Writing a novel sounds like a daunting task, a feat you may only imagine other people accomplishing. But despite the challenge, writing the first draft can, surprisingly, be easier than you think! If you keep these tips in mind while writing, it can be the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the journey. It’s when you can ignore that editing voice in your head, discover your characters’ unique personalities, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses, create a new world, dive into new and exciting plotlines…
Writing the first draft is like standing on the edge of a cliff and finally gaining the courage to jump into the unknown, only you find yourself flying instead of falling. Because this is the stage where you can do ANYTHING.
So get your pen (or keyboard) in front of you and get ready to embark on a journey into your creative world where anything is possible. And don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back for deciding to take this leap of faith and believing in yourself to do something incredible!
Staring at a blank page? Trying to concoct the most beautiful, distinctive, and intriguing first sentence to start your novel? Stop right now. I repeat: Stop. Right. Now. This is not the most important part of your novel; nobody is going to quit reading your story on the first sentence. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a good hook, but don’t overthink it, especially when writing the first draft. For now, treat this sentence like any other sentence and just start writing.
Another mistake you don’t want to make when starting your novel is waiting for the “perfect moment” to start. There is no perfect moment. Just like any good story, life is unpredictable. If you are waiting for a time when you have no obligations, nothing to take up your time, and no stressors, just remember that this rarely happens—not ideal for a writer, I know. So don’t think “after” or “until” when determining when to start writing. Now—RIGHT NOW—is the best time to start, before you can talk yourself out of it or lose your creative momentum. Don’t miss out on telling the story that you were meant to tell.
Letting Yourself Write Badly
Editing. You either love it or hate it. Either way, many of us writers can’t stop ourselves from doing it; it’s that compulsion to make our sentences perfect, that voice in our head telling us not to continue until we have the best words possible on the page. But when writing the first draft, the best thing you can do for yourself is to silence that inner critic. The first draft is not about perfection; it’s about progress. It’s about getting your story on the page no matter how messy it sounds because right now, you are in discovery mode. You are discovering your story for the first time, and the last thing it needs is criticism, especially from you as the writer. So whether you love or hate editing, save it for when your draft is finished. For now, the aim is to get the story down, not to create a masterpiece on the first try.
Keeping Your Story Simple
Even if you are writing a high fantasy novel meant to be 1,000 pages long with six different perspectives and countless subplots, keep the story relatively simple when writing your first draft. Focus on the main plot of the story and the main character(s) and flesh these aspects out as much as you can on the first go. By all means, write interesting side characters and subplots if you have the inspiration, but if you only have the big picture and the main message of your story in mind when you start, don’t get too caught up in these other elements for now; you can flesh these out when you revise. Remember, the main plot and characters are the heart and brain of your story, while all the other elements are the organs you and your story can live without while you need to focus on its main function.
Conflict and Characters
Any story in its rawest form comes down to its conflict and characters. Without these two crucial elements, you don’t have a story at all, or at least certainly not a compelling one. If you are going to painstakingly focus your attention on anything when writing the first draft, it’s conflict and characters.
If you’ve already decided to write a novel, you likely already have either a conflict, characters, or both in mind. Now is the time to flesh your characters out. Give them distinctive traits, backstories, and unique appearances. Get to know them as if they are real people to you—they may just feel like that once you start writing. Strong characters will make the process of writing the first draft not only easier but more enjoyable, too!
Once you have your characters down, make sure you’re putting them in an interesting albeit realistic conflict with stakes appropriate for the genre you are writing in. For example, if it’s fantasy, the end of the world may be at stake, but for romance, it may be the survival of your characters’ relationship. If you’re having trouble coming up with the perfect conflict to afflict your characters with, you can reference common types of conflict to help. When you’ve settled on a conflict, be sure to have this conflict drive the story forward throughout your draft, and you may be surprised by how compelling your story turns out to be while you watch it unfold on the paper (or screen).
Plotting Versus Pantsing
You may have heard of the plotting versus pantsing debate—crafting a coherent outline of your novel before you start writing or “flying by the seat of your pants.” Either of these strategies is an efficient way of writing your first draft.
If you have a good idea of what you plan on writing when you sit down to start, plotting out the structure of your novel may be beneficial for you. It can help you envision your story chronologically, determine which scenes fit where, and provide a sort of guide for you along the way that will make the writing process easier. This means that if you choose this method, much of your creative work will happen before you write, which may help you write faster. Though depending on the type of writer you discover yourself to be, this is not always the case.
This is where pantsing—also known as discovery writing—can come in handy. Many of us sit down to write a novel without a very solid idea of what exactly is going to happen; maybe you just know the basic message you want your story to tell, or you have a really interesting character you know you want to follow. If this is you, then pantsing may be the better option. You can discover your story as you write, untethered by an outline you feel the need to stick to. If you choose to use this strategy, most of your creative work will happen as you are writing your novel and may speed up your writing process if you allow your creative juices to flow freely. Indeed, many people say they let the character tell the story to them as they write.
Both plotting and pantsing are viable options—there have been many successful novels written in both ways. But whichever option you choose, don’t feel that you must stick to it throughout the writing process. For instance, if you have plotted out your novel but are struck with a sudden inspiration halfway through, don’t feel pressured to stick to your original idea if another one is calling your name! Your first idea doesn’t always have to be your best idea, so don’t be afraid to see where your story takes you as you write.
On the other hand, if you are pantsing but have finally discovered the direction you want your story to go, it may be helpful to create an outline, however loose you want it to be, for the rest of your novel. Allow yourself to envision all the amazing scenes ahead!
The point is, you may find yourself switching between plotting and pantsing—a strategy known as plantsing—and that’s perfectly okay. Let your creative mind craft your story however it feels is best!
When Should I Write?
Life is busy. But instead of letting this stop you from making the time to write, allow all of those time-and-energy-consuming obligations to encourage you. It may sound strange—the first time I heard this advice, I didn’t believe it—but you may be surprised to find that being busy is actually good for the writing process. If you are already bogged down with tasks, then writing a novel becomes just another task to complete, and even an escape from your daily hustle. But if you try writing your novel only when you have nothing on your to-do list, you may find yourself unmotivated: “I’m finally getting a break, maybe I’ll take a break from writing too!” Believe me, it’s much more tempting to put your draft on pause when other things in your life are on pause, too. In other words, write even and especially when you are busy.
You may be asking, “If I’m writing while I’m busy, when can I find the time to put words on the page?” The answer depends on each writer. Are you a morning person? If so, you may want to wake up early to get some writing done before you start your day (or skip that morning television session and write instead!). Or perhaps you are a night owl, and you’d prefer to write when the rest of the world can’t disturb you.
Morning person or night owl, you can always find time in your daily schedule when you are, well, wasting said time. This may sound negative, but it’s not. Because congratulations, you’ve just found time for writing your novel! Determine what those usual time-wasters are in your schedule and replace them with writing sessions instead.
It may also be helpful to have a set time to write each day. Indeed, adding writing time into your calendar each week can make you more likely to stick to your writing goals. Whether it’s in fifteen-minute or hour-long increments, it is important to remain consistent. Too much time spent not writing is the Achilles’ heel of creativity and inspiration. So whether you write in the morning, at night, during your lunch break, or during sporadic moments whenever you find time to spare, BE CONSISTENT. Even if you’re at a loss for where your story is going to go, it’s always best to write something to keep your creative juices flowing. And who knows? You may just get the inspiration for your best plot twist!
Where Should I Write?
When preparing to start writing the first draft of your story, where you write is typically not the first question that comes to mind. But the importance of where you write may become clear as you get started. Where you sit down to get those words on the page can determine how productive each writing session is.
Here’s what I mean. Suppose you sit down for a cozy night of writing in your room. You’re a bit tired after a long day, but you think writing will distract you enough to stay awake and get your words in for the day. Then you suppose you might as well get comfortable in your bed with its fluffy pillows and warm comforter—comfort while writing is important, after all. But now that you’re in bed, you’re feeling drowsier and drowsier… Finally, you suppose that writing can wait for tomorrow. The lesson: don’t write within sight of your bed! It may even be best not to write while wearing your most comfortable pajamas; anything that reminds you of sleep is the enemy of a productive writing session. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience, of course…
The best places to write are up to you, but it’s essential that you scope them out. Coffee shops and cafes can provide a comfortable place to write—coffee and tea are amazing writing companions, after all! You could even try your local library; what better place to feel inspired than a place where you’re surrounded by books? Wherever you choose, writing in a public place may automatically make you feel more productive than writing at home. You’ve gotten dressed and made the walk or drive all so that you can write your draft. Now, you are much less likely to disappoint yourself by not actually writing or become distracted by the comforts—or bustle—of your home.
Of course, the best places to write will be different for everyone. Some people prefer absolute silence, while others prefer the background noise and activity that comes with writing in a public place like a coffee shop. Additionally, some people might like having multiple places to write in order to incite their creativity while others rely on being in the same place each time to trigger their writing reflexes. Whichever preferences may apply to you, it is important to determine what these are and find places to write accordingly.
The Secret Key to Success
You may expect the key to successfully writing your first draft to be something technical, like how interesting your main character is. Or maybe you think it’s your compelling main conflict, witty dialogue, or the immersive world you built. But what if I told it’s none of the above. What if I told you that the secret key to success is actually within you as the writer?
Of course, the elements of your story are important and can determine the quality and entertainment factor of your draft, but even if you manage to nail all of these while writing (which, because you are writing the first draft, you shouldn’t strive for), you will likely still suffer from a lack of motivation to keep going, an unfortunate side effect of the writing process for many of us writers. As a result, your story may lose its creative flare, and you may never reach the ending, the last and most exciting act. Don’t let this happen, because your story IS worth being told. And the key to unlocking this motivation…
Just have fun! It’s that simple. Shocking, right? Yet it’s less counterintuitive than it sounds. Even if you have the most wonderful ideas and all the time in the world to write (lucky you), if you’re not enjoying yourself while you are writing, then there is nothing to keep you going. So let your characters do whatever they tell you they want to do, allow yourself to build that wacky world, and follow those plotlines that seem absurd in the moment. You’ll be surprised at how letting loose while writing can improve your first draft.
Having fun while writing is the power that turns the gears of your creative mind—keep these gears in motion, and you can achieve anything in the wonderful world of writing. So what are you waiting for? Now that you know what the secret key to success is, grab that pen or keyboard and get started on that story that deserves to be told. Happy writing!