Finding Your...
  • Sara Shepard on Writing YA, Writer's Block and...
  • Holly Black on Fantasy, Faeries & Advice
  • Donna Tartt on Process, Voice and Her Future As A...
  • Lisa See on Bringing Hidden Stories to Light
  • Taylor Jenkins Reid on Researching Your Novel

  • After reading Fast Times in Palestine, I believe you'll conquer this new genre, Pamela!  Among other things, you're a terrific storyteller.  I look forward to reading your next book....I hope you enjoy the freedom fiction allows after the constraints of memoir.  Knowing your writing, I'll be first in line to buy The Bracelet.  You go, girl!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!

  • I seem to be on a similar path... memoir, then novel... although, at this point it's a toss-up as to which one I will complete first.  Meanwhile, I have several small fiction pieces published in various anthologies as a reminder that I can do this!

    I like your thoughts on what exactly is a first draft, Pamela.  Someone told me once that the first draft was where you wrote your characters and then the second draft, the plot comes in.  I rather like the idea of a 'framework', as you describe... building one's words around something and not just trusting that they will hang out in thin air while you figure out what happens next in the story.

    "Where does the story go?" "How does it end?", I'm sure, has set many a budding novelist back on their heels.  It can be quite daunting, taking a small idea and turning it into a 300+ page story that people will actually want to read.

    My very first fiction story began as a small comment on a writer friend's Facebook post, where she had mused over how to dispatch an unfaithful lover.  Charrlote was impressed enough with my response that she said I should write a story.  Ha!  Right... me write a story... haha, right?

    Only, her words wouldn't go away and I kept going back to the post and reading my comments.  I gradually realised that I had a pretty decent ending for a story there.  Now what, since the thought of writing a full story wouldn't leave me alone.  So, I sat down and came up with a beginning - story's gotta have a beginning, right? - and figured out the rest along the way.

    I ended up with a 12,000 word story... not quite a novel, but a good start for a girl who's only writing experience was journaling and term papers.

    Okay, I was going somewhere with all this... hmmm.  Oh!

    My secret to writing fiction, Pamela?  I start at the end.  I come up with an idea for a story, then I write the ending.  I then go back and write the beginning.  After that, it's just a matter of making the two ends meet.  Which can be fun as hell or incredibly torturous!

    My 'scaffolding' might be just a bit precarious.  Lol!

    Best of luck with your novel.  Do keep us posted.  

  • Rossandra White

    I really related to this. The first book I wrote started out as a memoir: 500-pages of events told in flashback. No clue whatsoever as to what I was doing. I then converted the whole mess into two YA novels, which turned out a little better. And then four years ago I wrote a memoir--Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go and Then There's the Dog, published in April 2014. At first it was hard going from fiction, which is "show don't tell," to memoir, which is is pretty much tell, tell, tell (reflection, etc.). But once I twigged onto that I was very grateful I learned the ropes (especially dialogue) through writing fiction. But then again, you're so right, with fiction you start with a blank slate, without the raw materials in place. The characters, the settings and the action have to come from your imagination. I jumped into NaNoWriMo last year with a vague idea for a story and got so stressed out, I quit 10 days later. I thought I could force myself into tapping into the creative (yes, I'm a bit of a optimist). Next time I dive in it will be with scaffolding. And I think I'm going to try Scrivener. 

  • Skye Blaine


    I followed the same path--I completed a memoir, and then began a novel. I also am a blogger, and blog with relative ease. I went through the same terror. My critique group kept encouraging me to have fun, and finally, I am--although I'm in the sticky middle right now, and sometimes get bogged down. But pressing on.


  • Rachel Rivett

    Thanks from me too, Pamela. I'm just starting out on a new novel and am warring with fear and disappointment that it's not as instantly brilliant as I'd like. Perhaps, with your image, I can find the faith and stamina to go on.

  • Rita Gardner

    Pamela, thanks for your post. I'm also considering fiction after having written a memoir. I like your analogies!

    Another writer, Jane Vandenburgh, wrote a book called "The Architecture of the Novel" - which likened fiction writings to building rooms.  Both very interesting ideas.

    Your post gave me some courage...we'll see!