Cover to Cover III: Owning a First Draft

manuscriptThis is my third entry in my Cover to Cover series which follows a novel from inception to potential publication. It’s interesting to note since I started doing this, my novel has changed quite significantly. Most notable is that I completed a first draft last month.

If you’ve ever completed a long first draft, then you know how time-consuming and rewarding it can be to type “The End.” I was elated. It’s done, right? Well, no. The dreaded edit comes next. However, sometimes just getting the first draft down can be quite a slog for many writers.

So how do you get from inkling of an idea to a completed first draft? I’ll tell you how I did it and hopefully it will be of some help to others.

1. Write every day.

Ugh. Not this advice again! I’m only saying what has worked for me and this definitely did. As I was writing my first draft, I decided I couldn’t start any more major projects. I’d just work on one novel until it was complete. That meant I got to a point when I said, “This needs to be finished,” and I wrote every day until it was. Some days it felt like trying to wrangle headless harpies, but I soldiered on. Writing so much doesn’t have to be a chore though. Write in short bursts if you need to, but try to find time to spend with your novel every single day. It will get you in the routine of thinking, “OK, what can I do on my novel today.” If it’s not drafting, try some world-building or pre-writing at least. Keeping your novel fresh in your mind helps a lot. I started to look forward to my writing sessions because I not only knew what I was going to write, (from my rough outline and pre-writing notes) but because I was enjoying my own story. Which brings me to some sub-points:

a. If you get bored with your story, think about what made you excited about it to begin with. Was it the concept, the characters, the twisty plot? Then put more awesome in your story. The sagging middle doesn’t have to be the sagging middle.

b. If you need those “moments of rest” between the awesomeness, make them count. If there’s a huge battle in one scene, have a character reveal she’s been hiding a dragon in her bag while everyone’s recovering. It gives what might otherwise be a lull some kind of hook to go into the next scene. This is what worked for me, mind you.

2. Make yourself accountable.

I started a group called Writers’ Work: Clocking Your Time here on Mythic Scribes. It made me accountable for my writing by publicly stating “I’m going to write at least thirty minutes, an hour, whatever every day.” If I didn’t do what I said, there is public evidence that I didn’t follow through. This may not be effective for every writer, but it helped me a lot. I inched toward the finish line on my first draft and it had a lot to do with support from the group. I highly recommend finding a group or at least a partner who can help hold you accountable if you’re not the kind of person who sticks with your projects.

So what makes a good partner (or group)?

a. Someone who doesn’t let you slip by the wayside. Meaning someone who makes sure to keep up with your progress as often as possible. Just a friendly, “How are things going?” can be a good boost.

b. Having a partner that gives you tough love now and again is helpful. If you have partners that are too pushy, it can become tiresome, but the right amount of nudges and the occasional “Did you work today? Why not?” can be good motivators.

3. Kill all other major projects indiscriminately. Cultivate smaller ones.

In my experience, I’ve found if I work on multiple major projects at once they all invariably suffer in some way and never get completed. In exchange, if you get distracted by new, shinier ideas (oh, I finally got an idea for my Undead Unicorn Devil Razor Ranger series!), try to limit them to smaller projects. I find that working on one major project like a novel and several smaller ones like short stories can not only be fun, but can actually increase your productivity on your main project. This works for me because there are always going to be times where you have a “This is crap” day. On those days, put your novel aside for a bit and work on a side project. You may find while doing so you get ideas for your main project and can jump right back into it.

Here are some additional “This is crap” day diversions:

a. Brainstorm ideas for future novels. Sometimes doing so can help cultivate your current project or motivate you to continue writing so you can get to your next novel.

b. Go walking with your notebook. Write things you see or think. Crumple up paper and pretend they’re fireballs. Hurl them at people that pass you by. Come back home (or wherever you write) and, um, write.

c. Burn everything and start over. What? That’s horrible advice! Well, yes and no. If something just isn’t working and you’re in the early stages, save it, put it aside, and write it from the beginning. I did that with my current novel and I’m loads happier with the newer version that emerged from the charred ashes (well, a draft put in a “Abysmal Failure” folder anyway) of my first version.

4. Have a slight idea where you’re going.

Maybe because I’m a outliner, my suggestion may seem like it’s only for others like me. But no! I’m all for every approach to writing that works for you. For me, knowing how my story is going to end is paramount. If you’re a pantser, perhaps not knowing your ending is fine for you, but if you even have a note like “The dragon is killed” then at least you know something. I found most of my discarded projects became so because I wrote and wrote without even the slightest idea where any of it was going.

5. Bursts>Marathoning

I’m not against any one method, but I’ve found when I write in 30 minute or hour bursts, it helps me stay productive more than sitting for hours on end trying to come up with something. If you want or need to write six hours, try doing them in one hour bursts spaced throughout the day. For my novel, I only had one marathon session and the writing suffered because I was trying to cram as much writing time in as possible. I recommend trying something like the Pomodoro Technique. It involves writing (or doing anything) for 25 minutes at a time, taking various breaks throughout your sessions. Using this method helped keep me moving without getting writer’s fatigue.

So that’s all I have for this installment. Next time I’ll talk about the dreaded edit and how to punch your way through it.

For now, do you have any surefire ways that propelled you to first draft completion? Please share your methods in the comments below.

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

Philip Overby

Philip Overby is a nomadic warrior, indiscriminate troll slayer, undead unicorn enthusiast, former indie wrestler, and lover of all things fantasy. His Splatter Elf short story "The Unicorn-Eater" is now available on Amazon. He lives in Kawasaki, Japan.
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P. H.
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P. H.

Headless harpies? lol! Looking forward to the next installment – trying to punch through an edit myself so maybe your insights will help.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
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Anne Marie Gazzolo

Great advice, Philip! I appreciate you sharing your tips. Right now I have way too much on my plate with writing two books, a fantasy I wrote long ago that I decided to dust off for a writing group I joined recently and have already received great advice from to make the book much better, and another non-fiction book on Middle-earth, and my Master’s Degree (also associated with Middle-earth). And did I mention I am doing all this on top of a full time job? It is nuts, I know, but also exciting and energizing (when I am not tearing my hair out that I am not following your wise counsel to not have more than one major project going at a time). 🙂

Michael Cairns
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Michael Cairns

Hi Philip
Thanks, great post. I find the short bursts thing really works for me as well. I tend to write like crazy for forty minutes or so then take a ten minute break. It really helps to get up and wander around in the breaks, maybe do a few star jumps 🙂

I also like the major project and short stories thing. I’ve just recently made Sunday my short story day. My newsletter readers get exclusive short stories via email, so on Sunday I put aside my main WIP and write something short and preferably fun. As you said, it really helps to rejuvenate me for Monday.

I must confess I don’t have much difficulty in finishing the first drafts because I write pretty quickly, but the first edit is the real slog. Looking forward to your tips for that one.

Cheers
Mike

CD Gallant-King
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CD Gallant-King

I love the idea of writing in concentrated, regular bursts, but it’s never worked for me. I’ve always worked best when I have long, extended writing sessions. I can and have written 50,000 words in less than two weeks. The problem is I don’t have time to write like that anymore.

If I’m writing blog posts or articles, short works of 1000 words or whatever, I can write that in one sitting and that’s fine. But writing only 1000 words at a time, knowing that I need 50, 75 or 100 thousand, I just can’t do it. I don’t have the attention span to plug away a little bit at a time day after day, even though I know logically that’s the best way to get it done.

Joe
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Joe

I never tried writing a book but have written MANY long papers for school and I had trouble sitting down and writing unless it was close to the due date. No matter how hard I tried to finish in advance I was always up all night the evening before it was due. So I guess you could say I do my best work under pressure.

Mike
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Mike

These are some fantastic tips for anyone that is interested in starting to write and become an author. Thanks for sharing this valuable information with us all.

Jess
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Jess

I found myself nodding several times as I read this article. Lots of useful tips here that will greatly help me (and other readers, no doubt) during the painful, painful process of writing a first draft. Number 2 was so poignant for me. I tell myself that I’m going to work on my writing, but then I pig out on ice cream and procrastinate instead. I’ll definitely take your advice and hold myself accountable 🙂

DaniMay
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DaniMay

Very helpful tips that I plan to put to use. I tend to spend
far too much time agonizing over sticking with what I started, and never allow
myself to work on anything else until I complete it. Which rarely ever becomes
completed. But I think I’ll start “allowing myself” to work on short stories
and such, while working on my big project. (along with your “this is crap” day
diversions as well)

Annie Marie Peters
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Annie Marie Peters

Very practical tips here.  I really like your point about holding yourself accountable.  It’s so easy to procrastinate, but when you set a goal and ask someone to keep you in check, you are much more likely to stick to it.

E.L. Skip Knox
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E.L. Skip Knox

Antonio del Drago @Philip_Overby  
Sure, okay. So … what does “completed” mean, given that we know we’re going to revise heavily?
To me, First Draft means I’m willing to show it to a beta reader. It means the story is as complete as I’m able to make it without feedback. There may be glaring plot holes, but I can’t see them. There may be inconsistencies in character, but I missed it. The pacing may be rough in spots, but not to my ears. 
I think this is further down the line than what most people call a first draft, but to me, if I’m not willing to have a beta reader see it, then I’m still writing.
What do you think of my definition? I have two works that have been to beta, and both needed work based on the feedback. And I sure wouldn’t have wanted to send the piece in any earlier than I did.

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Skip Knox For me, I see a completed first draft as option no. 2: “It’s done enough that it’s ready for a thorough edit.”  

I’ve also accepted the reality that any first draft will suck.  But as long as I have a mostly-coherent story that can be revised, that’s all that I need.  As other have said, great novels aren’t written – they are re-written.

E.L. Skip Knox
Member
E.L. Skip Knox

Good comments, Phil. I have a question for you: how did you decide it was a completed first draft?

Here are my possibilities. The story is done enough that
1. I have all or most of the major scenes written and there’s not likely to be major plot changes
2. It’s done enough that it’s ready for a thorough edit
3. It’s more done than that. I’m ready to give it to a beta reader
4. It’s polished and ready to send to an agent or fifty

I can see calling any of those a “first draft”.

Adam Ross
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Adam Ross

I’ve finished six so far. One of the things that helped me was not to focus on how much there was to go. Worry about the next sentence. Don’t write a novel. Write the next scene. A scene is managable. Finish a scene and think about the next one.

Tony Dragani
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Tony Dragani

I wasn’t able to complete the first draft of my novel until I had a detailed, scene by scene outline completed. Once I had that ready, finishing the manuscript became so much easier.

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