Friday, January 13, 2012

Getting the First Draft Done

I'm writing my third novel (not counting the really bad one I almost finished back in the early 1990s), so I feel I can speak on this topic with some degree of authority. I suppose I'm directing my remarks to the new novelist, the one searching for "the best way to write a book."

I'd like to limit my remarks to the first draft, which is where all novels begin.

1. Understand that nothing matters more than getting your first draft out of your head and down on paper, or the electronic equivalent of paper. Stop thinking about your ebook and print covers, what typeface you'll publish the print book in, your likely target market, and all the other things that don't matter because YOU HAVEN'T WRITTEN THE BOOK YET.

2. I write my first draft in the Courier typeface for several reasons, the most important being it's so basic. It's not pretty and even if you italicize a word, you can hardly tell it's italic when you print out the draft. Courier, to me, represents words. Just words, nothing else. Train yourself to write with little or no italics; let the words convey the meaning, not formatting.

3. Write every day. Any writer who's written a lot will tell you that you need to write every day. You'll train your brain to think like a writer and you'll get your first draft done faster.

4. Don't show your work to anyone. If you belong to a writing group, show them your work after you've finished the first draft. You don't need to be thinking about subplots and characterization, all that stuff, until you've got the story down on paper. If you take advice from others, start on your first rewrite.

5. Get inside your head. It's your story, you're the creator. Do whatever you have to to get inside your head far enough to pull the story out. For me this means sitting by myself somewhere. I can occasionally write in public now as long as I don't know anyone around me. I can tune out their noise, with headphones if I need to. I recommend new writers find a place where there are no distractions, including no Internet connection.

6. Separate research time from writing time. Remember, your goal is to get the first draft written as quickly as possible. Stopping to look up the name of a street or how many miles out of town a character lives interrupts the flow of writing the first draft. Place an asterisk at the front of a word you need to do some research on, then come back later, during research time, and do your looking-up. Which brings me to...

7. It's okay to schedule research time. We can't be spot on with our writing day-after-day. Use the "down days" to look up stuff you didn't look up when you were really cooking and the words were flowing.

8. It's also okay to write scenes out of sequence. Say you sit down in your private place to write, and you're seeing a scene that's half a day ahead in the manuscript. But it's so vivid and you know exactly who's going to say what and what's going to happen. It's okay to give yourself permission to write that scene. This is where Scrivener is so helpful. I organize my novel by chapters and scenes; it's easy to find my way around that way.

9. Don't worry so much about things like spelling and keeping the names of minor characters straight. Get the first draft done, then iron out the inconsistencies. (Just make sure you do; I've read many complaints about authors mixing up the names of major characters, like their main characters. Very embarrassing.)

The first draft is sacrosanct: without it there is no novel, which means until you get it done you're not a novelist.

So quit reading this post and get back to writing!


  1. Jeez, I commit a lot of these "sins", especially devoting too much time to re-arranging chapters, correcting grammar as I go, etc.I also have a bad tendency to get sidetracked during research.

  2. I used to get so sidetracked by research that I'd take forever to get a draft done. Some works have to be researched, of course, but hopefully you can get it done during "research time" and not "writing time." I still keep an eye on spelling and grammar because I just can't help it.

  3. Good advice, Everett. I also follow this advice by one of my favorite authors:

    "Write drunk, edit sober." - Ernest Hemingway


  4. Good advice for the newbies and good reminders for the not so new!
    I carry around a small notebook and pen (yes, stone age materials, I know) when I am working on the first draft so that I can keep up with all the ideas that seem to come when I am not "writing".
    I especially appreciate the reminder about research during research time. I often go skipping away on rabbit trails.

  5. Excellent list, there Ev. When I wrote my first book, I didn't want to do an outline because I didn't want to have to write the book twice. ROFL Boy, was I ignorant. I've since learned that (for me, anyway) the real writing takes place during the edits. But I can't edit a book I haven't written.

  6. @Melinda

    A notebook is always a good idea. As a man, though, I'm often out and about without anything in my hand. I always have my phone, so I'm trying to train myself to use the voice recorder.


    You're breaking the cardinal rule of going to Hawaii: NO INTERNET!

    Just kidding. Your pictures look like fun is being had by all. So far, I've never written with anything more than a (very) rough idea of where I wanted the story to go. Have a great time.

  7. Enjoy your tropical retreat. Stay safe and thank you for this post, most informative.

  8. The bit about research really resonates with me. I get sidetracked too easily! Even, sometimes, when putting together a blog article. I MUST not do this, I must not do this, I must... You get the picture...

    1. Research is one of the worst time-wasters. It's necessary but you have to learn to reign it in.

  9. I really love this - you have some great points in here, and it's nice to find another writer who thinks similarly about the down-and-dirty process of that first draft. Many of the things you've mentioned I invariably did when I was first starting out and finally, fifteen years into the writing life, am learning to avoid. Hopefully your post can nip those problems in the bud for folks just finding their way!

    1. My current WIP (is that redundant?) has been like giving birth. Or so I imagine. :)