4 Tips For Writing a Quick First Draft

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Books & Such agents and staff are on a writers’ retreat with our clients at the Monterey Plaza Hotel this week and lavishing them with attention. We’ll be re-posting blogs that received a goodly number of visitors and garnered considerable comments. And here are some beautiful jellyfish at Monterey’s world-famous aquarium.

National Novel Writing Month starts in three weeks! For those who don’t know what this is, you can go to the NaNoWriMo site here and learn all about it. The point is to write a 50,000 word novel between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. I think it’s great for discipline and for getting that first draft out. A terrific way to stop procrastinating and just do it!

Of course, in many cases, 50,000 words isn’t going to be an entire novel. If you’re planning a longer book, it’s okay. You can write the skeleton of a novel, then fill it out later, or write roughly half of your novel by the end of November, whatever 50k words turns out to be. You have to get to 50k, though — that’s the point.

So let’s talk about writing a first draft. Today I want to address a couple of things I think are pretty important when you’re sitting down to a blank screen. Keep in mind we’re all different and we have unique strategies that work for us; these are general tips meant to be helpful. If they don’t work for you, throw them out.

1. Now is NOT the time to self-edit or worry about all those writing tips you’ve been taught. Just write. Let the words flow. If you’ve been studying the craft, you’ll naturally be inclined to show more than tell, write snappy dialogue, and be aware of how much backstory you’re allowing in. That’s great. But don’t let yourself get caught up in those details. Keep the forward momentum going. Your best writing will happen in the revision process.

2. Provide yourself uninterrupted time to write. This is a tough one, with jobs and families. But honestly, I think your biggest challenge is going to be staying off the Internet when you’re writing. I was recently re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing and he talks about having a quiet space to write, turning off the telephone, even closing the window shades to avoid distractions. How EASY it would be, if that’s all we had to worry about! King wrote it before the era of online social networking. The difficult truth is this: If you’re going to be a writer, you must set aside writing time and hold it as sacred. Turn off your Internet connection.

It’s hard because these days you are (unlike Stephen King) required to be a marketer, too. Nevertheless, you’re going to have to figure out a way to organize your life so that you have chunks of time for marketing activities, other blocks of time for learning (reading craft books, attending conferences), and significant periods when you’ll just write. Working on a first draft is when you JUST WRITE.

3. Get your family involved. If you live with other people who depend on you for things like bringing home the bacon and/or frying it up in the pan, you’re not going to be able to accomplish this alone. I’ve said this all before so forgive me if it sounds familiar, but I think it’s important, when writing a first draft or writing on a deadline, to consider various ways to call in the reinforcements. Get more help with cooking, grocery shopping, housecleaning or lawn-mowing if possible (delegate!) Set up a schedule for each week (it can be different each week, just as long as you make one) where you have protected writing times.

Sit your family down if necessary and let them know: “The next 30 days may be tough on you but I really need you to step up to the plate.” It might be hard on them but that’s okay; this is a learning curve for your whole family. Behind every successful writer is a supportive family who mobilizes to pick up the slack when mom or dad has a deadline—or a first draft to get out.

4. Remember this is a first draft. Lately I’ve seen a lot of ranting online from agents reminding writers: Do not submit in December whatever you wrote in November! Anyone who writes a first draft in a month is going to need several months to revise and polish. Revisions are when the real crafting happens. So don’t proudly start querying on December 1st with your NaNoWriMo project! (Unless it was last’s year’s NaNoWriMo project.)

So now is the time to start planning that NaNoWriMo novel… you have three weeks to prepare!

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? What’s your goal—an entire novel, or half of one? Have you ever done this before? How’d it work for you? If you’re not going to do it—why not?

47 Responses

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  1. This will be my second year participating in NaNo, but my first year doing it under a deadline. I wrote a huge chunk of my first novel during NaNo, and spent about a month revising and editing the heck out of it.

    I just signed a publishing contract on that book, and I have a second one due in February, so I’ve already started working on my NaNo plans.

    I’m a huge plotter – my brain requires the entire book to be “complete” in my head, with all my plot points, character arcs, and romantic highs and lows already identified. This is the part I’m working on before NaNo. And because October is actually the month my kids are visiting their grandparents in the States (I’m an expat in India), I imagine I’ll go ahead and start early on the writing.

  2. This will be my second year doing NaNo, too. And I, too, am spending the next three weeks outlining, plotting and developing characters. I prepared last year, too and it took such a weight off my shoulders. I knew where the story was going and the free writing was really ‘freeing.’ And a lot of fun. I want a usable first draft when I’m finished, not just a bunch of unrelated scenes.

  3. Anne Love says:

    This is my second year also. Thanks for the hints ladies for what helped you the most last year, you’ve got me thinking about plotting better ahead of time.

    Last year I learned I got pump out a lot of words on a deadline–but only if I had the plot outlined ahead of time. I think NaNo is a great exercise to test what you are capable of accomplishing on a deadline.

    I’ve got about 58K already with a goal of finishing by January, using NaNo to help push me. I started out as a pantser writer, but I’m realizing I’m better if its plotted. Plotting is my biggest hurdle, but having a CP to brainstorm with helps tremendously.

  4. Patrice says:

    This will be my first year. Life runs at a hectic pace at my house, so I’m a bit skeptical. I told my family what I’m planning, but I’m not sure they really get it. Hubby had to be on board, and he says he is. I may just have to go back to typing into the early morning and living as a zombie. We’ll see.

    I already have the skeleton of the project I’ll be working on. I figured this journey would be easier with a “road map”.

    There are lots of interesting things on the NaNoWriMo website, but I think my time is best spent typing like a mad woman.

  5. Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

    This is the first year I’m prepared to really complete a fast draft in November, and I’m excited about it. I think your reminder about limiting social networks is key because they can gobble up time without me realizing it. (Thanks for explaining the photo of the jellyfish. My first thought, “What the heck do jellyfish have to do with NaNoWriMo?”)

  6. Carol says:

    I’ve participated several years in a row and fail miserably. It is because I don’t cut out that time you suggested. It’s tough. I am married, have two teenage kids, and work a full time job. But I am going to sign up again. This time I have at least an outline. I am not going to think about anything in the future, I am just going to type, write the story. The self-editing always always always trips me up too. Ugh. How do you turn off that self-editor? Oh well, I’m going to have fun with it and I have a little plan etched out for doing it. We’ll see.

    • Jeanne T says:

      I tell my self-editor that she has to let the creative juices flow, and then she’ll edit to her heart’s content once the first draft is out. Of course, some people I know give themselves permission to edit after they’ve met their writing goal for the day.

  7. Joi_the_Artist says:

    This will be my 9th year doing NaNoWriMo; I’ve got 7 completed novels from past years, 1 of which I’m currently querying. 2 more are in the process of being edited/polished. There are several that are best lost to the depths of time. *winces* I LOVE NaNoWriMo!

  8. Elizabeth says:

    You’re in Monterey! Enjoy your time. My husband and I are visiting the area this week, and I laughed to see your jellyfish picture – I took the exact same photo yesterday. Isn’t that a cool aquarium? Thanks for the draft advice also.

  9. Heather says:

    I really want to do NaNo this year, but alas work is getting in the way with Overtime. Which is good for pay, bad for writing. Perhaps I’m not making my writing time sacred. Need to do this. Thanks.

  10. Jeanne T says:

    What great tips for Nano. I did it last year for the first time, and I amazed myself by writing 60,000 words. My husband and kids knew my goal going in and they rejoiced with me when I exceeded my goal.

    I’m a plotter and I think what made it possible for me to write so much was that I had already planned out the scenes before I began writing. I got up veerrryy early to write, because that was my one guaranteed time to write each day. I made meal prep very easy for myself last year and I said no to other activities to meet my goal.

    I’m not participating this November because I am revising my current work. I want to finish the revision process. Then, I’ll plot out my next book and probably do my own NaNo in March or so. 🙂

    My hats off to those of you who have participated a number of years and completed novels. 🙂

  11. David Klein says:

    This will be my second year of deciding NOT to participate. It seems exciting, but it’s not the way I write. I wrote my first two novels (STASH, CLEAN BREAK) slowly, deliberately, and revising as I went. That’s my process. I sort of envy those who can pump out a draft in a month, because I’m not one of them.

  12. This will be my second year participating in NaNoWriMo ~ I’m a huge fan. This time, unlike the last, I will have an outline. I completed the 50k word challenge my first time without an outline but boy, was it tough! I’m hoping with an outline I won’t be as stressed.

  13. Deanna says:

    Even though I completely failed at my first Nano last year, I’d love to join again this year.

    But I might have to be a silent member!
    I’m planning to work on what I started last year…(my current characters won’t let me do otherwise, ha!) 🙂

  14. This is my, err, eighth year of doing NaNo and the associated Summer Camps (has it really been that long!?) and I can’t imagine November without it! 🙂

    I’ve gotten better over the years about turning the 50,000 into something book-shaped, but to date I’m still reaching for that brass ring. This year I’m feeling much more confident about my chances, thanks to a growing library of both blog posts and books on the subject.

    On that note, I’d add a point 5 to your list– don’t be afraid of failure!

    NaNo is all about getting words on paper and sometimes you find out half-way through that the book you thought you were writing isn’t working.

    Don’t be afraid to retcon (Retroactive Continuity) and hop back to where the story took a bad turn and start over.

    Or pause for a quick post mortem essay on why the story went bad and can’t be saved– sometimes those conversations with yourself find ways to bring the story back to life.

    Or, if all else fails, take the nuclear option and add the sentence “But that was just a bad dream, the real story is…” (If you’re feeling silly the phrase “And then there were ninjas!” also works well to move the story firmly into the absurd).

  15. Jenny Leo says:

    There’s a book available called “No Plot? No Problem” by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. It’s a short little book filled with tips and encouragement for a successful month of writing. I like taking on the challenge, but I agree with David that it’s not for everyone. It’s great for blasting through blocks and getting down some raw material to work with later, but if you’re not the “blasting” type, it might be more frustrating than helpful.

  16. nat kelly says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your warnings about the hazards of internet distractions.

    I actually can’t do original writing on the computer. I have to do it with pen and paper. This is a useful way to avoid the blinking notification signs and inbox counts. Plus, when I go to type up what I’ve written, it’s a great moment to do a first round of revisions. Very handy.

  17. I sort of participated last year. I’d started my book and had 30K words written–my goal was 80K, so November came just at the right time. I wrote 50K in one month and was so happy I did!

    I’m currently drafting another book, and am aiming for about 8K a week. The first few weeks of November, I have a large freelance editing project coming in, so I don’t think I can participate this year. But it was such a great thing for me to do last year.

    My biggest problem when drafting, like many of you, is kicking my internal editor out of the room. She can come back in later, when I’m done with my draft and I need her desperately. 🙂

  18. I didn’t participate last year, feeling defeated from the beginning because it was the month of a local writers conference and Thanksgiving and family events and getting out Christmas decorations. But this year I’m already plotting and researching a book I want to have done by March 1, so I’m going to discuss it with my family and jump in. I’m getting excited about it, and that’s the first hurdle!

    • Jeanne T says:

      Yeah, Meghan! I hope it goes well for you! I plotted mine out way before November last year. It made my little plotting heart happy to have my story mapped out before I wrote a word. 🙂

      • Jeanne, I am such a be-prepared list freak that I can’t imagine sitting down to write a book with just a couple of characters and an idea. I’m afraid I’d spend so much time trying to figure out how it should go that I wouldn’t get any actual writing done. Thanks for the encouragement!

  19. Tim Klock says:

    I’m going for it! This will be a double goal for me. I’m doing a (hopefully)final proof-read and doing final touches on my first novel. With Nov. just around the corner, this will force me to finish my first story and get cranking on my second. It’s going to be a tough challenge for me to put out 50,000 words in a month, but that’s what goals are for, right? I really want to try it.

  20. I’m not doing Nanowhateveritscalled because I’ll just be getting back from a trip and will be beyond exhausted and most likely sick as a dog. The thing about mission trips is some of the physical effects kick in once you get home. I’ll probably be in bed for a week, or at least close to the rooms of the house that have shiny plumbing.
    I’ve never been tempted to do the Nano-thing because I just never had time. Writing is a sacrifice for me, so the extra pressure doesn’t help.
    Kudos to whoever does it though!!

  21. Liz Lincoln Steiner says:

    I’m doing my own modified NaNo, using it as inspiration. But I’m in the middle of revisions on a book that has requests for the full. So I don’t want to stop my momentum on the revisions to start a new project. So I’m setting my goal as having the book revised by the end of Nov and breaking down what that means in terms of daily progress. I see the main philosophy of NaNo as an excuse to force yourself to make writing a priority. I already do that to some extent, but not as much as I’d like (what with the job, the husband, the 2 ankle-biters).

  22. Great tips, Rachelle. I wrote an article on how to tackle large writing projects like NaNoWriMo and remain stress free around the holidays. If anyone is interested, you can find it at http://time-management.writer2writer.com/tackling-large-writing-projects.htm

    I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo two or three times. My family and friends don’t like me to attempt it. I guess I become quite grumpy and introspective. I’m not one to give less than 100%, so my focus changes. I’m probably sitting out this year so I can wrap up two other projects I’m working on.

    Good luck to all those who will be participating.

  23. I’d love tyo hear more about taking the draft from 50,000 to finished first draft.

    I participated (and “won” the last two years, but 50,000 is still far enough from the. end (even of a first draft) that I end up floundering. I know about these tips, and they’re what get me through 50,000, it’s the remaining 30-50 that gets me all flustered, because by the time you’ve got 50,000, you’re committed and in-love but not necessarily out of the woods.

    I’m beginning to ting *sob* that the only successful fast drafts are the planned ones.

  24. For the last couple of years, I have done my own alternative to NaNoWriMo … writing 1,000 words a day for October and November, resulting in 60,000 new words! It’s been awesome– it still gives me a kick in the pants, but it’s not AS crazy spread out over two months.

  25. Camille Eide says:

    I am taking part in my first NaNo this year. More on that and what hand-to-hand combat I expect from my inner editor here:


    In fact, I expect to run into more productivity challenge from my obsessive compulsive tendency to self-edit than I do from all other sources combined. Prayers appreciated… 🙂

  26. Ann Bracken says:

    This will be my second attempt at Nano as well. When I told my husband I was doing it last year he looked at me like I’d lost my mind, then preceeded to list all the things I had to do that month. I learned an important lesson from this: my husband knows me better than I do (and probably loves me more).

    I plan to try again this year, but since I’m not a)hosting Thanksgiving for 40 people, b) leaving on a cruise the first week of December, c) sitting with my father in chemotherapy, or d) tending my two-year-old grandson every night while working a full-time job I should be slightly more successful.

    I do love the idea of Nano, because at least it forces me to make a goal. Between family commitments and Sunday service, I figure I have a good 20 days in November to write. That works out to 2,500 words a day. If I can squash my OCD of self-editing while I write, I just might make it. 🙂

    PS – People submit their Nano writings in December? Really? Wow, that’s brave. Or unrealistic.

  27. I don’t think I’ll ever do NaNoWriMo simply because I don’t like writing that fast, but these tips can still be useful for any first draft! Learning not to self-edit was VITAL for me. Yes, it meant my first drafts were much messier, but I got them done much more quickly, and my when I did my second draft, the edits were much more cohesive and consistent. (i.e. Sometimes when self-editing in a first draft, I’d edit one scene one way and another scene a different way, but then the two wouldn’t mesh in the second draft, so I’d just have to edit both again. If I’d just waited until the second draft, there would have been more consistency in my editing choices.)

    Have a blast at your retreat! The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of my favorite places in the world.

  28. Great article! This will be my first attempt and while I’m aiming for a novel, I could possibly break it into two novellas later. I have a three novella series thought on my mind 🙂

  29. This will be my first year attempting NANO and I am excited to see how successful I am. I admit that I am concerned about the time commitment both for myself and my family but the excited and encouraging words of other posters give me hope. My problem is going to be editing and rewriting. With a hard deadline I know I won’t have time to rewrite, yet I am hoping that this is a good thing and it will help me finally get to the end of a story. I have a good idea and am working on an outline. It all begins 3 weeks from today!!!!!

  30. I participated in Nano a few years ago. It taught me a lot. This year, however, I’ve just begun the editing process, so I’ll be knee-deep in that for the rest of the year/early January perhaps. Taking my time to get notes down and make this story ready.

  31. Sharyn Kopf says:

    I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo yet and this won’t be the year I start. But I will definitely be writing like a maniac in November! Having been named a finalist in a writing contest, I have until Dec. 31 to submit my completed manuscript if I want a shot at winning.

    So, this advice is SO helpful to me as I work hard at meeting my goals: first draft done by Thanksgiving; second draft finished by Nov 30th then sent to my editor and beta readers; make those changes and complete a fourth draft in time to submit it by Dec. 31.

    My biggest distraction is the Internet, clearly, since that’s what I’m doing now instead of writing. On the positive side, I work best under a deadline!

  32. Andrew Man says:

    Just finished writing my second novel. It took ten months and I researched over thirty real science books about particle physics this time? I tried “plotting” and read that book, but it doesn’t work for me? I admire authors who can plot their work, and finding more about the meaning of life has been quite a challenge!

  33. benzeknees says:

    I really would like to try NaNo, but it scares me to death committing to a project of this size, but I definitely need the push to get something done.

  34. CG Blake says:

    This is great advice. I did NaNo for the first time last year and cranked out a 53,000 word first draft. One of the biggest takeaways is that perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t labor trying to find the perfect word or sentence. Keep moving forward. One tactic that worked for me was to skip ahead to the end. I got stuck about 15,000 words into the story so I started writing the ending, which unlocked a lot of things that needed to happen earlier in the story. That was something I never would have done without that deadline facing me. Thanks for a great post.

  35. This will be my first NaNo and I’m really getting excited. I’ve most of the characterization completed and am moving on to the outline. The beginning and ending are firmly set in my mind, but of course, it’s the middle where things bog down.

    I will be true to the “Rules” and will not write the first sentence until Nov. 1. How participants are thinking of continuing to work on a manuscript they’ve already started worries me. The rules clearly stipulate that writing may not begin until that date.

    50,000 words should be a piece of cake. That’s only about 1,600 per day and I usually do about 2,800. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but I’m getting my seatbelt ready.

  36. Amy Morgan says:

    This will be my third year participating with one successful “finish”. This is the first time that I am doing some preplan work in October in the form of some outlining and character development so I am interested to see what difference that makes for me. Your tips are spot on – it’s sticking to them that is the hard part!

  37. Peter DeHaan says:

    I hope that some year I will be in the position to participate; it sounds so exciting — and challenging.

  38. I did my first Camp NaNo last August and won. I loved the challenge of a deadline and it helped me turn off my self-editor. Of course the first draft isn’t done, life intervened and I’m hoping to finish that this week.

    I signed up for my first NaNo, too, and will be writing my first romance novel. I’ll be pantsing this one, too, but am making a short story I self-pubbed the prequel.

    I’m realizing that I have more creativity when I pants more and outline less. I also learned that when pantsing, I need to keep a running timeline for reference. LOL!

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