How to Write a Killer First Draft
Hey, lovely writers!
It's officially November, which means most of us are dedicating every spare moment of our lives to cranking out 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. (This may also be the month when we all realize our own insanity, but that's a topic for another day.)
I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2014. I'd been working on my first novel for 2 1/2 years, and I still didn't have a completed first draft. It wasn't that I hadn't tried. In fact, I'd probably restarted my first draft four or five times by that point. But every time I got twenty or thirty thousand words in, I'd make a major change to the plot or switch POV characters and be forced to start all over again.
I knew this was an unhealthy cycle, so I was thrilled when I discovered NaNoWriMo. I needed something to help me get serious about completing a novel, and writing 50,000 words in a single month was the perfect challenge to do just that. Needless to say, I jumped on the bandwagon faster than you can say "50k!".
The challenge was tougher than I thought it would be, but somehow I managed to pull it off. I wrote 50,000 words that month, then another 57,000 over the next several months to put the finishing touches on my first draft. I was exhilarated! After nearly three years of dilly-dallying, I finally had a first draft to boast about.
Or so I thought...
When I picked up my manuscript to begin edits, my heart sunk. A quick read-through revealed that my first draft was riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and pointless passages. My characters were train-wrecks, too. In fact, the whole story was a hot mess.
But, never one to give up, I considered my first draft a learning experience and spent the next six months–May through October 2015–prepping, plotting, and rewriting my entire manuscript. And do you know what happened? Magic, I tell you. My rewritten first draft turned out to be a major success!
By no means is my manuscript ready to be published, but it does have the potential to be published some day. What made the difference? This time around, I knew all the tips and tricks for writing a killer first draft that would set my story up for success.
And today, I'm here to share all my secrets with you!
Defining a Successful First Draft
You may be wondering what qualifies a first draft as successful, but the answer probably isn't what you think.
So many writers make the mistake of lingering over every word in the first draft, doing their best to write pretty prose while also exploring their story for the very first time. This is a huge mistake! A successful first draft is many things, but pretty isn't one of them. In fact, writing a novel is messy work from start to finish. But nothing gets your hands as dirty as the first draft.
With characters to develop, worlds to build, and plot arcs to discover, you're going to make mistakes. There will be gaps in the story. Your characters will need rounding out. Spelling errors and grammar mistakes will abound, and the sentences won't all flow the right way. By all accounts, your first draft will probably be maddening to read, and that's okay!
First drafts are meant to be an exploration, not something fit to be read. The real writing comes in revising, and to expect otherwise is to end up with a shallow piece of work. Harsh words, perhaps, but good writers aren't born from mollycoddling. (Okay, how fun is that word? Seriously, let's give it a comeback!)
What truly makes for a successful first draft is a manuscript that presents itself without shame. Though it has its faults, it knows that it's headed down the path to publication and it does little to hinder your skill as the author to take it there. That may sound like a tough job to pull off, but creating a killer first draft is possible.
So are you ready to set your novel up for success? Let's dive headfirst into the muck to strong-arm our stories into submission!
My Top Tip For Story Success
If I could only give one piece of advice to writers for the rest of my life, it would be this: take the time to pre-write your novels.
I know some of you are already groaning. I get it. Nobody likes to outline. And most writers don't like to complete other pre-writing tasks, too. Though there are some of us, myself included, who find it nearly impossible to write a novel without doing a little prep work, many writers have a "go with the flow" mentality.
I firmly believe that this mentality blocks the path to success for most writers (yes, there are a few of you lucky unicorns who can write magic without pre-writing...and I'm totally jealous!). Here's why:
Have you ever had to make a huge, life-changing decision? A decision that stressed you out because you knew that once you committed, it wouldn't be easy to turn back or regain what you'd given up? I think all of us have been there at some point, right?
If you want to do more than write as a hobby, you need to treat your novels with the same sense of importance as those life-changing decisions. After all, books aren't written overnight. It takes months, or even years, to write a novel. Every minute you spend working on it is time you won't ever be able to get back.
That's why you can't jump on every story idea that comes your way. When you decide to write a novel, you need to choose your story carefully. Sleep on it. Plan for it. Give it some serious thought before committing hundreds of hours of your life to bringing it to the page.
Don't get me wrong. You should absolutely write for the simple joy of writing. And if you're only writing for fun, the "go with the flow" mentality is just fine. However, if you want to publish your work someday, you must treat each novel you write as something worth planning for, because I guarantee that taking the time to write it will change your life forever.
Is it possible to write a successful first draft without completing any pre-writing? Absolutely.
There are always exceptions to the rule. But your chances of writing a killer first draft this way are slim. After all, how many times have you gotten a third of the way through a draft only to run out of steam? If you have a pile of long-forgotten manuscripts lying in a drawer (or a file) somewhere, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
But what if there were a way to ensure that you wrote a strong and successful first draft the first time around? Would you take the risk, even if it meant spending a few days completing work you didn't much care for?
It's true that pre-writing isn't always fun, but it does create the solid foundation your story needs to reach for the stars. So, what do you say? Give it a shot!
In the She's Novel content archives, you'll find several posts on pre-writing your novel, but if you're looking for a more structured overview of everything you need to do to prep your next novel for success, I have something that might be able to help.
A little over a month ago, I launched a workbook called The Pre-Write Project.
So many of my readers were struggling to finish their first drafts, let alone edit or publish them. I knew I needed to help, and The Pre-Write Project was my way of doing just that.
The Pre-Write Project walks you through the process of pre-writing your next novel (or the novel you're currently struggling with) in just five days flat so that you can set your story up for success. Interested in learning more? Click here to get all the details and to grab your copy of The Pre-Write Project today!
Three More Tips for Drafting Success
Pre-writing your novel gives you a huge advantage over many common first draft struggles, but it isn't the only thing you can do to set your story up for success. Here are three more of my favorite tips for writing a killer first draft:
1. Don't waste any time. Ernest Hemingway once said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts." This little piece of writerly wisdom still holds true today.
Writing a first draft is never easy. The sooner you can get it out of your system and down on the page, the better.
How long this will take will depend on several factors--including your process and routine, as well as the length of your novel--but I recommend doing your best to write the whole first draft in three months or less. This will give you more time to work on the revision process, which is where the magic truly happens.
P.S. Ernest Hemingway also said, "The first draft of anything is sh*t." So if you can't take it from me, take it from the master. Perfection is simply unattainable the first time around.
2. Don't edit as you go. If you read back over your work, you're going to find mistakes, and if you linger on every word, you'll never finish. Though you can't do much about your writing process or your schedule, you can improve the speed at which you write by refusing to edit as you go.
Last week on the blog, I interviewed my lovely friend Whitney McGruder about her writing life. In that interview, she said something that's been rumbling around in my head ever since: "Wear one hat at a time--Be just the writer and write. Then, be the editor and revise." Could there be any better advice?
Trying to be both writer and editor at once will wear you thin, and your work will suffer for it. So learn to break free of editing as you go! Here are a few of my favorite tips:
• Set deadlines for your work. Promise yourself a tantalizing reward if you reach a certain goal in a designated timeframe. You might be surprised at how far a small bribe can go.
• Try word sprints. Word sprints are the perfect way to improve your word count. Set your timer for 20 or 30 minutes and write as much as you can. When the timer goes off, take a 5 minute break. Then set another timer and try to beat your previous goal.
You can also word sprint with other writers throughout the week. Check out The Sprint Shack for more resources!
• Set high goals. Push yourself to write more than you think possible in a single sitting. Make writing into a game rather than a never-ending race, and watch yourself improve every day.
3. Don't let fear hold you back. It's easy to look at other writers' highlight reels and begin to doubt your own abilities, but each and every writer has struggles. Even the pros fear the blank page on occasion.
It's time to recognize your worth as a writer. After all, no one wins the Comparison Game. So take a deep breath, swallow your fear, and plunge into your first draft with reckless abandon. You never know what you might whip up.
Remember, it's okay if your first draft is messy, so long as it's headed in the right direction. With strong characters and a strong plot, you can wrestle your way through any writerly obstacle and come out victorious. You just need to get that first draft down on paper.
Do you have any additional tips for writing a killer first draft? What holds you back from first draft success? I'd love to hear from you, so share your secrets in the comments below. Let's encourage each another to write like rockstars!