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Five Tips for Writing a First Draft

For some people, writing a first draft is the easiest thing in the world. Armed with nothing but a pen and some paper, they produce a perfectly-structured scene in beautiful prose without even breaking a sweat.

And then there’s the rest of us.

For “normal” people – beginners and more experienced writers alike – writing a first draft is both a scary and a magical time…

  • It’s scary because facing a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen, and having to fill it with words – lots and lots of them – can be tough.
  • It’s magical because you finally get to see a chunk of your novel come to life, like a scene in a movie.

All too often, novelists focus on the scary part. The following tips will ensure that writing a first draft is always a magical experience.

1. Just Get Started on that Draft

Us writers are a strange bunch…

When most people have to work, they roll up their sleeves and get on with the job. They might not like it, but they know it has to be done. And so they do it. And afterwards they enjoy the satisfaction of having done it.

But writers are different…

  • On the one hand, we love what we do. Hey, what’s not to love about getting paid to make up stories?
  • On the other hand – and this is the weird thing – when the time comes to actually sit down and write the first draft, we’d rather be doing anything else than facing a blank computer screen.

“Doing anything else” is something most writers excel at. Yes, we might be great storytellers, but we’re equally great at…

  • Staring out the window.
  • Making stick figures out of paper clips.
  • Reorganizing the apps on our screens.
  • Taking the most non-urgent chore and elevating it to the status of must-do-now.

If any of that rings a bell, you’re not alone. If it doesn’t, you’re a saint! But what can you do about it?

Just. Get. Started.

The hardest thing about writing fiction – or doing any demanding job – is getting going in the first place. Once you have got going, the job is rarely as tough as you thought. But that doesn’t stop your brain looking for any excuse to put the job off. It’s like John Steinbeck said…

How the mind rebels against work, but once working, it rebels just as harshly against stopping. I don’t know why this should be. It’s a dumb brute, the human mind.

2. Understand the Purpose of a First Draft

First drafts are all about the story, about discovering what happens. Yes, you already know what happens roughly (or you do if you outlined your novel). Now it’s time to hang some flesh on that skeleton. For example…

  • You know from your outline that two characters get into a fight at a restaurant and it ends with them getting arrested. But how does the fight play out? Who throws the first punch? What do the other diners in the restaurant do? Who calls the police?
  • You know that your two young lovers share their first kiss in a movie theater. But who initiates the kiss? What kind of kiss is it? What’s the movie? Are you going to describe the physical action or the thoughts rushing through the viewpoint character’s head?

Planning a novel in detail, before you write it, is important. But “in detail” doesn’t mean a complete chronological list of everything that is said and done and thought and felt in every single scene. It’s just some brief notes on what happens and how things turns out.

The first draft is where you take those brief notes and expand them into a living and breathing scene.

3. First Drafts Are Supposed to Be Clunky

Anne Lamott: The only way I can get anything written is to write really shitty first drafts.

We’ve talked about what first drafts are about. Now here’s what they’re not about…

Producing page after page of perfect prose and dialogue.

Sure, if a great line pops into your head as you write the draft, accept it like the gift it is.

But if you can’t find the perfect words, it doesn’t matter – you’re just blocking out how the story unfolds here, so don’t waste time searching for the perfect piece of description or dialogue when nothing will come to mind.

Just get anything down, however clunky it sounds. And remember that “clunky” is to be expected…

The more experience you gain as a writer, the closer you get to finding your voice. The more you do that, the less clunky first drafts become. But they’ll still be on the rough side, however much experience you have.

You can use this to your advantage, though…

The fact that a first draft doesn’t have to be pretty takes a lot of the pressure off writing it (and therefore a lot of the pressure off parking yourself in front of your computer in the first place).

If you know that a first draft won’t sound great when you read it back, why bother trying to create something “great” in the first place? Instead, just write down whatever words come into your head, safe in the knowledge that you can edit them later.

And guess what? Once you’ve given yourself permission to write as badly as you want, writer’s block ceases to be a problem.

Still find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper, despite having given yourself permission to write badly? The odds are that there’s a disconnect between your head and your hands. The next tip should fix that…

4. Visualize a Scene Before Writing It

Imagine if I told you to sit down in a crowded train station and write a description of the various passengers coming and going. That would be easy, particularly if I also told you that the quality of the writing didn’t matter.

All you’d have to do is observe one of the passengers and write down what he or she does. Dialogue would be easier still – you’d just need to get close enough to two people having a conversation and write down what they say.

In other words, it’s a simple exercise in observation. You look at the various scenes playing out all around you and write down what happens.

Writing a first draft of a novel can be equally simple. All you need to do is…

  1. Picture the scene in your head – more specifically, picture it through the viewpoint character’s eyes.
  2. Write down what you see – and what you hear, smell, taste, think, etc.

Find it difficult to visualize a scene? Take some time to “get into the zone” first. Close your eyes and clear your mind of your day-to-day concerns. Fill it instead with the scene you want to write. When you’ve got there, open your eyes, pick up your pen and start writing.

And remember, this isn’t the time to worry about the language. Just get the scene down on paper, even if it sounds like an eight year old wrote it.

5. Set Easy-to-Reach Targets

Even if you take on board everything above, the fact still stands that writing a first draft is mentally draining.

Of course, pushing yourself mentally is no bad thing. It makes stopping and relaxing all the sweeter! Nevertheless, knowing in advance that writing a scene in your novel will likely drain you can be enough by itself to make you take the day off.

The solution? Set ridiculously low targets…

Setting yourself a target of 3,000 words a day, say, is ambitious. Setting a target of 100 words is so simple that you could probably do it while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil.

The advantage of the ambitious target is that you’ll get your novel drafted in record time. The downside is that you’ll probably burn out in week one and take the next week to recover – by which time your “writing muscle” will have gone all stiff again.

The advantage of the low target is that turning up at your desk every morning won’t be daunting in the least. The disadvantage is that writing the first draft of your novel will take forever.

But remember what Steinbeck said above…

How the mind rebels against work, but once working, it rebels just as harshly against stopping.

In other words, once you’ve found your groove and the scene is starting to come to life (in your head and on paper), you probably won’t want to stop at 100 words. You’ll write another 100. Then maybe 500 after that. And so on.

The key to this strategy is to understand that you can’t fool your own mind. If you set a 100-word target but secretly plan to write 3,000 words, it won’t work. So whatever low target you set, you’ve got to mean it.

Let’s say you decide on 250 words (about a page) a day. That’s a good target – large enough to be meaningful but small enough to be manageable. It comes with two conditions attached, though…

  1. You’ve got to show up at your desk every day and write your 250 words, even if you don’t feel like it. (Whether that includes weekends or not is up to you.)
  2. Once you’ve reached 250 words, you’re free to stop. Some days you’ll stop and others you won’t. Either way, your day’s work is done if you want it to be done, and you can leave your desk with a feeling of accomplishment.

Final point…

There’s more to writing a novel than writing the first draft. There’s the planning or outlining that happens at the start, then there’s the revision at the end. (See this section for a look at the process as a whole.)

So when I say “your day’s work is done,” I’m just talking about the drafting part – the tough part. Spend the rest of your time planning what you’re going to write in the future or editing something you drafted previously.

The important thing is that you carve out time to do some original writing every day…

It keeps you in peak writing condition. It keeps that word count rising. And it satisfies your inner-artist, who loves the thrill of taking a blank sheet of paper and filling it with the first draft of a scene.

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