7 tips to help you write a first draft

7 tips to help you write a first draft

Recently I’ve been working on the first draft of a Cogheart Sequel. I find first drafts the MOST difficult part of writing. (And then the second, and third – a bit like Stanley Yelnats digging his holes). It’s scary when you visualize those empty pages and missing words, not to mention the dark plot holes you might fall into. Then there’s the anxiety of getting it all down, especially if you have a deadline. With all that to think about, it’s no wonder it’s so tough to get through, but here are my seven tips to help you with a first draft…

1. Apply butt to seat of chair and write.

Set yourself an achievable deadline to write the book. Three months, six months, nine months, or a year. Remember: the shorter the timescales the better chance you have of finishing, because if you maintain momentum, you’ll be in a the same mindset nearing the end as you were when you started. Then try to get the words on the page as quickly as possible.

2. Make a Schedule.

Work out how long the book is going to be in words: 20,000 50,000, 60,000, 100,000 – whatever. Then divide that number by the time you have to write – say a couple of hours a day, 5-6 days a week. This gives you an optimum word count per day. Aim for that, but try to find what works for you, and be realistic, if your writing goal turns out to be unachievable you’re going to have to adjust the schedule.

Writing Diary
Writing Diary

I have a writing diary and some stickers to put in it if I hit my daily wordcount. I aim for 1,500 words a day. On a good day it’s possible to do that in two or three hours, but sometimes, if things go badly, I sit there forever and only get a couple of hundred words down.

Don’t beat yourself up if that happens, just start in again the next day. And if you hit a big milestone target add a jazzy sticker and buy yourself a nice treat!

3. Don’t get it right. Get it written.

Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. It’s like sculpture – first you slap the clay on the board, then you shape it, then finally, you finesse it. But, to begin with, all you have are big messy lumps of clay – vague shape. You need those vague shapes, those broad ideas as your foundations, so try and let the process happen and edit later. Remember there’s always the next draft to fix things. Basically, don’t overthink it. Write whatever comes, and try to get out of the way of the unconscious so you can hear the words.

A map
A map – or is it Caracasonne?

4. Take a map.

E L Doctrow, once said: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ 

It’s an amazing quote, but my advice would be, if you’re going to go driving/novelling at night, know your rough destination and TAKE A MAP! Your map can be anything – a scribbled diagram, a one page synopsis, a treatment of three pages, or fifty. The important thing is with it, you’ve a better chance of getting where you want to go, because even a basic map will show the big landmarks. (Clue: these landmarks are the main story beats of your novel ie. act breaks, mid-point, final destination.)

5. The map is not the territory.

Some German philosopher said this. It means, a map is a schematic thing – a plan only. It doesn’t really show you what somewhere is truly like – experientially. After all, on the ground you might have a different thought – want to go a different way – and, if you do, you must feel free to take that path, see where it leads. Even if it turns out to be a dead end and you have to go back.

Because not everyone likes maps, you could be a Dirk-Gently-type-person, driving along and following every random car (or plot bunny) you pass in the hope of getting where you want to go.

6. Don’t panic and Don’t look back!

Which brings me on to the immortal words of Douglas Adams: ‘Don’t Panic!’ Especially about what’s up ahead – there’s nothing you can do about that. You have to try and be zen and write the sentence you’re writing right now, One word at a time. ‘A word after a word after a word = power.’ (I think that’s Anne Lammot.)

Keep adding words, keep moving forward. And, in the mortal words of Bob Dylan: ‘Don’t look back’. M G Leonard, who wrote the amazing Beetle Boy, likens it to Orpheus in the underworld, if you look back, all might be lost, so you’ve got to keep on going.

Monster stickers
Congratulatory monster

7. Finish it.

Get to the end of the draft no matter what, because you need to see what the whole thing looks like before you can start to revise.

Remember, before you even think about examining what you wrote, put it in a drawer and leave it for a while.

And having said all that…

When you take someone else’s advice, it’s always good to remember William Goldman’s motto: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ He was talking about writing in the movie business, but he could’ve been talking about any form of writing, or indeed life:

Nobody else can tell you how to do your thing – so you should always take their advice with a pinch of salt, use what works for you and throw the rest away!!

Next time I thought I would write 5 tips on re-writing, but perhaps I’d better wait until I’ve finished that stage to do that!