Monthly Archives: August 2014

How to Write a First Draft


Each time I sit down to start a new book, I feel a bit panicked.

I think that’s because writing a novel is such a long process, and when a whole year has passed between writing a first draft and finishing that draft, the thought of a completely blank page is intimidating. It would be for anyone.

I end up wondering again:

How do you write that first draft?

First, don’t panic, and if you do, knock that off fast so you can get to work.

For me, writing a novel is done in two parts: planning and writing.

One important thing to note about planning is that it is not the same as writing a book–it’s simply one part of the process that I hope you will try … just don’t try it for too long. Otherwise, you’re just a planner and not a writer at all.

Part 1: Planning

This great novel you want to write starts with an idea, a vague idea usually, but something that makes your creative self go, ohh.

The best book ideas make me want to explore something … some question about life I’m not too sure of. For ARROWS, I found myself wondering: “Why do some women and girls stay loyal to complete assholes?”

My book doesn’t answer that question completely, but it does offer some insight — some truths (and a little fiction) I explored along the way.

So you have an idea, too. Something you want to explore.

Before you continue in the planning stage, read this post by literary agent Jill Corcoran on what makes a book sell.

Because if you’re writing a book, chances are you hope to sell it someday, and that part of this fantastical dream is about business. Selling books. Not the easiest thing in the world to do, apart from all this planning/writing you have to do first.

Corcoran’s advice about brainstorming concepts and pitches is key. Take your time doing this, but not too much time, like I said earlier.

* * *

Once you have a concept nailed down, you can begin to plot.

Some writers don’t like to or need to pre-plot, and that’s fine. I’m just sharing what I need to do, since I’ve learned the hard way that not plotting a book leads to extensive, painful revisions later. (I’m cringing at the memory.)

  • Tip: Practice describing what your book is about out loud. Does it make sense? Is it compelling? Write this pitch down as part of the planning stage. To me, a pitch is the most basic summary of your plot.

So, plot. Where do you start? I’ve found Martha Alderson’s videos and blog to be extremely helpful. Watch the plot series and take notes on what your novel needs in order to become a great story. This will take time, so don’t try to rush it. A clear, believable plot will make the writing part that much easier. (haha)

If you don’t care to plot extensively, consider planning these key parts:

  1. The inciting incident
  2. The re-commitment scene
  3. The crisis scene
  4. The climax
  5. The end
  6. The characters
  7. The setting

I’m not going to take you step-by-step through the plotting process, or explain what the above terms mean. There are far better resources available online and at the library. Do your research, take your time and make your story mean something. Plot is really about building a complete story that matters.

* * *

Character development is another huge part of the planning process. I like to get to know my characters a little before I can write their story. Yes, I learn more about them as I go through the revision process, but I like to start somewhere. I like to know that no other character would be able to tell my story quite like them.

How do you develop a character? Again, do your research and read books on the subject (Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card comes to mind). I like to understand my character’s goals, their positive and negative traits, their fears and secrets. My characters need to be both compelling and flawed. Relate-able and surprising.


Tip: Take out a notebook and pen and write a minimum of three pages about each character. Write whatever comes to mind–their hair color, their past, their fears, likes, dislikes. This is always a very eye-opening character exercise for me.

Part 2: Writing

Once you have a basic idea of what and who your book is about, sit down and write the story.

Important: Don’t self-edit during the first draft.

Editing can be mistaken for writing, and in this part, you just need to get the words down.

Revision comes later, and it will come, again and again and again.

You have to write that first, imperfect, terrible draft, or you won’t have a novel at all.

But how? What if you’re stuck? What if you want to quit?

You will get stuck and you will want to quit, but you have to keep going. You have to put a bunch of words down, one after the other, and keep going no matter how terrible the sentence seems or if it is a run-on sentence and the grammar isn’t perfect.

You can fix that later. (Repeat after me: I WILL fix that later.)

In the writing part, you write.

Not edit.

Not research (much).

Not plan.

Not read what you wrote yesterday.

You write word after word after word until you have 60,000 of them.

Simple. And really, really, really, really hard.

Happy writing.

  • Insight: How do I write when I don’t feel like it? I limit all phones and internet access until I meet my word count for the day. No exceptions. It’s a simple reward system that works.

It is incredible what you do, knowing you have to. – Elizabeth Wein in Code Name Verity

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Photo by jamelah