6. How To Write The First Draft Of A Novel

How To Write The First Draft Of A Novel

Welcome to my How To Write A Novel series (the title of which is rather self-explanatory). I’m taking you through the key components and most common questions I get asked about novel writing – from the very first idea to how to know when you’re done – in a way that aims to provide real, practical, and not-so-generic advice, so you can write a novel you’re proud of, as painlessly as possible (but let’s be honest, you’re birthing something here – there’s going to be at least some pain involved).


So here we are. Where everything comes together. The main attraction.

The first draft.

Buckle in.

Remove your expectations at the door, please
Decide your voice
Give yourself targets
Going linearly
Going sporadically
Write as fast as you can
If you’re not having a good time, the reader already stopped reading
Key takeaways

Remove your expectations at the door, please

It doesn’t matter how much planning you do, the first draft is never going to run perfectly. It’s not even going to go smoothly.

Let’s start this right away by saying writing the first draft of a novel is like physically trying to extract a chunk of your brain without drilling any kind of hole in your head. It is frustrating, challenging, often painful, unexplainable, liberating, pointless while at the same time your entire reason for existing, and somehow one of the very best things you will ever do.

Something born from that is never going to come out perfect. It’s going to come out in shreds, all messy and unrecognisable and possibly needing putting back together.

Your job in the first draft is just to get those pieces out.

Editing is where we mould them into something beautiful.

But if you go into the first draft thinking you’re going to craft this exquisite piece of art, you’re going to be paralysed. A perfectly sculpted first draft is never going to happen, and those expectations are going to stunt whatever pieces of creative mess you need to create to get to the end result.

So get rid of any expectations. Take all the pressure off. Remember no one but you is going to see the first draft, and it’s meant to come out a mess.

Then you can get started.

Decide your voice

Before you begin, ask yourself the simple question: how am I telling this story?

Are you writing in first person (I am) or third person (she is)? Or the weird and elusive second person (you are)?

Are you writing from one central character’s point of view, or from a variety? (You need to decide this even if writing in third person.)

Is your narrator omniscient or watching the story unfold with the reader?

Is the story being told in real time or looking back on past events?

You can make all your own rules here, but make sure you stick to your decision – it’ll be a pain to get halfway through and decide you want your first-person narrative to become third person (for example). Or for your narrator to suddenly drop hints about what’s going to happen when earlier they didn’t have any clue.

Give yourself targets

When writing, it can be useful to have a target – be that a word count or time spent writing each day or week (depending on your circumstances). This keeps you accountable and on track.

Writing, like many skills, is like a muscle, in that it needs to be built up over time. If you’ve never written consistently before, don’t decide you’re going to write 3,000 words a day every single day until you’re done. (I mean, you could, but you’ll likely end up frustrated.)

Maybe start with 500 words a day for a week, or one hour every weekday. Then, like you would add mileage to running or weight to a barbell, slowly increase as you go.

And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit your target every single day. Sometimes you might have to rely on discipline over inspiration to sit down and write; however, on the flip side, if you gave a day your best effort but it really wasn’t happening, you’re probably not going to produce great writing if it’s too forced. Give yourself a break now and again.

Going linearly

There are really only two ways to write the first draft of a novel – from beginning to end, completely in order, or random chapters at a time.

One isn’t better than the other – like with most writing, it’s the writer’s preference, and generally whatever works best for them.

Going beginning to end has the advantage that you know exactly what’s come before, so you don’t have to worry about referencing something that may or may not have happened yet. It also means you take the same journey with your character, which can be helpful when working out how they’re feeling at a given point or what information they know.

It’s also useful when building relationships between two or more characters, as their bond will grow organically and nothing needs to be forced to fit a pre-existing scene you wrote earlier.

Of course, you also have the disadvantage of the occasional bout of writer’s block (though that can always happen, regardless of your writing method). When you’re writing linearly and you get stuck at a chapter, there’s no going around it – you’re going to have to figure it out before you can move on.

If you’re following a plan, the map is already laid out before you – just start at chapter one and keep going until you reach the end. If you’re pantsing it, start with an opening scene and then figure out what happens next until there’s nothing more to tell.

Going sporadically

Alternatively, you can write whatever scene you want to write, whenever you feel inspired to write it.

If you want to start with the end, that’s cool. If you want to start in the middle – also cool. You can choose to write all the scenes of one thread first, or all the scenes for one particular character, or just whatever you feel like writing that day.

If you’re pantsing, you might write scenes as they pop into your head and then work out how they all fit together later.

When you’re writing, there is no wrong way – as long as you get a first chapter, a middle, and an end chapter, you’ve ended up with the same components. (The contents, however, may differ…)

The benefits of writing sporadically means you’re more likely to write with enthusiasm, as you’ll generally write what you’re excited about writing. The trap can be where you have all these great pieces and no idea how they fit together. Or you get muddled about what happens when and you end up with a character in one scene who ended up being killed two chapters beforehand (it happens).

If you’re going to write scene by scene, I advise you take notes – just brief summaries of each scene once you’ve written it and maybe any key details, so you can easily keep track of what went on and when.

Write as fast as you can

This is a piece of advice I originally learned from Stephen King and, like most of his insights, it’s a good one.

If you start writing something and then leave three months before writing the next part, it’ll lack the intensity and believability a good story needs. You’ll have forgotten the details, the sub context, what your characters were thinking and so what they were going to do or say.

You need to become obsessed with your story. It needs to be something you think about day and night until it’s done. Because, if you want your reader to believe your characters are living this story, you need to live this story.

And no one takes a three month gap from life.

It also means not overthinking and going back to rewrite chapter two when you haven’t gotten past chapter four. Remember what I said before – the first draft will be messy. You can’t fix it until all the pieces are out – so just get them all out first.

Worry about what you’ve actually written later.

A note on writing as fast as you can…

I think “write as fast as you can” should be read as “write as fast as you can”. I think Stephen King recommends writing the first draft in about two months – but you might be writing in your spare time while working three jobs and raising a handful of kids, so knocking an entire novel out in a few weeks probably isn’t going to be feasible.

Write whenever you’re able to though, as often as you’re able to. If you see it as a race to the finish, even if you can only write once a week, the story will stay forefront in your mind and you’ll be able to keep the enthusiasm it needs alive. The reader will feel your passion to tell it, and that’s what we want.

If you’re not having a good time, the reader already stopped reading

Before I get into this, I must note that novel writing is not always fun. We’re pulling a piece of your brain out here – it’s not all sunshine and picnics. You will be frustrated and angry and not in the mood at times.

However, if you are writing a scene that’s dull and lifeless and grey in your own mind – stop and get rid of it. If it’s grey to you, it’s missing something, and the reader will notice. Some chapters will annoy you, but it should never be because of the content.

If your character is refusing to do what’s planned, that’s fine. If you realise you don’t have a working knowledge of eighteenth century bank vaults and need to, that’s also fine. If you’re boring yourself to tears writing exposition of an enchanted forest, get rid of it. Find another way to introduce the concept, or see if you can change it to something more interesting.

The definition of a story is: “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment”. Note the word entertainment. If you don’t even want to write what you’re writing, why would anyone else want to read it?

Make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Writing the first draft of a novel should be exhilarating. I mean, you literally have your entire imagination as a playground – if you’re not having a good time, think up something else!

Key takeaways

  1. Your aim for the first draft is to get all the pieces of the story out – don’t worry about what state that comes in; do not expect a work of art.
  2. Decide (and commit to) how you’re going to tell your story – first or third person, real-time or looking back, one point of view or several?
  3. Set yourself a daily or weekly writing target to keep yourself on track, but keep it realistic. Start small and build up.
  4. You can write from beginning to end or scene by scene – whichever works best for you. If writing scene by scene, make sure you take notes to keep track of what happens when.
  5. Write the first draft as fast as you can, to keep the passion and intensity.
  6. Make sure you’re into every thing you write. Even if you need to get your characters from one exciting moment to another, find a way to make the in-between interesting – because if you’re bored, your reader probably already stopped reading.

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