...then complicate the hell out of it
Writing a first draft of a novel can feel like an incredibly Sisyphean task. You start with your idea and maybe a few images and lines and eventually, you work towards a very skeletal version of the actual story. Not unlike life itself, it's in our nature to conquer the easiest problems first; one at a time on down the line until we create solutions for each looming issue.
I've got completed first drafts of three or four novels I've written over the last 5 years. Only one is worth showing people right now and even that is incredibly anemic in parts. I worked all last summer on "Impasto" and "Rise" at the same time, and came to some pretty interesting conclusions for both stories. "Impasto" had been started the November before and "Rise" was conceived in March or April, just a few months before. Both were around the 120-140 page range and, up until August, solid endings were nowhere to be found. I was writing the stories moment to moment, wherever inspiration hit me hardest, and not writing towards specific conclusions. This is both frustrating and liberating.
This approach can be liberating because I'm of the belief that the story lays itself bare for you. This is one of the many reasons I've learned to simply let go of organizing the story past a certain point; if I'm at least giving myself over to the will of the story, the natural endings and complications reveal themselves when they're ready. Over-thinking a story in its infancy will halt progress just as easily as staring at a blank page with no idea of how to fill it. That you even have an idea for a story and want to attempt to write it all down is huge.
I have removed all bubble thought idea charts, detailed notes of characters, plot-lines and anything that breaks the story down to its most microscopic moments. I just write. It usually starts with an idea or a first line (like the name of this blog) and builds from there. The more I write, the more the story comes into focus, but I like to see where things go while it's all still fuzzy. Writing towards the moment rather than writing towards the ending - this is my approach.
This way can be frustrating, however. It seemed like several months where I wasn't writing anything this Spring. Not a page, not a paragraph, not a line, nothing. The creative well done gone dry for whatever reason. This is the pratfall of not keeping notes or not creating idea bubbles; once you get stuck, you're stuck. You almost HAVE to engage in one of the hundreds of writing prompts available to you. I decided to buy a white board and some dry erase markers. I changed my sleeping habits and would fill the white board in about half an hour with a multitude of ways things could occur in both novels. I broke down characters and actions, town names, complications. I deconstructed "Impasto" to find the real story and finally it hit, and when it hit...damn. I saw how certain complications would bring my incredibly thin story to something more interesting and beefy on an emotional level. Now the piece had, not necessarily a message, but a point.
This meant scrapping sections and completely revamping sections to make room for the new ones. This meant taking bits of the old and mixing it with the new in order to form something more coherent. This meant I now had a destination in mind, which only served to speed up the process. My thesis adviser this summer (and my workshop last semester) were instrumental in helping get "Impasto" closer to being the story it should be. I knew that my original ending was terrible. It lacked any kind of emotional oomph and was poorly written, so I apologized to them when they read it, knowing that it was easily the weakest section of the book. They all agreed and said "do it again." Finally I found an ending that makes sense psychologically and will, hopefully, tug a bit emotionally. It complicates all the characters involved and finally makes them feel like real people with real feelings at stake.
So don't get discouraged. It's okay to have a first draft that's not good. I can't think of anyone that DOES write a good first draft. It'll change on you, it'll morph and adapt to different things that happen.
It's easy to write something cliched and simple once you start writing. But it's during the editing and revision process that you should take the time to complicate things. The characters might be stock or the plot very traditional, but turn them all into something complex and your story will thank you for it. The true mark of this happening is when the story surprises even the person writing it. That's the sweet spot and that's exactly where you want to be.