So, you’ve been thinking about writing a novel for a while, but you’ve never gotten around to it. Maybe you’ve started a couple of novels but never finished them. Or maybe you’ve started and finished several novels, but you’re not happy with the way they turned out. Or maybe you’ve just never written anything longer than a short story, but you think you have a good idea for a novel. If you’ve never written a novel before, the prospect of sitting down and writing the first draft can be daunting. But if you take it step by step, and focus on getting through that first draft, you’ll be well on your way to completing your novel.
- 1 1. Analyze professional writers from your genre.
- 2 2. Let them free.
- 3 3. Practice show-don’t-tell.
- 4 4. Start early with “collision points”.
- 5 5. Specify the characters.
- 6 6. Make your character heroic.
- 7 7. Write diary entries for characters.
- 8 8. Give your reader a reason to care about your hero.
- 9 9. Make your character’s flaws.
- 10 10. Give your character a choice.
- 11 11. Listen to how real people speak.
- 12 12. Add sound effects and other effects to your scene.
- 13 13. Move the story through space and time.
- 14 14. Remember the reader’s point of view and experience.
- 15 15. Review again your character’s backstory.
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1. Analyze professional writers from your genre.
It’s no secret that writing is hard. But famous authors write all the time. Not just because writing is their profession, but because it’s an ingrained part of how they think.
Now, what exactly do famous authors do all day? Observe them. Read their blog posts, the letters they write to their fans, the eBooks they release. Consider what they do differently than you and try to emulate it.
2. Let them free.
Your first draft is your opportunity to let your creativity soar! Letting your ideas free and not worrying about structure ensures that you’ll get what you want down on the page when you write your first draft. Adding structure comes when you edit it later.
Take your time. Get yourself a notebook and brainstorm the bare-bones of your story. What is it about? Who are your characters? What happens to them? Once you have a basic sketch of your story, begin writing. Write down anything that comes to mind—preferably in script format rather than as description. Writing dialogue is infinitely easier in script format, and using your hands is always more fun than typing.
3. Practice show-don’t-tell.
One of the most important things for you to do when writing your first draft is to ‘show, not tell.’ This idea isn’t complicated, but it’s critical for you to master.
Showing, not telling, encourages more creativity on your part as an individual author, while ensuring that you’re not acting as a mouthpiece for an authorial voice of omniscience. Do your characters cry or laugh when something enters their field of view? Do they gaze in horror at the objects around them? Impress readers by describing, not telling. Doing so means readers will encounter characters that are more alluring, dynamic, and believable. Getting into a character’s head is a great place to learn about their perspective and motivation.
But not telling means more than simply living in the heads of your characters. You can also take this as a prompt to keep telling stories in new ways. Remember that your characters hear more than their own internal dialogues—pay attention to external stimuli, like quiet guitar riffs or clicking clocks! Also, don’t be afraid to ‘break the fourth wall’ and play with the limitations of your own story world, just for fun.
4. Start early with “collision points”.
There’s such a thing as a right way to draft a novel. It’s called “The Snowflake Method,” and it’s all about how different scenes are connected.
Many beginning novelists complain that their story often develops two parallel storylines, one on land and the other in the sea, so to speak. While it may not always be that obvious when you’re working in your own mind, the end result is the same. If you have two storylines, soon after or even during your first draft, your novel will lose focus, perhaps even becoming incomprehensible.
If that happens, this better way of drafting a novel will help. You start by brainstorming every possible thread of the novel that you can think of, no matter how big or small. Set some time aside every day, even just five minutes, and write down whatever comes to you. Maybe one day you get only one plot development, and other days you get many, but the point is that all potential plot developments go on the list. They can be as simple as a character responding to something another character said in a scene you’ve already written, or they can be a major plot twist—or whatever you think it needs to be for the book. Think of these as “collision points” where your different storylines come together, because where the threads cross, your story develops conflict, and conflict is what makes a story powerful. Have fun with this part!
5. Specify the characters.
While plot and setting are important to character development, characters are people, no matter how they got there. So, one of the things you should do in the first draft is give them details like real people. Not only are they going to be the people you spend time with for the next weeks, months, or even years, they’re also your readers’ primary point of entry.
Be sure to give your characters the type of information they would exchange in real life—what they look like, where they’re from, what they like to eat, how they got their scars and what they call their pets. Remember that characters evolve as you write. Even if you have character sketches before you begin writing, know that you’ll likely change a lot of details during the first draft.
6. Make your character heroic.
One of the mistakes people make when they’re trying to write a first draft is that they only think about the content, not the form of their story. But one of the most important things you can do to get through your first draft is to see the story as a hero’s journey and each character as an extension of that journey. Thinking this way keeps your story on track so you can cut unnecessary plot and dilution of characters. So, think about how each of your characters creates, heightens, and resolves their own problems through their actions and experiences. What makes a character heroic is often seen through their responses to adversity.
7. Write diary entries for characters.
Get your characters speaking and acting by writing diary entries or voice-overs for them. Once you’ve written a few of these, you can start working them into your story, writing them from the point of view of the character as his or her journal. A mix of diary entries, journal entries, and character descriptions will allow you to flesh your characters out and develop your world concretely. When you’re halfway through the first draft, you can go back to your voice-overs and change them if they don’t make sense in the new context.
Then, draw up a character chart, noting connections between characters, and create an index of characters with details about their appearance, back story, and relationships to other characters. While you’re writing, keep your dialogue short and lively. You want to convey the essence of a conversation without spending unnecessary space on it. Cut unnecessary words, and keep your tone consistent.
8. Give your reader a reason to care about your hero.
To motivate them to continue reading, readers need to care about at least one of the main characters. At the end of the day, your hero is the most important person in your story—the reader only cares what happens next because they care what happens to your hero. Readers are going to form a connection to your hero based both on what they know about your character’s personality and what they perceive as your character’s personality—either of which can be a source of tension between reader and character.
9. Make your character’s flaws.
One of the most important things in the first draft is to have a character with identifiable attributes and flaws. People we read about will always have aspects to the people we meet. If you find that your character has no flaws and has every single thing you could want them to have, then your character isn’t going to be very interesting. On the other hand, if they don’t have any desirable outstanding qualities, then your character is overly weak and not exciting either. You want someone who is right on the edge of not being the perfect character but can still be incredible.
When a character has weaknesses, that’s how we as readers get to see different sides of that individual. Also, including a weakness with a character might clue the other character or characters in to how to help or fix that flaw. This will have you reading your first draft from a different perspective so you can spot all the issues and begin formulating a plan to fix them. As you go along when you’re creating your first draft, be sure that your character’s strengths match their weakness.
10. Give your character a choice.
Your character’s choice should be the beginning of the second act of the story. The choices that come right after the inciting incident will determine what sort of a journey the main character will go on, and they will determine whether your story is going to be a tragic story, a happy story, or something in between.
11. Listen to how real people speak.
To create characters that feel like they could jump off of the page and start talking to you, you have to start listening and looking for things that people around you say that strike you as particularly interesting or true. The next time you and a friend are chatting, pay attention to her grammar, what sentence fragments she uses, etc. If you constantly find yourself nodding and saying, “Yes, exactly, that’s it!” it’s probably a good sign. Pay attention to your partner’s or your parents’ quirks of voice or verbal habits. Listen to your friends when they’re joking around. These minor imperfections are often what makes people interesting in the first place.
It can also be helpful to look at transcripts of real conversations. Or don’t—you can also listen to them. YouTube now has many videos of people sitting down and having normal conversations. Take the one that resonates with you most and listen to it on loop. This can be helpful for writers looking to capture the feel of everyday conversation, or an accent.
Novels and prose often have voices that are unlike any real person, whereas a regular conversation that you’ve heard on TV is different, but much more familiar. You can improve your craft by listening to some real conversations.
12. Add sound effects and other effects to your scene.
Adding sound effects and other effects often come toward the tail end of the drafting process. At that point, you already know what the plot is going to be like, so describing every detail that goes on in that scene won’t mean much to you. However, since this is an integral part to a novel, you should try to think about sound effects throughout your planning. Sometimes, these can add excitement to your story.
So, what are sound effects, and how do they differ from sound descriptions? Sound effects, sometimes called a Foley Artist, are sounds generated specifically for the scene. Comparatively, sound descriptions are mentions of environmental sounds that already exist around the characters. Most of your writing should contain nothing but sound descriptions, but near the tail end of your process, there is room for sound effects. There are lots and lots of these. They cover things from gunshots, to doors slamming, to dogs hitting the floor. However, there are a few guidelines to remember when using them.
13. Move the story through space and time.
You’ve just got to get the story rolling and moving along. You want the situation to come into focus as quickly and ambiguously as possible, so you and your characters have the most room to explore the possibilities of the story in the next phase. The easiest way to move the story along is to get the action to shift locations. Or, shift the location sometime during this phase by a matter of minutes or hours or days, but at the very least have things occurring in different physical locations, just to help things along. Otherwise you’re playing a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure, in which the choice you’ve made seems to be stuck, like you’re on a dead-end.
14. Remember the reader’s point of view and experience.
During your first draft, you should keep your potential readers in mind to make sure your story appeals to them the way it’s supposed to. Do your best to write in a sharp and accessible voice.
While you want your first draft to be lean—you’re planning to go back and revise and refine every element of the manuscript—how sharp and accessible the prose is doesn’t mean sacrificing a compelling plot. Make sure your first draft includes as many dramatic moments as you can think of, from the inciting incident to the climax and ending. Pack them in, so that you’ve got a nice plot skeleton to help give the story muscle in later drafts. Be aware, too, of filler scenes and narrative excess.
15. Review again your character’s backstory.
Now that you have your first draft, take some time to step back as you go over your outline or notes and revisit your original character’s backstory. For each character, jot down a few notes about your original intentions. Where you have gaps, what you had written before might not seem so crystal clear now as you view it with a fresh and clearer perspective.
Remember you’re not writing your story for yourself; this is for readers. If there’s an inconsistency or something that just doesn’t make sense, it will jump out at your readers and distract them from the flow of the story, ruining their experience.
This is also a good time to look at the key moments in your plotline and remind yourself of what you had in mind, and how it fits together. Is what you’d planned to happen happening? If not, why? While reviewing, you will find more possibilities of characters, events and settings that can be added.
Your first draft is your chance to find errors, plot holes, and anything else that doesn’t work in your manuscript. By double- and triple-checking, you’ll develop the habits that make sure your next draft is a good one. The general rule for the whole of your writing life is to write, revise, and then rewrite. Once the structure is right, it won’t be long before you see the first draft is just that—the first draft.
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