Forum: Conquer the First Draft

Our heroine noticed a number of people discovering problems letting themselves write first drafts, dear Reader. I say “letting themselves” because that’s really what it is: getting away from the inner editor and just getting the story down on the page. You cannot edit a blank page. Making it pretty is revision work.

There are some simple techniques which can help you get that first draft down. They can help clarify mind and purpose – or give you a quick kick to the seat of the pants, as needed. (I usually need the latter when I get stuck.)

First of all, you must Trust Yourself. This is an article by Jessica Faust on Bookends, LLC’s blog. It’s more than just a pep talk. It’s a dose of perspective every writer needs once in a while. Go back to it occasionally, especially when you’re doubting your ability to write.

Should you outline? If so, what type of outline? Phase drafting, snowflake method… So many possibilities. The Art vs. Craft Gap – A Writer’s Paradox is found on Write to Done. This guest post by Larry Brooks addresses the old question of where art is taken over by craft and vice versa. I enjoyed this article for its description of how the two work together to create a proper novel. (If you want more info on things like outlines, phase drafting, etc., check out Plotting.)

Here are some ideas to help you make writing come more easily:

Debra Marrs (of Your Write Life) once told me that cleaning up writing space helps one become more productive. I followed her advice and she was right. (And as I look around, I can see what I’ll be doing this afternoon.) Unclogging Your Creative Space on Essential Prose includes an interview with Lisa Baldwin. The article identifies problem areas and details they whys and the ways of clearing things out. Trust me, this may sound fundamental but it’s some powerful stuff.

Leo Babauta wrote a great article on Freelance Switch titled Create a Morning Writing Ritual. Bet you can guess what it covers. Give this one a look, though. You may think you know what he’s going to write, but there is some good advice and even better ideas. He doesn’t just explain why it can help, he details how to go about creating it.

And now, finally, we come down to the heart of the doubt and frustration: Do I have any idea what I’m doing writing this first draft? Holly Lisle‘s article How to Start a Novel is an extensive instruction manual on exactly how to do that. Use it as a checklist for what you’re already doing or a plan of action as you dive in. Hey, use it as both. I like to go back to it and review her points even while I’m revising. It helps me make sure I’m hitting all the necessary notes.

There are plenty of hurdles on the track when writing. I’ve found that most if not all of them are there because I put them there. “Stay out of your own way, woman,” I mutter to myself on occasion. It may not be the sweetest affirmation out there, but it works for me. Find out what works for you. Stick with it and stick with your writing.


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4 thoughts on “Forum: Conquer the First Draft

  1. Jane Steen April 20, 2010 at 11:23 am Reply

    I’m on the last 13K of my first full-length fiction draft. It grew organically, thus:

    At first I was totally pantsing because I had no idea whether I could commit to the discipline of daily writing. At 5K I figured out that yes, I could, and also started obsessing about word count as I realized I could get done in three months at my then current rate (it has since increased).

    At around 30K I realized I had written too far ahead in the story, was losing my grip on its structure and was getting lost between backstory and story. So I stopped, made a visual plan of the structure and learned how to use the outliner in Scrivener.

    Now, late in the game, I often wish I had notes as I can’t remember the names of some of the minor characters. So I make up another name and resolve to sort it all out at the editing stage. Same thing with the timelines! Editing is going to be hilarious at times.

    Despite this messy was of proceeding I suspect I will end up with a workable draft, because the story was very clear in my head right from the beginning. While the draft is “in the drawer” I intend to begin outlining my first NaNoWriMo effort, which will have a) a clear structure from the beginning (by which I mean that I’ll know what the major plot points are and when they should occur) b) masses of character notes using the Snowflake method c) a proper outline. I have learned SO much by making a messy beginning, just the same way kids learn to paint and draw!

    So to other beginners who keep reading advice on how to get started and can’t sort it all out in their heads, my advice would be: jump in. Even if you end up with a complete disaster you can pull it apart and rebuild it. The beauty of the first draft is that absolutely nobody else has to see it. And while you’re editing you can read all those helpful posts which meant so little to you before. Once you’ve tried writing something, you have the reference points from which to understand advice. You are a writer!


    • Jessica Rosen April 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm Reply

      Excellent advice, Jane. I love your comparison to kids learning to paint and draw. It may be humbling to think of it that way for some, but I think it’s terrific. Congratulations on heading into your first NaNo, too. You’re hitting it well-prepared. If you take a look back in last November’s Forum entries, you’ll find some info about tricks and tips for NaNo which apply to any first draft. Even one to help you with that pesky “What was that minor character’s name?” problem.

      Thanks for sharing your journey with us. I really appreciate it.

      Take care,


  2. BubbleCow April 22, 2010 at 4:07 am Reply

    Great post – my advice would be to get the words on the page and forget about ‘crafting’ the novel. Once you have the bones of the story down, you can go back and beat it into shape. In the first instance just keep writing…


    • Jessica Rosen April 22, 2010 at 6:20 am Reply

      That’s exactly it. It’s called a “rough draft” for a reason. Get the words down on the page, don’t examine each word choice or sentence structure as you go. Just. Write. The. Story. Polish it until it gleams in revisions.

      Great advice. Thanks a bunch for stopping by and sharing it.

      Take care,


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