Writing a novel is hard work, and the first draft might be the hardest part. Here are five tips to help you through.
The most important thing when writing the first draft of your novel is to keep moving forward. Revision is for later. You’ve got a long road ahead of you, and the sooner you get a complete draft in front of you, the better.
1. 1. Set concrete, manageable goals.
Everyone says this one because it’s true. Persistence is the most important part of writing a novel. You can’t get there by thinking out plot points, talking about it with your friends, or spending hours on research. The only way through it is to do it. So pick a goal and stick with it.
Some people write for a certain number of minutes every day, and this works. I find that it’s more productive for me to set a page count goal and stick to it. Word counts lead me to ignore dialogue and tend to overwrite, and just filling up a time slot tempts me to write a lot of nonsense I’ll have to sort through later. What’s a goal you can set for yourself?
Pick a goal you think you can meet, and meet it. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get your 10 minutes or 500 pages done one day, and don’t worry about “catching up”—just pick back up tomorrow and keep going.
2. 2. Get excited about your story by writing the best parts first.
One of the biggest sources of unnecessary difficulty comes from trying to outline a plot before you have much imagination invested in it. After all, this is a story that doesn’t exist yet. Before you can hook anyone else on your story, you need to get yourself hooked. For your first day of writing, forget about mapping out a coherent tale and get right to the heart of the matter.
What was the inspiration for this story? Was it something you saw on the street, someone you know, a news story you remember? What scene do you really want to write? What character are you really interested in exploring? Go straight to the part of the story that you find the most compelling, and write on it. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
You can write for one day, or every day for a week, or as much as you need to in order to get a handle on the story. Make your first outline only after working on the story enough to be excited about it—and remember, outlines are not set in stone! You can always change yours later—in fact, you’ll pretty much have to.
3. 3. Write first, research later.
Research is the best part of writing a novel! Or at least the most distracting. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent hours searching out some minor detail about the weather or what policewomen in Seattle wear to the office or which gas stations along I-75 have boiled peanuts, thereby spending 90-100% of your writing time on any given day not writing. Here is the thing. Most of that research is not crucial. Write your first draft first, and don’t do any research till it’s done.
Obviously there are exceptions – if you’re writing a historical novel, for example, you should know at least the broad outlines of the period before beginning, and some plots are going to be rendered impossible by technology or politics. But be realistic. Do you need to know what fabric Napoleon’s breeches were made of before you can write Chapter One? You don’t. I just answered that question for you. Shut off the Internet and get writing.
If you’re setting your tale in a real place that you aren’t completely familiar with, leave lots of open space in your descriptions and keep the story geographically flexible so that your later research won’t force you to change everything.
You can either keep a running list of Things You Will Need to Research Later as you write, or wait until you review your complete first draft to make the list. Either way, put it out of your mind unless it’s absolutely crucial.
4. 4. Write to the end before you revise.
If you’re keeping to your goals and writing every day, at some point, you’re going to want to change everything. That’s good. It means the process is working. But don’t go back to the beginning and change everything. Why not? Because as you go on, you’re going to change your mind a lot. Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself rewriting the first chapter for the seventeenth time while the last third sits empty and neglected with that new-house plastic flapping around its hollow skeleton.
No matter how much you want to give in, resist the impulse to go back. Instead, make a note for yourself that you are going to change x, y, and z and keep going as if you had already made that change. You can sort it all out in the second draft. Don’t lose momentum by altering the beginning before you make it to the end. It’s not always better to rewrite a complete draft than to fiddle endlessly with an incomplete one, but it nearly always is.
If you know how long you want your novel to be, it can’t hurt for a first draft to divide it evenly into chapters of a specific word count or page count, create a separate file for each chapter, and simply fill in each chapter until you reach the end. You may have to change the length and order of the chapters, eliminate some chapters and add others as you revise, but creating a template for yourself in this way can impose a helpful structure on an otherwise messy first draft.
5. 5. Be your own best critic.
Once you’ve completed a draft, read it as if you were your own most enthusiastic critic. Take note of any flaws, but focus on what’s exciting, interesting, insightful. Write a review of your book that explains what it’s all about. Describe the characters and the action as a reader might see them.
If you’re feeling indulgent, you can write several reviews, each from a different perspective. Negative, positive, completely clueless, insightful but out of left field—read reviews of some of your favorite books for inspiration, and try to see your novel through someone else’s eyes.
You don’t have to share these reviews with anyone, but they should help you understand what you’re trying to do and what you need to work on. Does the clueless review make an important point about a confusing relationship between characters? Is the out-of-left-field critic seeing something potentially interesting you’ve missed? Put these reviews in a drawer (or box or file folder) with your draft to read again when you begin to revise.
Congratulate yourself! You did something difficult!
Writing a complete first draft is harder than it looks (and it looks pretty hard to begin with) so be sure to reward yourself when you’re done. Do something you enjoy, buy something you want, take some time off. Give yourself at least a week before you look at your manuscript or your research list again.
What’s next? Maybe an article on revising your first draft once you’ve finished it! We’ll see what happens, Writinghood neighbors!