How to write a first draft of a novel
It's simple, but not easy
I know you think you’re going to need the most perfect outline in existence. You want to get the perfect word processing software. You want to spend hours upon hours reading books on craft and making highlights and then throwing your perfect outline onto a wall with colorful Post-Its.
And suddenly, after all that work is done, you’re going to assume that the novel will fall out of you with ease. You’ll write the first sentence and you’ll hate it. You’ll judge that first sentence so hard. You’ll judge the first few pages. You’ll grab for your phone constantly. You’ll make a new writing playlist. You’ll start cleaning your home. You’ll scroll Instagram and see someone else just got their book deal and you’ll look at your terrible sentences and think, “What’s the fucking point?”
You’ll read another craft book. Maybe you’ll read Stephen King’s memoir and you’ll throw it across the room because of course it’s easy for Mr. King to write every single day and for stories to just come to him. He’s Stephen King! Screw you, sir.
You’ll read those few pages you wrote again and go, “This is such shit. This is not at all how it sounds in my head! What’s wrong with me? I’m the worst. I’m not good enough. I’ll never do this. I can’t do this. Why do I even want to do this?”
And then maybe you won’t be able to read any other novels because they hurt to read. How did this get published? Or, I’ll never be as good as this.
Again, what is the point?
Writers who actually have books on shelves say first drafts are supposed to suck, but you are certain—100 billion percent certain—that their first draft has never sucked as much as yours. You wallow. You throw a little pity party. You decide writing isn’t for you. It’s too hard. You’ll never get published.
What’s the point?
Here’s the thing: everyone’s first draft does usually suck. Some people might write cleaner drafts, but take longer to get there. Some people might write a quick and dirty first draft, but take longer to revise it (hi, it’s me). But, everyone has to start somewhere.
And, I’m sorry to break the bad news to you, but the only way you’re going to know how to write a novel is if you… write the novel.
I know. I KNOW. Horrible news.
There is no perfect outline.
There is no perfect template.
There is no perfect way.
Every single person is different. I don’t write with an outline. I can’t. It completely stunts the story for me. In my first drafts, characters pop out of nowhere and I have to make them matter. Dialogue comes to me while I’m out walking. The characters have full on conversations in my head I have to transcribe in the Notes app of my phone. The magic of a book doesn’t become magical until I start revising the hell out of it.
The first draft is just play time for me. I am figuring out the story. I am seeing what the hell these characters want me to do with them. I am completely at ease with my first draft being terrible. I hope it is! There is nothing I can do with unwritten words and blank pages.
The moment I started being less afraid of the writing than I am of never having written is when I became prolific.
Confidence comes from the doing. Action cures fear. The only way you’ll know your process for writing a novel is if you just write one. Call it Novel Zero. Call it This Will Never Be Published if you need to. Take the pressure off entirely. Start experimenting. Start seeing what it is you even have in front of you. Remember that you can edit. That you can revise. That you can throw those words in the trash at some point and begin again.
Nothing is forever.
Open Microsoft Word or Google Docs or, even, god forbid, Apple Pages, and begin. Start where you can. Write the scene that inspired you to write the story. Go out of order. Write it in order. Give yourself permission to write that story however it wants to be told. Write backwards. Write from the middle.
Just write it!
Because, what’s the point?
The point is you have a desire. You have a calling. You have an idea. You have a passion. You have the pull toward the page.
It matters that you honor it. It doesn’t have to be good. The calling isn’t to be great at writing right away. The calling is to write the damn thing. To feel a sense of pride that you are stacking up word counts.
You know what’s better than having the perfect draft in your head that will never exist in real life because you are too scared to ever honor your calling?
80-90,000 just okay words that you can shape.
I would so much rather be prolific than perfect.
I would so much rather have 90,000 words that are a bit nonsensical that I can revise into something wonderful than go to sleep at night wishing I’d written that day.
Waiting to be ready doesn’t work.
Waiting to be perfect means you’ll wait forever.
The only real way to write the first draft of a novel is to begin.
And if it goes nowhere (my first novel didn’t) then so be it. You’ll learn so much about yourself. You’ll learn that maybe you need to understand how to construct scenes, that maybe you need to work on dialogue (and not have pages of exposition like I did in my first novel, lol!), and that actually you’re really good at describing vivid scenery.
You’ll learn what you don’t know yet. You’ll learn what craft books you actually need. You’ll learn that all that reading you’ve done has been one of the best teachers ever.
You’ll also learn the most valuable thing from just writing the draft: whether you want to put in the time to get better, or whether you don’t.
Sometimes we romanticize writing so much we don’t even know what it’s like to be a working writer. We experience it all up in our heads. But when you actually sit down and do the work, you can see if you like the work.
And if you don’t like the work?
What a gift! One less thing to fret about! Go find a new passion! Yay!
Because guess what happened to me? I wrote a novel that sucked. It was really bad. There weren’t even any scenes. Was there a plot? Whole chapters would go by without dialogue. Hilarious!
But you know what I learned through that process? I learned that I have an insatiable desire to get better at writing. I learned I wanted to get better. I learned that I have the discipline and ability to write something longer than a tweet or a caption or a 1500 word essay.
And then, I took all that knowledge, filled in the gaps with some crucial craft books, worked at the things I needed to be better at, allowed myself to be good at what I noticed I was excelling at—and I wrote another book.
And that novel, last week, showed up all over North America in bookstores, on New Releases tables and Bestseller shelves and in people’s hands who messaged me saying they finished it in 24 hours and couldn’t put it down.
Thank god I wrote that shitty first draft of that Novel Zero. Thank god I let myself suck. I would have never written, revised, and shaped the book that eventually got me a publishing deal.
Nothing is wasted, except the time you’re spending waiting to be ready.
Begin. This is your sign.
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