Lessons from a First Draft

Novel first drafts are marathons of the writing experience. About to hobble over the finish line for the first time myself, I offer some tips for making the journey easier to navigate.

Bill Brooks

I have written a lot of first chapters for novels. A few of them are festering in a box at the bottom of my office closet, feet from where I sit writing this blog entry. I've deleted a few out of sheer frustration. You can probably relate. Over the years I've attempted to pen several novels, only to run out of steam. It can be more than frustrating -- it can be absolutely soul crushing.

Last October I made myself a promise. I would complete that first draft no matter what. Now I'm a few weeks away from completing that goal. I'm writing this blog post to share the strategies I've employed along the way. Hopefully they will help you write that first draft as well.

Keep in mind that these are my strategies. Hopefully some of them work for you, but they might not. You may need to devise your own. How do you choose your own strategies? Here's my suggestion: pick ones that make your life easier, not harder. This might seem absurdly obvious, but so many writers put unrealistic demands on themselves only to give up when they can't meet them. So pull those goalposts a little closer. Not too close, mind you. You still want to challenge yourself to reach the finish line. But you shouldn't have to go through hell just to finish a first draft. You'll be surprised how good success feels, even if it's completing a flawed manuscript instead of shooting to the top of the best-seller's list.

Without further ado, here are the strategies I used over the past six-ish months to make my life easier and to maximize the likelihood of completing the first draft of my novel:

I planned. I'm not going to delve into the whole planner vs. pantser debate here. I'm convinced everyone does something akin to planning before they write, even if it's as simple as daydreaming about their story. I'll say I planned to my comfort level. I took a few months to think about aspects of my story such as plot, themes, and characters. I had a pretty clear concept in my head, as my idea had come from a short story I'd written a few months earlier. The point is, do what you need to do, and don't rush yourself. Barreling ahead with no plan at all is a sure way to stall out.

I set reasonable expectations for myself. I've abandoned novels because I didn't think they were worth saving. Not too long ago, I wrote nearly every day for a year and a half and ended up with about 500 pages, only to toss it all because much of it was incoherent garbage, in my humble opinion (I hope this confession gives you a ray of hope. In this game, there's always someone who has failed much harder than you). Recently I recognized a pattern in my previous disasters — I hadn't gone in with clear expectations. Oh, I had a vague notion of wanting to be published, like most of us do. But that was a measure against which everything I wrote fell woefully short.

So this time I set goals that were simple, clear, and achievable. I wanted to:

  • Write a coherent (not necessarily a brilliant) story
  • Write characters that were more consistent in their behaviours and motivations than I had achieved in the past
  • Write around 500 words per day on the days I wrote


I did NOT tell myself I was going to write a best-seller. I purposely chose goals that were well within my reach, in order to improve my odds of success. For example, I can write more than 500 words per day. In the past I'd achieved 1000 with regularity. But nobody was waiting for me to finish this novel, so I didn't HAVE to write 1000 words per day. I knew there would be times when I couldn't, because life happens — there were doctor appointments, I had to take the truck in for repair, and the driveway wasn't going to clear itself of snow. I knew if I started feeling guilty about not reaching an abstract word count I would get discouraged and possibly quit. The idea wasn't to push myself, but to set myself up for success.

I followed a simple story structure. I chose the 3-act structure, one of the simplest. In my 500 page epic disaster I had failed partly because I hadn't known when to stop writing. I could have quit six months earlier and saved myself a ton of effort and regret. The 3-act structure was a recipe that spelled out the arc of my story. It seemed dummy-proof. In other words, it was perfect for this dummy.

I'm not advocating for the 3-act structure, by the way. That's just what I chose. The point is, if you have trouble with structure, start with something that's easy to get your head around and will help keep you on track.

I edited my previous day's work every day. This isn't my idea — I stole it from the writer Jerry Jenkins. The idea is that you write every day without thinking about perfection, just getting the story written. Then you put on your editor's cap the next day, and line edit your previous day's work before starting new stuff. I was leery of this at first, but I learned to love it for a few reasons. It made me feel better overall about what I had written. Don't get me wrong, my writing wasn't suddenly perfect, but because it had been edited once, it wasn't embarrassingly bad, either. And if I lost the plot one day, which I have a habit of doing and which I did on more than one occasion writing this book, it gave me a day to think it over so I could rewrite it the next day.

I didn't sweat things not being perfect. Putting every day's work through a first edit made my writing and the story better. Don't get me wrong, it's still rough and full of holes. I made notes for myself for the second draft and kept going. In other words, I stopped beating myself up for not getting it perfect. If you tend to be tough on yourself when writing first drafts, remember you're doing something a lot of other people only dream of — you're actually writing a novel, and not just talking about it. That's something to be proud of.

Not sweating the imperfections extended to my word count, too. I'm a worrier by nature, and in the past I'd stressed out about not meeting my word count every single day. When something happened and I couldn't write, I felt guilty about it. This time I shot for around 500 words per day average. This calculation assumed I would write seven days per week, which I didn't, by the way. I wrote most days, but there were times when I missed as much as three days in a row. I trained myself not to worry. My current average word count over this draft is 428 words/day. I'm not done yet, and I'm burning a day to write this blog entry. Am I worried? Nah.

And finally, I tracked my progress. Notice how I just told you exactly what my average word count was? I can do that because I kept track of my daily word counts in a spreadsheet. I also recorded my total words written and my goal number of words (80000). With this information, the spreadsheet keeps track of my projected end date. I don't know if this kind of transparency will help you, but having a computer programming and mathematics background, I find comfort in quantitative statistics. And the days I've had to miss? My spreadsheet tells me they have added about three weeks to my schedule. I can live with that.

Writing a first-draft of a novel is hard, no doubt about it. It doesn't help that there are so many personal stakes. What if it's no good? What if I can't meet my deadline? What if I dig as deep as I can and I just can't find the inner strength to finish it?

What I'm here to tell you is that you can make it easier on yourself if you use strategies that improve your chances of success. Maybe it's not the end of the world when you miss a day of writing. Maybe you can cut corners by sticking to a story structure that spells out when the tension should rise and when it should fall. Forget about writing a best-seller and instead focus on getting to that finish line. And don't forget to celebrate once you get there, because it's a phenomenal achievement to have written a first draft, regardless of its state.

These strategies have made all the difference for me. My first draft is nearly complete, and in some ways it hasn't really felt like work at all, because I've set goals that were achievable and designed to improve my odds of success. You can do the same, and once you've completed your first novel, use your own lessons learned to tackle the next.

19+ Comments

Chazza

I never tell myself I’m going to have a best seller, mostly because half my stuff is shit.
And the reason that I am scared to write sometimes, is because I’m scared I will write rubbish and make myself feel suicidal.

Jun-20 at 22:16

Jcgreen

Chazza,
Maybe the thing to do is to forget about writing the perfect book and a glorious publishing contract. Just write for the enjoyment of it. The more you write, the more you run it past others on here, and revise, the more you will learn and the better you will get. Even successful authors weren’t necessarily published on their first book.

Jun-20 at 22:38

Glitterpen

Good blog post. :slight_smile:

I like to plan too, but some day I might try and pants a novel just to see if I can do it. The author of Story Trumps Structure has inspired me to give it a shot. I will put on my pants!

I’ve never thought of writing a best seller, probably because I don’t think my first book would become one. It’s a cool goal that I might have in ten years. But, for now, I just want readers to say, “Wow! This is why I love reading!” after they’ve finished my book. I hope to have a fan base, but I’m not too thrilled with Twitter right now.

I find it hard to write a whole draft without editing. I don’t know how people do that; that’s such a mystery! I allow myself to go over each scene three times, and then I move on to the next scene.

Jun-21 at 00:20

Glitterpen

It sounds like you’re very hard on yourself. One trick I learned (but haven’t quite mastered) is to picture someone coming to you for help and they tell you that they think their work is shit. Ask yourself what would you say to them? I don’t know much about you, but we’re usually nicer to people coming to us for help than we are to ourselves.

Also, have you ever read Fearless Writing by William Kenower? It helped me deal with all aspects of being a hobbyist writer. I stopped psyching myself out so much. I haven’t gotten writer’s block in a long time.

Jun-21 at 00:30

Chazza

If someone came to me, I’d tell them that it isn’t bad and to carry on.
And yes, I am hard on myself, because I lived with an undiagnosed disability for 20 years and suffered at school because of it.
I want to be good at writing third person. First person seems like no effort, but third is my nemesis.

Jun-21 at 00:54

Leglessme

Good blog post.

I’m definitely a planner, but more than that, I have my idea forcused into a 25 to 30 word sentence so I remember when I find myself writing my way into a tangent what it was I envisioned.

I also do one other crucial thing: I look in a mirror and say, “I hereby give myself permission to write a crappy first draft.” I think it’s important to note that, with very few exceptions, no first draft is perfect, and many are haunted with things we see in the queues–bad writing, worse, writing, plot holes you can drive a Mack truck through, poor characterizations, dropped plot threads and execrable writing. (paraphrasing Holly Lisle). Nora Roberts said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one.” So the rest is best gotten down, crappy or not, and fixed “in post” as they say in the film industry.

Jennifer Crusie labels all her first drafts “don’t look down” as if she’s walking a high wire. I swear that it feels that intense and tireing. :smiley:

Jun-21 at 01:12

Lorenzo

The thing is, people say write whatever and don’t worry about grammar. I can’t be dealing with bad grammar and bad spelling, so I always sort that when I’m writing.

Jun-21 at 01:41

Leglessme

And everyone is different. But the idea is to get the first draft finished. If I do SPaG correction on things I may change in revision that’s a waste of my time.

Jun-21 at 04:42

Glitterpen

I understand. Some people can be mean, even so-called friends. I have schizophrenia and have faced bullying (by grown adults) in the workplace. I had to make a point of telling management at each new job to ask me to resign if I made too many mistakes. I have too much pride, and have trouble quitting things, so I ended up tolerating a lot of abuse. I don’t know how I wasn’t fired at some places…probably because I never made fun of others, or complained about anything. I think they knew I was trying my hardest. But I would just keep screwing up, because I had (and still have) trouble concentrating in noisy environments.

A forty year-old woman (and mother of three children) told another coworker: “She practically asks for it [the bullying].” It was a line I hadn’t heard since elementary school. Coworkers would frequently run to this witch to inform her of my every mistake, and have a good laugh. Anyway, bad experiences can really shake our confidence. I’m rambling again, so I will stop. :smile:

Jun-21 at 11:29

Chazza

Thats horrible. I have also face bullying in the workplace, just because they could.

Jun-21 at 11:56

Dabbler

In a first draft I like to just freely write dialog and description paragraphs, omitting quote marks and dialog tags. Also maybe leaving off descriptions of the character’s actions, expressions, clothing and the details of the setting. This allows me to write creatively without the embellishments that require logical thought. Sometime later I go back with a logical frame of mind to add all the extra pieces.

Jun-21 at 13:02

Okycool

Don’t force yourself to try to fit into a box if your brain doesn’t want to go into that box. If you want to learn to be good at writing third person, try writing first person first, what your brain is more comfortable with. If you improve one skill then it’s likely to rub off on the other, just because you’ll have more experience under your belt :grinning:

Jun-21 at 13:31

Chazza

I want to say i’m good at first person, but I’m not sure anyone agrees. My first, second and now third book are all writen in third, and that’s all I’ve known since I was young. I wrote the first book when I was 12ish. The second when I was late teen and I’m halfway through the third book. I just feel like whatever I write in third, just isn’t up to my liking.

Jun-21 at 22:32

Lorenzo

I think you’re good at first.
Actually, first person is all I’ve ever known, and I enjoy it more than third person.

Jun-21 at 22:36

1910orange

I cannot write deep third. I like to write unreliable narrators, so I prefer writing in first person.

Jun-22 at 00:20

Never

Thanks for sharing, Bill! It’s good to be reminded that the story doesn’t have to be perfect in the first draft. It just has to get written down. I needed to hear that today.

Jun-22 at 02:29

Terricanda

Great post! When I got to this one: ‘I edited my previous day’s work every day’, I cringed because this is my downfall. Not that I don’t edit the previous day’s work, I do, but I edit it for 3 days! I wrote my first draft in about six months – around 1,400 hours. That was – get ready for it – 2 years ago! I’ve been editing ever since.

Jun-23 at 19:00

Terricanda

We’re always our own worst critic. That’s why Critique Circle is so valuable.

Jun-23 at 19:06

Esantos

Some great advice here. Thanks for sharing.

Jun-24 at 03:51
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