In a month’s time, I’ll have written my second novel. Well, hopefully. For some stupid, ridiculous, reckless reason I’ve ordered myself to write a whole book in four weeks, as a kind of unofficial NaNoWriMo. Now, that’s not like me. I’m a plotter, a planner, a stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of writer. I spend days fretting over chapter titles. I mean, bloody hell, I’ve been working on this entry for a week and a half! But enough is enough: I’ve set myself a deadline and I’m sticking to it.
As I’m on the cusp of a feverish month of typing and chocolate-eating, I thought I’d share with you my guide to writing a killer first draft. I’ll be following this model myself as I bash out a sequel to my mystery novel Beyond the Call of Beauty, and if anyone’s interested they can track my progress – and ever-increasing madness – on Twitter. I hope my advice is helpful to someone out there, and I wish you good luck with your own first drafts!
Now, on with the tips…
Firstly, Lower Your Expectations
First drafts suck. And I mean really suck. They’re an absolute mess of knotted plot strands, gaping holes, characterless characters, dull dialogue, and terrible, awful, laughably bad writing. But it’s okay – they’re meant to suck.
Your first draft is a raw, unedited version of your story. That’s it. No complex symbolism or arty language, no perfect sentences – just the story. It’s about getting from prologue to epilogue as fully as you can, practicing and experimenting and finding your voice as you go. When it comes to first-ever first drafts, you learn on the job.
A good first draft sets you up for your second, where you’ll weed out the mixed metaphors and fill in the plot holes. You’ll rewrite almost everything, improving with every chapter. And eventually, perhaps several rewrites later, you’ll have turned your draft into a book.
It’s a long process, and nobody can write a masterpiece overnight. Don’t even try. Just write your story, enjoy it, and keep moving forward until you reach The End.
Know Where You’re Heading
Going from nothing to a full-length novel draft is a daunting prospect, especially for first-time writers. It’s a huge project, and it’s very easy to get stuck, lose hope, give up. But you mustn’t.
To keep my work focused, I plan things in advance. I write them down. I work them out. I have five different notebooks on the go at the moment: general writing scraps; first novel; second novel; possible YA novel; blog. Yep, I actually plan my blog posts. I’m basically the Queen of Over-Preparing. If I don’t plan, I feel lost and like I’ll never catch up.
Plotting keeps me on the path.
While my notebooks are stuffed with various other things – character summaries, themes, scene snippets – these are the three main things I do before I start a new project.
- A One-Sentence Pitch – Sum up your proposed novel in a sentence. Now, this is more difficult than it sounds – and it doesn’t get any easier once you’ve written the damn thing, either. Channeling your sprawling ideas into a single sentence helps to focus your thoughts, and shows you the main thrust of the novel. It also gives you a nice answer to the question you’ll be asked constantly: ‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? What’s it about?‘
- A Synopsis – Tell your story to yourself. In to-the-point language, write out your story’s plot as fully as you can – even if you only know the first third of it. The act of writing down your story forces you to make decisions, to push the plot onwards. Your scribbled synopsis may only be the bare bones, but it helps you to know where you’re headed. What’s the main conflict? When are the dramatic moments? Where does the tension come from? Your synopsis will tell you.
- A Chapter List – Break your synopsis into bite-sized chunks. I like to go into my draft with direction, so knowing – to take Harry Potter as an example – Chapter 1 is about Vernon Dursley’s ordinary life, Chapter 2 is Harry’s snake conversation at the zoo, and Chapter 3 is the arrival of his Hogwarts letter(s), makes the task ahead seem less daunting. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh crap, I need to write 60,000 words!’, relax and focus on a single chapter at a time. (And if you’re a crazy planner like me, you’ll even do in-depth plans of individual chapters and scenes before you write them. Seriously. I do that.)
When it comes to planning, anything goes. Whether it’s a notebook, pin-board, post-its, Word document or spreadsheet, find the right method and amount of planning for you.
Of course, having a synopsis and chapter plans doesn’t mean you can’t be impulsive: I changed my killer half-way through my first draft! But in general, the more you know about the future of your plot before you write it, the stronger your narrative will be – and you’ll be able to write it faster, too.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration to Hit: Get in the First Punch
So you’ve got your pitch, your rough synopsis, and a basic chapter list – now it’s time to start writing.
In my previous post on 15 Ways to Improve Your Writing, I stressed the importance of a strong novel opening. The first page should catch a reader’s eye immediately, draw them in, hook them. No chunks of backstory, no waking up from a dream, no main character looking at themselves in the mirror. These are all no-nos in novel openings.
But you’re not writing a novel opening – you’re writing a draft.
Start with any old line you like. In fact, purposely start with your MC looking in the mirror if it gets your fingers moving and your imagination whirring. There’s no point twiddling your thumbs and waiting for a brilliant idea to strike, because it won’t.
Take control – by any means necessary.
Commit the Cardinal Sins of Writing
A first draft is a rule-free zone. Don’t stress too much over split infinitives or adverbs – just get the words down. Think of it this way: your first draft is going to be almost entirely rewritten when you get to your second, so what’s the point of agonising over every word?
Unless you’re the most thorough planner in the entire world, your story will be in a state of flux as you write it. Characters will come and go, settings will change, plotlines will skew… Your draft is changeable, a true work in progress.
- Add in backstory as it comes to you. While this has no place in your finished novel, the information will help to pad out your story and give you a clearer idea of your characters. In your second draft, you’ll cut this out and thread it into their personality and actions instead.
- Tell, don’t show. If you’re in the middle of a meaty scene and you can’t face slowing down, it’s okay to tell a character’s actions rather than show them. A line such as ‘he said sadly’ can be changed to ‘he said, his shoulders slumping’ in your second draft.
- Alter information mid-way through. Who cares about continuity, eh? If a murder at the opera sounds more exciting than one during a badly attended cinema matinée, switch the venue. If you want to darken the tone or add in the theme of rotting flesh to your description, do it. Change and adapt your story in any way you want: there’s just one condition.
Don’t Look Back
The worst thing you can do to a first draft is edit it.
Whatever changes you make, however big or integral to the plot, keep moving forwards. Don’t turn back the pages to bring the rest of your draft up to speed. Instead, write from your current point as though the story has always been this way.
Looking back slows your pace. It absorbs your tension. It ruins your flow. The temptation to edit can be massive, but if you keep looking behind you, you’ll never move forward.
Above All, KEEP WRITING
No ifs, no buts: you must keep writing. It’ll hurt, you’ll be driven to the brink of insane exhaustion, and you’ll consume more than your weight in chocolate – but you can do it. And here’s how.
- Give yourself a target. It might be writing a chapter a day, or 1,000 words, or for an uninterrupted 30 minutes – whatever suits you and your lifestyle. Be firm with yourself: no stopping until the day’s task is done.
- Be passionate. Writing a novel takes a long time, so don’t burden yourself with a story you don’t love. This is gonna be a long-term relationship: make sure you pick the right partner.
- Take breaks. A brisk walk, reading, or a game of Candy Crush every so often will flick your ‘reset’ button, and will help you work better for longer. Writing shouldn’t be a punishment.
- Makes notes as you go. Instead of flipping back through your draft to make amendments or add in little touches and ideas, jot them down in your notebook. The same goes for if you spontaneously change Gerald to Geraldine: write down the page number and the change. That way, you can keep track of your story while still moving forward.
- Stuck? Do some planning. If my writing’s gone all wobbly and useless for the day, I’ll plan a few chapters or brainstorm the book’s themes. I’ll do the ‘thinking’ bits ahead of time. That way I’ve still done some work, even though my writing’s gone kaput.
- Still stuck? Defy chronology. I write on a linear basis, working my way through the chapters in order, but many people prefer to leap around in time. If Chapter 7 just isn’t working out today, why not give Chapter 12 a go? A change of plot can often help reignite your inspiration.
- If you’re really stuck, skip. Don’t waste a week on a single scene. If something just isn’t working, skip ahead. Write what you want to happen in base terms (‘Somehow Mark escapes from the villain’s basement,‘) and move on. You’ll be leaving a huge gap for your future redrafting self to fill in, but at least you’ll have continued the story after it.
- Reward yourself. When you finish the day’s writing goal, bask in the warmth of your achievement. Munch on a biscuit. Have a glass of wine. Dance to Uptown Funk. Little encouragements can help pull you over the finish line. You’ve done well today: have a treat.
Write your draft. Write it as fully, quickly, honestly, and enjoyably as possible.
Your future self will thank you.
So there you have it, my rambling guide to writing a first draft: have realistic expectations; plan ahead; don’t wait for a perfect start; ignore all writing rules; don’t edit; and KEEP WRITING.
But what about you – how do you keep your drafts on track? Do you prefer to dive in without a plan? Am I an idiot to attempt a mid-May NaNoWriMo with no previous one-month experience and track record of debilitating writer’s block? ‘Cause I think I am…
As ever, I hope this post was helpful to someone out there, and thank you for reading!
11 thoughts on “How to Write a Killer First Draft”
I think your first point is perhaps the most important: a first draft is just that…a draft. Aspiring writers shouldn’t be concerned if their first draft isn’t perfect–it’s not supposed to be.
A note on getting stuck: you offer some great suggestions here. Another thing a stuck writer can do is go back through the narrative or writing plan and search for something further back in the text that might be tripping you up in the present. Keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t quite fit, and try reworking the narrative without that plot point.
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Great point! You’re so right, looking backwards can really help when you’re stuck – especially if you don’t know WHY you’re stuck. I have to admit that almost every scene that tripped me up in my first draft was eradicated in my second. With fresh eyes, I could see that it wasn’t working because it could never work. It’s not quite so easy when the words in their infancy, but I think we all know, deep down, when something isn’t right. It’s only with practice that we learn to identify the particular problem.
I had the tendency to take a break from writing new chapters to go back and revise previous ones- I guess in a way this was my version of writer’s block (can’t decide what to do next- go back and revise what I already had). I finally stopped doing this and finished the 2nd half of the book so much faster- because I finally embraced the concept of a first draft!!
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That’s EXACTLY what I did! I had a system of ‘write one day, edit it the next,’ and it was exhausting. I wish I could go back and shake my past self, because I wasted so much time over words and scenes I cut as soon as I started my second draft. But I suppose we needed that experience to learn, didn’t we? That’s really the point of a first draft. Without getting all those thousands of words down, we’d never have found out what sort of writers we are. 🙂
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Great points here. I’ve definitely had problems agonizing over details in early parts of my current first draft. I impulsively wanted to throw in a big mystery early on, but due to a lack of planning (I started the novel off as part of NaNoWriMo) I didn’t have an end result for it. Just skipped ahead to after that section would have been resolved and away I went!
I’ve found have a planned structure helps, but only a really basic one. If I know precisely what I am supposed to be writing in this draft then it can become a bit of slog. It’s more fun if I allow myself to go wherever I’m feeling. As long as I’ve got a rough destination it doesn’t really matter what route I take to get there, and if the route I take is silly and tortuous then I can make amends when redrafting comes around.
I am dreading the redrafting stage though. I’ve been working on draft no. 1 on and off for a couple of years and it’s almost time…eek…
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Hey James, thanks for commenting! I didn’t know you were working on a novel at the moment. What’s it about? (If it’s hush-hush, you can PM me.)
My ultra-planning definitely isn’t for everyone! I do agree that a basic structure plan is universally helpful: you’ve got enough room for spontaneity while still keeping an eye on the destination. The biggest chunk of chapters in my completed novel is my protagonist’s weekend at a country house. In my plans, I’d just said: ‘Ella goes to a country house for the weekend and snoops around.’ From that, I got 20,000 words and a lot of surprises. So I’m definitely a fan of a basic plan, too!
Redrafting isn’t fun. I did one main redraft and fixed up the manuscript as best I could, then two edits. I was 15,000 words over my intended length, so I went cut-happy with the next edit. Whole chapters went – and that creates waves in a MS. While the fiddly editing bits are frustrating, it’s amazing to see your work finally become a gleaming, polished MS ready for agents. I’d say the second draft is possibly the worst, most stressful part of novel-writing – but it’s also the most creative, too. I guess it depends on how you approach it!
And who knows, maybe in a couple of months I’ll have a guide to redrafting! 😛