What I’ve Learned From Writing My First Draft

I have spent the last seven months working toward living my dream: being a full-time paid author. First step: write the book. In those seven months, I’ve plotted and outlined a novel, written a first draft, edited twice myself, and had one other person edit it. It has been amazing. I never thought I would have done my first novel so quickly (though I know I’m not finished).

But through all of the stages of this first novel, I have learned one crucial thing: writing well is hard.

That’s right. Just writing, with no audience in mind, with no purpose, can be easy. Less stress, no deadlines. But drafting and writing and editing and polishing takes a lot of work. There are more pieces to the puzzle than I first saw when I said I wanted to write a novel. From character profiles to editing three or four times before letting ANYONE else see it, it’s a difficult process.

Plotting and Outlining

When I first decided I wanted to write a novel, I had four or five ideas swirling in my head as possible choices. I’d picked up bits from books I read, movies I’d seen, conversations I’d overheard. But I just had a kernel of what I needed. After two months of thinking about my novel, not even to the point where I was putting together an outline, I had a page and a half of random bullet points and a temporary title (which didn’t even get used). I didn’t even have a name for my main character.

I spent the next month trying out a new outlining style, one I’d not done on any of my short stories: notecarding. Basically, you write all of your scenes on notecards, one scene per card. This way, it’s easy to rearrange scenes or add in additional ones later. And that’s exactly what I did. When I finished my first pass, I think I had about forty notecards. That meant I had to average about 2,000 words per scene. I knew that was unrealistic since some of my scenes were, for sure, going to be less than 500. So I read the story to myself in notecard format and added in additional scenes where I could.

I also learned, though not until halfway through my first draft, that during this stage I should be drawing up character profiles. You can read my earlier blog post on this topic, but in short, I need to learn who my characters are. Why they do what they do? What makes them different than all the other characters in my book?

Writing the First Draft

I’ve heard from a lot of authors at book signings say that the best way to get better at writing is to write every day. While that’s great and it works for some people, that doesn’t work for me. I need days off just the same as I do from my real job. So instead of writing every day, when I sat down to start my novel, I set my goal at 5,000 words a week. If I hit 80,000 words, that would be sixteen weeks, or four months (I actually only ended up with 50,000 at the end of my first draft). Not too bad to write a full-length novel.

But there were a lot of days where I couldn’t eke out more than 500 words. Not because I didn’t have time, not because I had other things to do, but because writing is difficult for me. The creative process requires a lot brainpower and my poor brain just wasn’t used to being used that way. And for a couple of hours, five times a week, for what turned out to be ten straight weeks was exhausting.

Writers have a funny phrase for how they make themselves write: Butt In Chair, Fingers on Keyboard. Meaning, make yourself sit down and write the words. Even if it’s not your best work. That’s what the editing process is for.

Editing the First Draft

I purposely treated writing my first draft like NaNoWriMo. For those that don’t know what that is, the goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. A daunting task, but the rule is: you can’t edit while you’re writing. I stole that, so when I went back for my first edit, I knew it was going to be horrendous. And it was. Not a single manuscript page made it out without pink scribbles all over it. I slashed extra words (even though I was scrabbling to get a higher word count), I added character details (since I didn’t complete my character profiles until after I’d finished writing), and I added several new scenes.

And typing those edits back in the computer was horrible in its own way. But by the time I was done with that sucker, I’d added a full 7,000 words and enough details that I felt a had a pretty fleshed out story.

Passing my Draft to Someone Else

My husband, also a writer, was the first person to see any part of my novel. By this time, I was at about draft number four, and I was ready for his input on obvious things I missed, if sections didn’t make sense, and the like. It took him about three weeks to get me my entire manuscript back, but he offered a lot of good insight. For instance, if a threat has been made against Manhattan, why is the general public acting like it’s just another day? Huh. Good question. In all of my drafts and readings, that had never even occurred to me. Which is exactly why I knew I needed to give my baby away to other people. I’m too close to the story. I see exactly how things are happening in my head, so I won’t necessarily realize when I haven’t explained something properly.

This is where I still am in the process. Deception is being readied for my five other beta readers and has started through my writers group. I have begun to plot out my next novel, and the lessons I’ve learned through this process will make the second one so much easier.

To add to the biggest lesson I learned through the process: writing well is hard, but the end result is so worth it.

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