How to Survive Writing the Dreaded First Draft

Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.
— Jane Smiley

Ahoy, young scallywags! For our second Learn the Ropes post, I want to talk about something that’s been a big part of my life lately: writing the first draft of a novel. For the past many months I’ve been hard at work on my second book, the sequel to THE LOST PLANET, and while writing a sequel has its own unique set of challenges, one of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced is that it’s been about four years since I wrote a first draft of a novel. And it turns out that the second time is just as hard as the first!

As I’ve worked on this new book, I’ve been studying my own methods and paying attention to the things that work best for me while writing a first draft.  Every writer has a different process, so what works for me may not be as useful for you, but here is what I’ve found:

The sh&!*tty first draft is always, always your friend.

This is a no-brainer, but the urge to get everything just right on the first draft is hard to resist, especially when you’ve already written a book and have a case of “Heck yeah I know what I’m doing now!” Don’t be afraid to make risky choices for your characters, or to start a plot thread that ultimately may or may not work. Your first draft might look like a game of Mad Libs, but that’s okay. That’s normal.

Get the bare bones down first.

Sometimes it helps to let myself write without too much worry about building a scene. I just need to get the gist of things down on the page. When I’m trying to write a scene for the first time, I have been known to write pure dialogue, back and forth, with no tags or action or anything, just to keep the momentum as I’m writing. Once I’ve got that down, I can go back and flesh it all out with the descriptions and interiority that make it come alive.

I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list, although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.
— Connie Willis

The scribble sheet is a must.

I thought I was a hardcore plotter, but when starting on this book, I found it impossible to plot out the whole thing. How could I know what was going to happen in the last act if I didn’t know what the second plot twist was going to be? Sometimes you can only discover these things during the actual writing. That said, I’m also not a pantser AT ALL—bad, meandering things happen if I’m writing with no direction. What works best for me is to keep a separate doc open, my “scribble sheet,” where I write down my thoughts, in a stream-of-consciousness style, to try to figure out where the next scene is headed.

The work is in the drafting, the art is in the revision.

I’m not a super fast writer, mainly because I can spend hours going over a few pages, trying to get the wording and the feel just right. It’s hard to let go sometimes, but for me it’s best to draft without giving too much attention to language. If I tried to make every paragraph a fully formed, elegant construction with exactly the right word choices, I would finish this book sometime around spring 2027. And then I’ll just have to rewrite the whole thing anyway because the structure/plot/motivations weren’t right. In my first draft, I let myself write terrible, embarrassing sentences. Some paragraphs are filled with nothing but direction, and I use an obscene amount of adverbs. OBSCENE. These are flags for me, during revision, to places where I can expand on description or interiority. Remember, revision fixes everything.

You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head.
— James Ellison

When all seems lost, look back at your tracks.

Sometimes the writing just STOPS like you've run out of gas, right?  I’ve learned that when I’ve stalled out completely, it generally means I need to go back and see if I made a wrong turn somewhere earlier in the book. Mostly I look for logic holes or things that never really felt 100% right. Did my hero really find the magic puzzle piece that saves the day by sheer coincidence, or did I throw that in because it was the first easy plotline that came to mind? Sometimes cutting out a chunk of bad plot can free up your writing like you wouldn't believe.

Are these things you already find yourself doing when you write a first draft? Do you have any additional tips to share? Let us know in the comments, and happy drafting!