3 Steps for Writing the First Draft of a Novel

Updated on December 10, 2018
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EJ Allen is an author of fantasy novels and loves to read well crafted stories in many genres. Find him on Twitter or his website!

Writing a Novel is Hard

Great books are rarely born that way. They are the result of years and years of toil and effort, most of it hidden beneath the artistry of the words that survived the many rounds of editing.

Realizing this can be liberating for authors who find the task of novel writing to be prohibitively daunting. While some writers do complete their works in very few drafts, most revise and rewrite a dozen or more times before they ever let a real person read them.

With this in mind, here are a few pieces of advice about writing a first draft. Have no fear fellow writers!

#1: Stop Planning to Write, Just Write

There is a division among writers regarding how they 'plan' their stories. Some say they meticulously outline every plot point and interaction that will happen between every character before they begin to write the novel. Others say they write whatever flows from their head, with no earthly idea where the adventure will take them.

I would like to propose a hybrid style, which may help you get started if you're stuck in the planning stage.

Write down a few thoughts for a character or a location, or maybe even a story, and then stop. Now, start writing. So many writers feel like they can't dive into (or finish) a manuscript if the pieces aren't all figured out. The result is paralysis. The solution is to forget about planning, and just write.

Your idea is that a young elf falls into a huge hole in the ground while he's out hunting and discovers a magical paradise that he never knew existed? And he learns it's under threat by enemies he never could have imagined, but he might have the power to close the portal and save the world forever more? Perhaps this poses an existential dilemma for the elf, in that he would have to deny himself the pleasures of the Utopian oasis he discovered, in order to save it from destruction?

Okay, so you don't know what the world is like, or what the elf's name is, or what the enemy is that's threatening his happy place. So what, just go! Start anywhere, and just go.

"The ground was soft, but it was also prickly from the numerous fallen pine needles. Each step brought a grimace to Kellam's face, but also a beat of excitement. He stalked close to the ground, like the large cats he had seen hunting their unsuspecting prey, hoping he might have the same success."

I have no idea what any of the last two paragraphs are about, I just wrote them as quickly as I could. And that's exactly the idea. Formulate a very loose plan of what you want to write about, whatever it is that interests you or makes you smile, and then just go!

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#2: Don't Edit Yet

The words you write in the first draft may be terrible, and the story might drift around like a snowflake in the winter air. That's okay, it doesn't need to be good yet.

For a writer who has pushed passed the initial hesitancy of starting the first draft, the second hurdle may be the never ending urge to make sure the story is good before they continue. Don't worry about it.

There are countless stories from authors who say they write first drafts which probably belong in the garbage. My own manuscripts are darn near unreadable the first time I write them, literally. I write from a stream of consciousness like above, and sometimes the words are out of order or misspelled or just plain aren't the right ones. Resist the urge to get it right on the first try, and just get it written.

For those of us who have a bit of OCD when it comes to writing, there is a middle ground between trying to polish everything into a diamond and just letting it sit on the page in shambles. Write an entire chapter without looking back at all, and then go back through it ONE TIME to clean it up a little bit. This way you can iron out some of the wrinkles, and then get on with writing the rest of the story.

Remember the key here is writing, getting the first draft done. Don't spend time editing and worrying about what you've written, there will be plenty of time for that.

#3: Finish the Story

No matter what, finish the first draft. Don't edit, and don't worry if there are plot holes or other issues in the structure of your manuscript, finish it anyway.

One of the best things to remember while you're writing is that you don't really know what you have until it's on paper. Many writers spend hours and hours editing chapter 3, only to see chapter 3 be deleted or combined with another chapter later on. There is much you won't know about your story until the arc is finished.

Finishing is the most important thing any writer can do, and it really is the beginning of story writing. Once that first draft is on paper, you can go through and add the life, the spice, the magic, all of the cool things you thought of along the way. Patch up the holes, tie together pieces that popped up here and there, and get it ready to send to a beta reader or critique partner. The revising and redrafting is a ton of fun, as you get to see your story take its unique shape.

Have no Fear, Write Your Novel

Don't worry about planning, don't worry about editing, and don't stop until you've finished your first draft. You'll find the process is much more enjoyable, and a finished manuscript much more achievable, when you follow these steps to writing.

Good luck, and happy writing!

© 2018 EJ Allen


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