From Idea to Finished, Step 3: The First Draft

At the end of the outlining process, which I discussed in my last blog post, I have in hand an outline that gives me a basic summary of what’s going to happen in the story from scene to scene to scene, and how this story will progress from beginning, through the middle, and all the way to a hopefully satisfactory conclusion.



Which brings us to… the first draft!



The first draft is definitely one of my favorite parts of the writing process. There’s so much that could happen. So many surprises await you! So many twists and mysteries to be uncovered! So many characters to fall in love with!



It can also be a very intimidating part of the process, because you have a grand idea in your head of what this story is going to be and if you start writing it and realize that it’s not coming together how you wanted or it isn’t as epic/brilliant/genius as you’d thought, well… that can be really frustrating. (Unfortunately, this happens every single time. Sigh.)



For me, I try to fend off the first-draft doubts by writing really fast first drafts.



Not every writer works this way, but I like to get all the words out as quickly as possible so that I can make ALL the mistakes that are going to be made in this first icky, messy attempt at the story, and then move on to the good stuff. (The good stuff being all the epic/brilliant/genius things I’m no doubt going to come up with during revisions.)



How fast is ‘fast’?


During the first draft, I generally write anywhere from 3,000-6,000 words per day, which means I can get through it in a month or less. (Fairest, my shortest novel, I wrote in about a week, Cinder took me about two weeks. My longest novel so far, Winter, took almost three months by comparison, and boy did I feel like a slacker.)




Of course, “fast” is going to mean different things for different writers. For some writers, 1,000 words in a day is a huge accomplishment, especially when you’re balancing day jobs and families and school and Adult Responsibilities. Not to mention that—writing is mentally draining! So don’t be discouraged if 3,000 words seems like an impossible goal for you. Be nice to yourself and embrace the pace that feels right for you. Progress is progress, after all.


One reason I’m able to write a fast first draft is because of that outline. It’s not that I never get stuck during this part of the process, but if something isn’t working out, I can at least look at my outline and see where I’m supposed to be heading.


In other words, I don’t follow my outline to the letter. The story inevitably takes on a life of its own, and I just try to keep up. But when I feel like the story is losing its way, I have that original roadmap to fall back on. I might take an occasional detour, but I can always look back and see where I was heading in the first place.



That said, there have also been times when I realized halfway through writing the first draft that my final destination was somewhere completely different than I’d originally thought. No problem! It’s easier to scrap two pages of an outline and rework them than to scrap 100 pages of a manuscript. I’m constantly fussing with and altering my outline as I discover new things about the story and characters.



Other than starting off with a decent outline, here are some strategies I use in writing my first drafts.





Strategy #1: Set a Daily Word Goal.


I’m big on self-imposed goals. I’d never get anything done without them!



I recommend choosing a daily goal that feels challenging so that you don’t squander an hour staring at the wall, knowing that you still have plenty of time to hit your word quota, but don’t choose a goal that seems so impossible you’ll get overwhelmed before you even start. Play around, find what feels right for you.



Part of the reason that the fast first draft works for me is because when I’m trying to crank out 3,000+ words a day, I really don’t have the time to stop and listen to that annoying inner editor. Did that last chapter suck? Too bad, at least I hit my word quota! It keeps me moving forward, no matter how the neurotic perfectionist in me is cringing at all the horrible choices I’m making.




Strategy #2: Humor the Internal Editor—but just barely.


Often it seems that just when things are starting to get rolling, that little voice in your head says, “That last chapter really sucked.” Or “This entire plot is a mess.” Or “Did you just write the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Yes, you did!”



The inner editor is a jerk, in case you didn’t know.



So that was the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Fine. Write that down!



My first drafts are filled with random notes like:


– “Come up with something less cliché here.”

– “Make this less melodramatic.”

– “Need this to be funnier” / “more intense” / “creepier” / whatever.

– “Need to research this!”

– “Make this scene less terrible.”



That way the Inner Editor knows that I’m listening—I hear you!—and that I will come back and fix this. Later. Like, during revisions, when it’s time to start fixing stuff.




Strategy #3: Always keep moving forward.


Sometimes I might go back and read the last chapter I wrote so I can refresh my memory of what happened and where the characters were when I left off, but that’s it. I don’t go back and read anything else when I’m working on the first draft. I just keep pushing through until I hit the end.



That said, oftentimes I’ll realize that something needs to change in an earlier scene. Just like with leaving myself ‘internal editor’ notes, I’ll  leave myself a note for these changes too. I might go write it down in the chapter that needs to change, or I’ll keep a separate file with a running list of things that need to change in revisions. Things like: “Insert the villain into chapter 3 so they can overhear the conversation between hero and heroine” or “Show early on that the protagonist has a black belt in karate so the final fight scene isn’t so random” or “you know what, let’s make this character an only child—delete all mentions of their older brother!”



Once I’ve noted something to change in revisions, I continue right where I left off, but I write it as if I’d already made the change.



Strategy #4: Skip Stuff


I used to be a very lineal writer. I started on page one and wrote straight on through to the end. No more! While I still try to write as lineally as possible, if I find myself getting stuck, I’m totally okay with skipping the scene that’s giving me a hard time and move on to something I’m really excited about. Oftentimes having some space from that tricky scene will help me figure out what wasn’t working with it.



And besides, progress is progress is progress. If you need to jump to the romantic kissing scene or the epic conclusion scene so you can hit your word quota for the day, power to you. Just keep writing!



The Most Important Thing About the First Draft


Finish it.


Finish it, finish it, finish it.




So that you know you can.


Finishing stuff is hard, and there’s always a shiny new idea ready to coax you away. But finishing that first draft is an accomplishment that can never be taken away from you.



Also, it will give you something to work with in revisions… which I’ll talk about next week!



On NaNoWriMo


I love-love-love NaNoWriMo. Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Fairest, and Heartless all started life as NaNo novels, and if I can swing it, I’ll be drafting the first book of my superhero series this November, too. *fingers crossed*



The goal of NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) is to challenge yourself to write a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November. They also do Camp NaNo during the summer for people who struggle to join in during November. Hundreds of thousands of people participate each year, and it makes for a really fun, supportive community. It’s nice to know that you’re not all alone in this crazy world of noveling. Plus they have neat things like graphs that let you chart your progress and pep talks from really awesome authors. (Such as this one. *cough*)



The great thing about NaNo: It gives you the goal. It gives you the deadline. All you have to do is hunker down and write.




If you’re the type that thrives on friendly competition, I highly recommend giving it a shot. You have about six weeks to plan. 😉