My son is writing a novel for a school assignment. I’m walking him through the process. Sometimes he gets stuck and doesn’t know what details to add and which to leave out. I remind him that he’s writing the first draft; it doesn’t have to be perfect, it needs only to be written.
I tell my writing friends the same thing; it’s the philosophy I live by.
I compare the first draft to a skeleton. The flesh and muscles along with the finer details (hair, eyes, freckles) are added later in future edits and revisions.
Often when I write, I add details, but if I’m stuck, I don’t spend time thinking them up if they don’t come on cue. I write on.
Here’s an example of what I might do if I’m stumped on a scene. The key in this passage is to get the character out of her home and on the way to work. Instead of spending unproductive time working out the details—or worse: being stalled in this one spot and not moving forward—I list what will happen and keep going with the story.
Skeleton (first draft)
She left her home. It was raining. She missed the bus so had to walk. A stranger bumped into her. She fell to the pavement in a mud puddle. She swore. She went to work.
Adding flesh and muscle (revision, adding details)
Brenda slammed the door as she left the apartment. Thankfully, the hallway and stairwell were empty; she could escape the building without explaining the bruise on her cheek. Once outside, she pulled up her hood to avoid getting her hair wet from the rain. She cursed herself for not grabbing the umbrella. If she wasn’t already running late, she’d have returned to the apartment to retrieve it. Instead, she scurried along the sidewalk towards the bus stop.
The sound of a large engine forced her to look up. Bus 86 was chugging its way through the intersection. Damn! For all mornings for it to be on time. She clenched her fists and shoved them into her sweater pockets. If she hurried, she could cross Main Street, cut through the cemetery and catch the connecting bus. She’d be late for work, but at least she’d get there before nine.
Focussed on the crossing signs in the intersection, she didn’t see the woman pushing the cart with a dozen grocery bags hanging off the sides. The metal frame slammed into her shin, sending her to the ground. Her right elbow and knee wore the brunt of the impact. She picked herself up, frowning at her sleeve that had landed in a puddle. She cursed under her breath, but dared not speak her thoughts aloud to the elderly streetwalker who appeared more pitiful than she.
Brenda wrung out the sleeve as she quickly crossed Main. She dreaded the thoughts of explaining her appearance to co-workers, but she needed money and had not intentions of skipping the day.
The important thing is to complete the first draft. It won’t be perfect and it won’t be complete, but it will be done. That fact will inspire you to add the missing details, revise and edit.