Getting Through Your First Draft

An essay to help writers who are struggling to get through the first draft of a novel.

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© 2015 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

Writing the first draft of a novel is often painful. The story in your head is perfect and flawless but as you try to forge it into words it can get distorted and difficult to understand. You become a little lost and no matter how hard you try you can’t do your story justice. But that’s alright, because it’s the first draft. It’s supposed to be rough and confused and scribbled. It’s not the polished piece of work, but merely the skeleton for the muscle of your story to grow from. Here are a few things I learnt while writing my first draft.

Don’t look back

Our worst critics are usually ourselves. We dwell too long on words, sentences, chapters, and the end slips further and further away. Don’t over-build characters or over-think scenes when writing the first draft, just write what you need to write to get the scaffolding of the story down. It doesn’t matter if no-one but you can make sense of it, because you’ll be able to make alterations before anyone reads it. Or if you do want a few select people to go through it, choose supportive friends and family who will comment on the plot as a whole, not dwell on the small details or the grammar. Loosen up and let yourself write without looking back.

Make your own order

I knew a handful of the most poignant scenes in my novel before I knew anything else. I wrote them down, regardless of the fact that I had no plot arcs or appropriate character names. My brain was then free to figure out the ending, but I still had no idea where my protagonist came from or how to fill the ample gaps in the story. But I had to start somewhere so I kept writing down what I knew, and the rest came in time, over a few years. My story was always on my mind and ideas unravelled themselves while I was doing non-writing related tasks, like washing up or painting the bathroom. There is no step by step guide to writing a first draft that will work for everyone. We are all different and I found going with what felt natural to me the most successful way to go. Take your time and don’t force it.

Grow your story

© 2015 Seb Reilly / Used With Permission

© 2015 Seb Reilly / Used With Permission

I thought of my main scenes, the poignant ones I mentioned above, as fruits on a tree. They are the most enjoyable, juicy and rewarding parts. But there can be no fruit without the main trunk of the story, the twisting branches of characters and plot, and the roots holding it all in place. Where do you want your protagonist(s) to start? And why? Always ask yourself why with every decision you make because it has to be organic and believable. The roots, or the first few chapters, should start as far into the story as they can. They shouldn’t be extensive and tedious, but strong and steady and lead straight into the trunk, ushering the reader to the heart of the story. Then let the branches grow from it as plot twists and possibilities, and characters with their own needs and stories. Then finally, once the body of the tree is in place, you can add the juicy fruits.

Don’t go online

Each time I turn my laptop on, intending to write, I find myself ‘just checking’ social media and online shopping sites. Hours pass. But this habit can be sustained. I now tell myself I can check online when I reach a milestone, a thousand words or the end of the current chapter. It becomes the reward pulling me forward instead of the barrier holding me back. And if all else fails and willpower falters, then pull the plug and disconnect.

Write when you’re alone

I have a young daughter and so far I’ve found no way to stay focused enough to write when I know at any moment I may need to make a drink, wipe a nose, change a nappy, etc. If you have young children then wait until they are asleep, or at nursery, or anywhere but with you, because if you try to do both at the same time you will likely end up torn, tired and with nothing to show for it. You are just one person and you can’t do it all at once. Carve out space in your diary for writing when you can be alone, as meagre as it may be, because you will get far more done in one focused hour than several interrupted ones. And if you have a partner that you need to drag yourself away from in order to write, suggest to them some hobbies, so they too can be absorbed in something they enjoy doing.

Don’t stop reading

I thought reading would somehow influence me too much as I attempted to get my first draft down, so I stopped. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was creatively stunted. I didn’t have any real drive, or anything to compete with to keep my imagination exercising. Reading the work of others while you write will give you competition and keep your brain ticking. You can look at what authors do well and not so well. Read your own genre, but sometimes read books from other genres you wouldn’t usually go near, because you can find useful things in unusual places. If you don’t read you can get stuck in the narrow sightline of what you think writing should be, and with nothing to pull you back you keep digging yourself deeper. Let other books inspire you, re-start your brain, and expand the way you think.

Write your first draft without rules or perfect grammar, without character names or even a beginning if that’s what feels best for you. Large chunks of it could end up changing so there’s no need to dwell on details now. But write down everything in your head, even if you’re not yet sure of the order events should happen. And when you’ve finally finished your first draft and are basking in the elation of its completion, know that the first draft is only the beginning.

Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.

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