One of the hardest parts of writing is getting started. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, a short story, or even a blog post — the blank page can loom large, especially when you’re staring at it on a computer screen. The first draft is the time to take all of your ideas and get them down on the page, without worrying about making any sort of final product. This is the time to get your story out of your head and onto the computer.
It’s the fun part, where you get to play with your story and characters. But it’s also the hardest part, because it’s a free-for-all. You don’t have to worry about how to write a first draft or get it right, because you’re not done yet. So take it slow, get it down, and know that your first draft is only the beginning.
- 1 Find your subject
- 2 Analyze professional writers from your genre
- 3 Get up at your most productive time of day
- 4 Write for an hour every day regardless of motivation
- 5 Set deadlines for your work
- 6 Choose a workspace
- 7 Outlining
- 8 Forget perfection, it’s impossible
- 9 Just crushing through it
- 10 Play!
- 11 Take a small section to work on
- 12 Use colored pencils and write in different colors
- 13 Film the book in your mind
- 14 Practice show-don’t-tell
- 15 Listen to how real people speak
- 16 Develop your violence
- 17 Launch a story question
- 18 Don’t write sloppy copies
- 19 Don’t edit
- 20 Don’t force it
- 21 Start writing
- 22 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Find your subject
Now that you’ve decided what kind of story you’re going to write, you need to start brainstorming a story idea. This is perhaps one of the most intimidating parts of writing a first draft, but also a very critical part. You want to find a type of story that interests you, and which you have the ability to tell well. If you have an idea, start writing as soon as possible — get your story into your head and onto the page.
If you don’t have a story in mind, that’s okay too. Start by coming up with several different types of stories you’d like to tell. Try to narrow your ideas down as completely as possible. Can you come up with a story idea that’s really specific, or one that’s complex but open to interpretation? Go to the back of a bookstore and look at all the shelves of genre fiction and see if there’s any of it you don’t recognize. If you come up with something that catches your interest, do some research to see if there are certain aesthetics or conventions you need to abide by.
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. Writing isn’t something you can do in a day, but it’s something to help you get ready for every day.
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. What does Hemingway write in his letters? What was Stephen King doing when he started writing Carrie hundreds of pages at a time? By taking close notes on what professionals do, you’ll be inspiring yourself to commit even longer to your writing routine.
Get up at your most productive time of day
Establish your writing habits. Try to determine the time of day that you are the most productive. Most people find they are sharpest in the morning. That doesn’t mean you can’t write your first draft in the afternoon, but you may find that you have a harder time when writing at this time of the day. If you work out your most productive time and then fit your writing time to this schedule, you’ll be able to churn out a lot of words.
Remember that part of the process is still about going through the motions, even if you don’t want to be there. Now is the time to test yourself, to write a draft even if you’re not in the headspace for it. It might take quite a while to get going but after you hammer out that first chapter, you gain momentum and writing becomes easier.
Write for an hour every day regardless of motivation
Sometimes, inspiration isn’t going to hit. That’s just the way life works, no matter how magical the gods of creativity intend their curse to be. Regardless, you should always make writing a part of your life and mind strategies to get yourself into a position where it is automatic. This is done with triggers, which are routines that you build every day to help get you on track with your schedule. You can trigger events to remind you to create a habit or a routine exercise. Once you get in the habit of writing, then you have a core of inspiration that will help you get the writing done. Never settle for skipping a day, even when your spirit is down. Continue on and make the writing a part of your normal routine. Progress comes over time as you keep your head towards the sky and your toes always moving.
You should write for a set amount of time each day. It doesn’t need to be continuous writing, but make sure that you are creating concrete accomplishments on a consistent basis. Read today can be replaced by a more realistic “Write for 20 minutes with 2-10 minute breaks”. Instead of trying to push away the urge to check your Twitter or Facebook, live your life. Set a timer on your computer for a block of time, and then you can check your social media every 10 minutes if need be. The cycle of writing, internet time, and then writing some more will help you finish that article in your book or your latest blog post.
Set deadlines for your work
You may think that deadlines intimidate or stress you out, especially if you have trouble staying focused or if you don’t like to rush important work. But deadlines help you in the long run — they build confidence in your abilities and give your writing discipline. Deadlines can also help reduce your stress and anxiety. Knowing when to stretch out your writing helps you feel your project’s scope more intuitively, making the process more manageable and less overwhelming to your schedule. Plus, who doesn’t love the satisfaction of crossing an item off their to-do list?!
The easiest way to set a deadline — or even multiple deadlines — is to turn them into a calendar item. Write down a series of meetings, appointments, and events that help you stay accountable and organized, such as writing group meetings, book readings, or due dates for reviewing sample chapters. You can use these deadlines to help yourself find structure in the writing process, and make sure that it makes sense — deadlines can also help you stay accountable to your readers, as most of us know writing can take some time.
Choose a workspace
After you’ve established a draft schedule, it’s time to find a place to actually write. Find a spot that’s free of distractions. Go to your nearest cafe if you have to, but turn off your devices and close your Wifi. It’s also extremely helpful to write at the same time each day. This gives you something to look forward to, which will motivate you to keep at your writing. You need to write diligently, every day, if you want to finish a novel.
In addition to a dedicated spot, you’ll also want to consider the tools of your trade. If you have a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone — or some combination thereof — select your writing tool. For many authors, it’s a laptop they can take with them when they travel. For others, it’s a little pad of paper. Others still use online writing tools or write with a word processor. Is the tool you use comfortable for you?
It’s easy for you to get swept away in the idea that you’ll be “writing as you go,” but the fact remains that you need to plan your story before you blindly jump in with both feet. Take a notebook and write out the broad strokes of your story in chapter format. Give thought to how many scenes to include, the rising and falling action, the internal journey of your protagonist, and how you’ll end your first book.
Be sure to be open to revision during this step. Listen to advice, suggestions and even critiques from whoever you share your outline with. What worked for you in the first draft might be hamstrung by typos, logic holes or useless exposition and you may need to pick it apart and build it anew in the second draft. Sticking with broad themes like the ones described in the first paragraph is important, but it’s likely that your core plot will shift in a more trivial direction, so be ready for it and give thought to how you can take the new chunks of information and shift the rest of your outline to fit.
Forget perfection, it’s impossible
A huge number of writers have trouble starting, because they’re waiting for the “perfect moment.” But the “perfect moment” doesn’t exist. So don’t wait for it – start writing your novel as soon as you can. The biggest myth about writing is that you must wait for inspiration to strike. You don’t need inspiration to write – you need a blank page. Waiting for the muse to tell you what to do is an excuse for not putting words on the page. Push through the confused and muddled first draft, and muse will show up when you’re a few chapters in. Promise. If you’re usually great at starting but overwhelmed this time, panicking over how little you have? Small bits add up to bigger bits, and the only thing you can do now is start a little bit. Just put one word on the page, and tomorrow if you can add another, do it.
Just crushing through it
The first draft is just that, the first draft! It’s the all-important first step of transforming your story from an abstract concept into a concrete work. Don’t expect it to be pretty. There should be holes in logic, sections that aren’t finished and places where the narrative becomes confusing. The key is to just get through it, working out the problems in each chapter and one at a time. Later on, you can go back and fuss with chapters closer to the end of your story but for now it’s best to press on ahead.
Keep the story vague and rough — forget about a detailed world map or making sure the plot and dialogue fit together perfectly. The keys to your first draft are to get your story out of your head fast and not to let all the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place just yet. You need to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed by the process of drafting your story and instead just go into it without thinking about how you are pushing the words out.
Just as it’s hard for a child or an amateur to sit down and do a challenging piece of piano music, it can be daunting to sit in front of the blank page and start outlining your story in a compelling way. So don’t! Instead, pretend it’s your job to entertain an audience, just like if you were telling a story around the campfire or telling ghost stories around Halloween. Really relish the fun of using unusual or unexpected juxtapositions, knowing that you’re not held responsible for making it all work out over the long haul. Also make sure you use what you know about your audience. You know what kind of people or animals they are, what they like to eat, where they live—use this knowledge in unexpected places, like naming a boy’s pet dog Lunch, or throwing a dinner-party-themed murder mystery.
Surprise yourself with the things you come up with while playing with your story. Pay attention to any nuggets that hit with the success you feel you’re looking for. Often these will occur to you without you even making an effort or pushing yourself to think up something interesting—and sometimes as you’re falling asleep! These “fun ideas” are great because they can take the wind out of your sails when you write them down. Then, once you’ve got some initial momentum, it can help get you over the hump. Sometimes you’ve got to write through bad ideas to get to good ideas, and the initial spark might be all it takes to get your ball rolling.
Take a small section to work on
A first draft is not a novel — you don’t have to get the entire story down in one shot. Just do what you can. A few functional paragraphs that carry the action of the story and move the protagonist’s motivation forward are perfect. Think of this draft as an outline of the script, or the way that an artist starts a painting with a few broad strokes of color.
Although the process can seem unsatisfying to people who plan to craft their novels in novelistic prose and expect them to read like an epic novel, a story designed as a screenplay is shaped very differently. A screenplay has the effect of reining in an overly wordy writer, while forcing them to envision everything in short, tight, and specific moments that play like a movie. There is never too much in a screenplay. Does your protagonist sit on the lounge couch repeatedly drinking whiskey with one arm stubbornly crossed over his chest? If that pacing works for your story, then he’s got those whiskey bottles stashed in a pocket of satin, he’s got the tumbler on whatever he drinks whiskey from collecting dust and the television playing a rerun of a documentary about some far-off place where people have learned to breathe underwater, and he’s got a desperate longing for a drink growing in the back of his throat every time he thinks of his friend’s goofy grin and the name of the bar he’s currently squatting in reminding him of the bar he used to go to with his friend. Every aspect of his scene has its own details, even if it seems useless. The more vision that you try to shove into a space, the more visceral the writing will feel — even if what you end up with is a big, fat mess.
Use colored pencils and write in different colors
While you should pace yourself, and avoid writing in uncontrollable bursts, you find a way to put your energy into your words. The simple act of writing with different colored pencils while reading through your rough draft can help. Go ahead, write your story in at least three colors — maybe yellow for narration, blue for important dialogue, and green for all the auxiliary stuff — and see what it does to the feel of the piece. Are all your characters popping out more clearly when you write in different colors? Is your dialogue richer and highlighted?
You may find that this helps you spot mistakes, like missed dialogue tags, repeated words, and improper grammar use. This simple tool helps you dedicate extra time to sprucing up your story before sending it off in the next draft. The abundance of highlighters also create interesting barriers, encouraging you to avoid going back over too many of them. You’ll also no doubt find yourself jumping from page to page with one color of pencil to complete all the tasks. The limit of colors will force you to overload your available brainpower on one step of the writing clemm, rather than juggling too many parts at once.
But what if you don’t have multiple colored pencils handy, or time to go out and buy some? Are you out of luck? You can make due with a single pencil, allowing you to just mark important information, and make the page pop out to you a little more. The most immediate issue is that you’ll have to be able to identify the parts of speech by sight, since there are no colors to help you identify them. This should lead to a little more cautious review and analysis of the narrative, focusing your brain a little bit more intensely. If you ever feel stuck, and can’t figure out where to go next, turning to simple pencil markings can help usher you to the next plot point, keeping you from getting stuck and stagnating.
Film the book in your mind
Once your characters are clearly defined, try to envision how they would carry themselves, how they stand and walk, how they make mannerisms with their hands and look around for important information. Visualizing the personality of your characters in small ways like this will help you to get them through big events. It helps to think of your characters as actors working off a character arc. Learn to write your story in film — in other words, write your vision for your character first and describe what happens to evoke a real reaction.
When you write your first draft, try to view your character as a camera. Consider that a camera only captures what it sees through its lens, and that any information that the camera does not record is rendered fictionally. This directly applies to your accounting of your characters. You should only write exactly what you see through your character’s lens, not the imagined potential of what could be and “what it must feel like to be in that moment.” Learning to write in this way will help you to feel and enjoy the first draft writing process, rather than to feel as if other parts of the bigger, squishier story are missing. Stay grounded in your writing to complete the first draft.
One of the most important things for authors to do when they’re writing their first drafts is to “show, not tell”. This idea isn’t complicated, but it’s critical for authors to master. Remember that while it’s helpful to research the mechanics of writing and storytelling, it’s primarily you who has to evoke the fictional worlds that will make your readers want to come back for more. When you “show, not tell,”’ it encourages more creativity on the part of the individual author, while ensuring that they’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 us 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. Nobody knows the rules of your own fictional universe except for you. Get descriptions of action off your characters and back into the world itself.
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 your friends, family, co-workers, etc. say that strike you as particularly interesting or true. We’re not asking you to spy on people or anything, but you can learn a great deal about dialogue by just paying attention to their regular speech patterns.
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. When needed, you can easily find videos of people being interviewed, discussing philosophy, stating thoughts or opinions, or speaking on certain subjects. 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’s 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.
Develop your violence
One of the simplest ways to add a deeper level of detail to your worldbuilding is to make sure you’re establishing the right kind of violence to fit with your story tone. Think everyone is sweet no matter what, and your novel is adorable? Then you can probably get away with shooting a few candids of toddlers in August-fresh cotton jammies frolicking in a meadow. But in a dark crime thriller you’ve got tough criminals doing tough things, and blood would be appropriate at every turn. That isn’t to say you can’t write heart-stopping scenes that aren’t bloody — in a story where blood indicates an increased level of violence, not a lack, a sinfully sweet romance could have its restrictions as well. You can also find action by limiting or destroying something. For example, destroying computers means no more emails or memos to be getting in the way, and limiting vision to the bleakness of the old man’s flashlight means no extraneous distractions to get in the way of an action scene.
Launch a story question
Is your novel, from the beginning, too much of a good thing? If you have a novel that is over 130,000 words, you may overwhelm or confound your reader. Instead, a good draft should garner a story question — an interesting question at the outset that keeps the reader turning pages. Consider approaching the initial launch of your story question in three steps — pre-plot teaser, plot overview, and the inciting event. You want to tease a question or a problem out for your readers, perhaps with some story summary, perhaps with scene setting, and/or perhaps with dialogue. Your setup will then immediately connect to your plot with the inner conflict and story events and set up the inciting event that pushes the story forward.
By the end of your first chapter, your reader should have a clear picture of what the stakes are, who the main plot players are, and what they are struggling with. Streamline your choices here, and don’t worry too much about descriptions, character depth, or other elements that you plan to go back and add later, once you’ve secured your reader’s interest in the first draft. Go ahead, and in the spirit of your first, may you have a nail-biting ride of a narration.
Don’t write sloppy copies
As a writer, you’re tempted to skip lots of steps because you’re eager to get to actually writing your story. Before you start writing your first draft, you should do your research and jot down any important notes you want to be sure to include. Then, work whatever plot holes you need to fix in your outline. Most importantly, write a sloppy copy for your first draft. This is just a homely, quick run-through of your story. The sloppy copy should omit flowery characterization, elegant dialogue, or lavish descriptions. Once you’ve finished your sloppy copy, move right into planning your second draft.
Just because your sloppy copy is brief doesn’t mean your sloppy copy is pure dialogue or highly abstracted from your story. Make sure you have lots included in your sloppy copy aside from just dialogue. Besides setting the story up with chapter headings, a good way to go about your sloppy copy is to detail plot points. That means locking down a timeline and including action scenes and dialogue between characters. Starting with just dialogue means your story only consists of exposition and the dialogue between characters, which most readers won’t be interested in.
A common mistake that new writers make is to edit as they go. It’s to be avoided at all costs. You would never model clay, then coat it with epoxy, and then mold the epoxy, would you? Trying to simultaneously edit and write a story is like that. It’s slower, and the results are often bizarre. Editing something fresh and new and live on the page is like trying to paint a bike seat. It’s a slippery surface, and you have to approach the new scene you’re creating with no idea what’s going to happen in it or how it will impact the surrounding story. Leave yourself the freedom to play. When you’re writing your first draft, the most important thing is to clear your mind so that you can picture the scene exactly the way you need it. When you write a new scene, a new idea should spring forth out of your subconscious. Be imaginative, and trust in that part of yourself that allowed you to envision the story you’re just beginning to plow through. Let the language flow naturally, don’t edit yourself, don’t finish a chapter and then hesitate because you’re not totally thrilled with what you’ve written there. Don’t mind-edit. That juice you’re so worried about spilling is what will make your first draft great.
The job of editing should really come with a second job — that of thinking about why you wrote what you did and how it fits into the bigger picture of your work. Your goal here is to understand the structure of your book in its entirety. Try starting to imagine what it would look like if you were to lay out all the previous scenes in the order in which they happened in real life, without cuts, without repeating details, and just from imagination. While you’re writing your first draft, make sure you have your bigger goal in mind. You have to think of yourself as the creator of something large and organic. You have to remember that you’re just slowly sculpting very rough bowls that you will then fill with water. Vision is everything when you’re coming up with a story — don’t limit yours before you’ve even started.
Don’t force it
Chances are, the first draft you write will be absolute trash. You’ll go back and edit the snot out of it, but for now, just get all the words out of your head and onto the page, especially if you’re new to writing a draft. The more you flounder around, the more likely it will be that at some point you’ll stumble onto your own unique voice. And a surprising thing about first drafts is that they can be almost purposefully chaotic, especially if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi. Writing a science fiction novel, for example, is about letting your imagination run wild, and you can’t do that if you haven’t even completed the first step. Get all of those out-of-control imaginings cemented into your head. But while it’s totally normal for your first novel to fail as a first draft, trust the fact that you’ll learn a lot about story writing, pacing, and character by writing it through.
Research and experience inform the future of the first draft. You’ll create a master outline of the ideas you want to explore, and the basis for how you want to organize your plot, as you continually show and tell what you want your characters to go through in the novel. Make a character profile sheet, in fact, because now is the time to start seriously deciding the character arcs and how they will develop instead of writing a polished character arc. The first draft is very much a discovery process, and it’s not until you start to mature the story and tell it over and over again that it will become clear which parts are which.
Ultimately, the more you churn out, the easier it will be to get all of your ideas onto the computer. You’ll have fewer awkward phrases or sections that don’t quite feel right, because you’ll have more to draw on from your original, vital inspiration. By writing the first draft of your story, you’ll ready yourself to continue writing, knowing that you initially covered all the important concepts.
The most important thing isn’t even the point where you start editing, but simply getting your story down on the screen for anyone who could read it. Put all your clichés aside and just get your story written, and then you can always go back to refine it and transform it into the masterpiece you know it can be.
It’s all a matter of learning the skills required, working hard, and pushing yourself to do the work you need to make your story come to life. A bad first draft is more common than most writers feel comfortable with, but the secret to getting past that is to keep writing, and to learn from your mistakes. Let your drafts serve as a road map for getting you from first draft to final book.
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