16 March 2018

How to write the first draft of your novel

Hannah McKinnon Author Tips
by Hannah Mary McKinnon From Our Students, How To ..., Writing Tips

First draft. Two words that send shivers up and down an author’s spine like a dinner date with Hannibal Lecter. Blood, sweat, tears, and, in my case, a substantial amount of cookies, go into first drafts. It got me wondering – does it have to be this way? To prove it doesn’t, here are eight tips and tricks to help propel you out of first draft purgatory. Fast.

1) Define what “first draft” means to you

I start with this because I think it’s the most important. Could you be struggling to finish your first draft because you’ve set your expectations of what a first draft looks like too high? Perhaps your idea of a first draft is a polished manuscript that’s ready for beta-readers, agents, or editors? That’s scary, potentially off-putting stuff that can block a writer before their fingers even grace the keyboard.

I’ve realized what I call my “first” draft looks very different to the first version of the manuscript anyone else will see. My own first drafts are basic; about two thirds of the final word count, short descriptions and hardly any dialogue tags (I know who’s talking, so who cares?). My own first drafts are more like skeletons; the bones of the story are there, and sure, some are missing, superfluous, and in the wrong place, but I’ve got something to work with, a story to build upon and layer. By the time I send what my editor considers a first draft, I’ll have gone over the manuscript half a dozen times. The prospect of finishing a 90,000 word novel is daunting. Writing a 60,000 word rough draft I can flesh out, already feels more achievable.

2) Storyboard with sticky notes

I keep telling myself I’m going to outline my next novel in a far more structured manner, but get too excited about the story, and my good intentions evaporate. Cue a frantic amount of typing followed by major plot holes because I didn’t think it through. Sound familiar? Here’s my quick’n’dirty’n’visual solution; sticky notes. Scribble scenes down and pop them on a pin board, a wall or your dining table. Sticky notes are easier to move around than large chunks of text (plus you can scrunch them up into little balls). You may figure out the flow of your entire story far more quickly, including the bits you haven’t written yet. You already know you’ll take your protagonist on some kind of journey (physical, mental, spiritual, etc.) – think of each sticky note as a stepping stone to help you work out how you’ll get them there.

3) Consider more points of view characters (or fewer)

Although I have no desire to overcomplicate things, sometimes a story isn’t working because it’s only written from one perspective. Maybe another would increase the tension and drama, provide more options and avenues to explore? Conversely, a story’s downfall can be too many cooks – too many voices that lead to repetition. By all means, love your fictional darlings, but don’t be afraid to snip their vocal cords, either.

4) Get rid of distractions

I struggle with this so much when I’m writing my first drafts. I’ve no trouble when I’m in the editing stage, but first drafts are painful, and, consequently, I get too easily distracted. To help, I’ve used a browser add-on called Stay Focused, which allowed me to block any and/or all websites, which was fine…providing I left my phone in a different room. Another solution is to set a timer for e.g. 30 minutes with the promise to write and only write. Keep increasing the time until you get to an hour or so. Legs need to be stretched at some point, after all!

5) Write the scenes that speak to you

Ever sat in front of the words “Chapter 1”, a blinking cursor, and nothing else? Same thing happened when I wrote my first novel. Despite knowing exactly what my protagonist would do in the next chapter, I sat in front of my blank screen for what felt like years. Finally I clicked on “Insert Page Break” and wrote “Chapter 2”. I didn’t go back to that first chapter until I’d finished the rest of the novel. My advice? Write the scenes and/or chapters that are clear to you, the ones that inspire you. Trust your instincts – and your writing – enough to know the rest will come.

6) Let yourself write crap

It took me a long time to fully understand this one. Why would anyone let themselves write crap? The short answer? Because the “first” draft you share with your beta-readers / agent / editor isn’t your first draft at all (see point 1). Don’t worry – you’ll have plenty of time to clean it up before anyone even reads the title page.

7) Set yourself a deadline

I get it, deadlines stress people out, but not having one can be equally difficult. Parkinson’s law says “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. When I don’t have a deadline, I’ll pull out my diary and set my own – otherwise I’m in danger of procrastinating ad infinitum.

8) A final word about nonlinear timelines

My first two novels take the reader on a time-hopping journey, so nonlinear timelines hold a special place in my heart. Having said that, they’re notoriously tricky and can be intimidating to tackle. Stuck on your first draft because your timeline is all over the place? My number one tip is to write your story in sequential order, then shuffle the chapters once you’re done (use a sticky note story board to help!). I truly believe you’ll get to the end of your first draft much faster this way. For more dual timeline tips, read my blog post.

There you have it. Eight ways to help you cross the first draft finish line. I’d love to hear what else works for you!

Hannah Mary McKinnon took one of our long online creative writing courses, and is now a published author with her second novel,  The Neighbours, newly launched in the US, UK – and Canada, where she lives. Hannah has been one of our most positive and persevering students, and she brings these qualities very much to bear in this fabulous piece she’s written for us about writing the first draft of your novel…

To find out more about the next  3-month online novel-writing course, click here. Or join one of our next six week online writing courses for only £200!

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