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How to Write Your First Draft

This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Neil Gaiman

So, you have your novel plan. It’s more than just an idea for a book; you know what genre you’re writing in, who your characters are, the when and where of the world they inhabit, what they want, and what’s going to get in the way of them achieving their heart’s desire.

You know if their dream is going to come true or not. You’ve put together a basic plan for your novel’s events. Good for you! That’s such excellent and difficult work.

Now you get to fill pages and pages with all the delicious words that make up your story.

It’s that easy, right? Sure. And, as Gaiman says, it’s also that hard. There are some things you can do to lessen the pain, though. So, without further ado, here are my top tips for helping you get through that first draft.

  • Banish your inner critic.
    I’m deliberately not including a single word about the craft of writing in this post, and this is the reason why. The editor and the creator are natural enemies. One stifles the other. It’s all right to write utter dreck at this stage. I promise that with practice your writing will improve. Your first drafts will get cleaner as you work at your craft. But please don’t worry about that. Not now. Right now you have to get words on the page. So, don’t let yourself worry about being perfect as you write.

    It’s called a first draft for a reason; the implication is that there will be a second draft, and the second draft will be an improvement on the first. The thing is, you can’t have a second draft until you get through the first, so banish your inner perfectionist and let the words come out as they will.

    You can fix spelling and grammar later. You can eradicate and improve stilted dialogue later. You can tighten your descriptions and make them more evocative later. Get that raw material on the page so that you have something to work with. A potter can’t work without clay. A sculptor needs a block of stone. You need a first draft.
  • Banish your external critics.
    Keep your work close to your vest for now. This is not the time to submit your first few chapters to a critique group. I’ve seen too many authors—myself included—lose all momentum on a new project when they share what they’re working on with others.

    Of course it’s not perfect yet; it’s a first draft. But well-meaning friends and will be quick to share what can be improved in your story and just like that—pop!—your creativity bubble is broken and you’ve lost they joy you had building your novel.

    The editor stifles the creator.

    There’s definitely a time to share your work with the world, but when you’re writing your first draft is not that time. Trust me on this one.
  • Invite accountability.
    Do share what you’re doing with others, especially others who are also writing books. They know what you’re going through. They’ll understand how challenging it is, and they’ll help lift you up when you’re feeling dejected.

    Find other aspiring novelists in your hometown or online and check in with them regularly. This will keep you honest and on track.

    Experiment until you find a method of accountability that works for you. For example, I participate in a weekly group call with six other like-minded authors. Every week at the start of our call, we each share what we accomplished in the previous week. At the end of each call, we state our goals for the coming week.

    I also check in every single day with two author friends via email. We send a quick note to each other in the morning stating what we accomplished the day before.

    This one-two punch has worked wonders for my personal output. I set bigger goals during my weekly meeting, and the daily check-in helps keep me on track. Believe you me, I absolutely hate having to send an email in the morning that says, “I didn’t get anything done yesterday.” I hate it so much that I’ll stay up an extra fifteen minutes just to crank out 500 words if I skipped my regular writing session that day. Those words add up.
  • Give yourself a realistic deadline.
    As my friend Brian Meeks likes to say, “There is no shot clock in this business.” It’s his way of saying stop comparing yourself to others. Just because other people can crank out 10,000 words a day doesn’t mean that you’re a failure if you don’t.

    You have to start somewhere, and only you can decide where a sane starting point is. Writing a novel is difficult enough without holding yourself up to insane standards. As you’re starting out don’t add more stress to the work.

    So, how do you come up with a realistic deadline? If you’ve been practicing writing fiction daily, you can get an idea of how much you can write in fifteen minutes. For our hypothetical purposes, let’s go easy and say it’s 250 words.

    You also have at least a rough plan for your novel (right?). Take a look at that plan and estimate how many scenes you need to write. Go ahead, count them up, and assume that each will come in around 1,500 words. Some will be longer, some shorter. That’s fine. (There’s really no directive about how long a scene must be, but this is a good rule of thumb for our purposes.)

    Now decide how much time you can reasonably dedicate to writing every day. Some days you’ll write longer, sometimes life will intrude and you won’t write as much. That’s okay. For our purposes, let’s say you can confidently fit in half an hour of writing every day.

    Here’s how this plays out. Let’s say your novel will have about 42 scenes in it. At 1,500 words each, your story will come out to be about 63,000 words (wow!). You have half an hour a day and you can routinely write 500 words in that half hour. That’s 126 days of writing, or just over four months, until you have a first draft. You can totally do that!

    So, do the math and set your sights on a reasonable deadline. If you don’t, it’s too easy to let the days and months get away from you, and before you know it another year will have passed and you still won’t have fulfilled your bucket list dream of writing a novel. But you want to write that story, right?

    The world is hungering for your book. So, set a deadline, put it on the calendar, and celebrate when you finish.
  • Keep your cup full.
    Creative endeavors take energy.

    Make sure you’re taking care of yourself so that you have the reserves for this passionate endeavor.

    Get enough sleep. Eat food that makes you feel good and fuels you. Move your body. Drink lots of water.

    Take care of you so that you have the energy to tell your story.
  • Hold onto the highs.
    The truth is, some days will be better than others. Some days you’ll get really high off the writing. You’ll have days where everything just flows and you’re especially pleased with how your words sound, and it’s all really fun and you can’t wait to finish your book so that you can share it with the world.

    Other days will just suck. There’s no way around it. I’m sorry.

    But if you’re human like the rest of us, you’ll have days where the words just don’t want to come out and you’ll start to believe your inner critic. You’ll wonder why you’re even trying to write a book, because clearly a kindergartner could do better than you at this story telling thing.

    So take the advice from my friend Amy Teegan and capture the highs. After your first especially good writing session, take a few extra minutes and write yourself a letter. Tell yourself how fun and exciting it is to be a writer. Wax rhapsodic over the world you’re building and the characters you’ve brought to life in stunning detail. Remind yourself how much people are going to just LOVE this book.

    Then seal it up, and save it for a dark day.
  • Visualize.
    Make the most of your writing sessions by preparing for them ahead of time. Here’s how I do this. At the end of each day’s writing session, I look ahead to the next part of my novel plan to see what I’m going to be writing the next day.

    Then, at night as I’m trying to fall asleep, I dream that upcoming scene alive in full Technicolor. I see it play out in my head like a movie. I let the actors (my characters) improv their dialogue. I yell out, “Cut! Take two!” (in my head, not out loud) when I don’t like the way it’s working, and I let them try again.

    I usually fall asleep after a scant few minutes of this. (Take that, insomnia!) Visualization is hard work. The thing is, I’ve given my subconscious a directive. Even if I’ve only made it partially through what I plan to write as I dream it alive, I’ve told my subconscious that I want it to help me create the scene. The best part? It listens. The next day when I sit down to write, the scenes flow out like water from a faucet.

One word after another. That’s how you do it. I believe in you. You can do this. 

Happy writing,