Write a Fast First Draft

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

National Novel Writing Month starts in one week. 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 50,000 words 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 book. If you’re planning a longer book, it’s okay. This is still a terrific discipline for getting 50k words down.

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.

Don’t 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.

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.

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.)

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Do you ever “fast-draft” your book?


44 Responses

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  1. Great advice, Rachelle. I couldn’t do it now, but my first drafts always came out at 5-8000 words per day, and I wrote in the wee hours of the day a-borning.
    * Don’t think I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo; I did #write31days and I’m pretty used up.
    * If I might offer another suggestion or two (or, as it turns out, four):
    1 – If you have Post-Its surrounding your screen, clean ’em off. They’ll slow you down through distraction.
    2 – If possible keep a whiteboard at your side to keep track of character names, plot event, and timelines. It’s faster than using a spreadsheet, and the tactile/visual process of using different coloured markers has been shown to be a stimulus to productivity. I happen to like the smell, too.
    3 – If you have a Room With A View, close the shades. Revision is the time for meditatively leaning back and looking out at God’s creation. Not now.
    4 – Play a lot of CCR and Stones. Not only is their music of the genre which promotes creativity, but you’ll develop an aura of cool which will be hard to beat. (OK, maybe #4 isn’t for everyone, but I like it!)

    • Hilary says:

      I love these suggestions Rachelle, and thank you Andrew for your suggestions as well! I especially like the idea of a whiteboard with character info! I’ll start that tomorrow!

      I love the concept of nanowrimo, but due to a wild schedule, young children and two jobs (not counting writing), it is difficult for me to complete! However, I love it because several of my friends participate in it and seeing all of their hash tags about it motivates me to write when I can!

    • Jackie Layton says:

      Andrew, you always make me smile. I don’t think #4 will work for me. Haha.

      I just closed my shades though. Thanks for sharing your advice.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      I don’t know about closing the shades, Andrew. My desk looks over the back yard pond, and I watch the goldfish and wild birds some to vary where my eyes focus. A junco is bathing right now.
      But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing what I do. My husband says my ability to focus, shift, and refocus is abnormal. (Hubbies are great for helping us keep ourselves in perspective.) I used to write tech articles sitting right by the gate so the people loading would keep me from working through the plane ‘s departure. Yep, abnormal.

      • Carol, for me it’s visual distractions that are hard; especially those of peace and beauty, because they commend me to stop and appreciate them. Auditory-and-motion work well for me, to keep me concentrated, and I wrote a lot at airports, as well.

    • Andrew, great tips. I loved your #4. I have never been a huge Stones fan, but CCR still scrolls through my mental playlist.

    • Andrew, I love davidnevue.com … “The Gift” is my favorite. I love writing to his his music.

  2. Sherry Mondragon says:

    I did Nanowrimo a few years ago to learn to push through when stuck, to be okay with writing less than stellar prose (okay, absolute drek) in order to keep moving forward. The quality of Nano writing is uneven–some pages will sing and others will make you want to hide your head in shame, but they are written and now you have something to fiddle with until every page sings.

  3. Someone just suggested writing in a text-only software program so we aren’t distracted by toolbars and aren’t tempted to format or edit. Do any of you do that?

    • Hmm, that’s an interesting suggestion. It is not something I do, but I can see where that might be helpful. That said, most plain-text editors these days also have pretty busy toolbars.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      I would not want to do that myself, Kathy. It would add many busywork hours to getting a manuscript ready to submit. I find it takes less time to do it right the first time than to do it quick and sloppy and then have to fix all that.

  4. As a non-fiction guy, I am in awe of those who can spin up a good story and draw me into it. It is a gift I do not have. As such, I’ll not be a NaNoWriMo participant.
    Still, the advice above spans all genres. The toughest aspect for me is eliminating distractions. Like you, I recently plowed through King’s “On Writing,” remember nodding in agreement when he talked about having a special place to write that was free of distraction. Sadly, I cannot even be in the house with my beloved wife, because I want to get up and walk down the hall to where she is sitting with her crochet hooks.
    Coffee shops and libraries are out too. I don’t know how guys like Donald Miller do it. He writes in those places!! Are you kidding me? It’s like trying to write in the middle of the NYSE.
    So, I find the quietest place I can, away from my wife, no windows, that has power for my notebook computer, and let ‘er rip!

    • Interesting how different writers can be, Damon. I wrote my dissertation in coffee shops and on construction sites, and all of my ‘writerly’ writing has been done in a kennel, with the attendant barking and “I want to go for a walk, Dad!” and “She’s looking at me funny, GRRRR!”. Yes, even at 0300.
      * I don’t think I could write in a quiet place. It would be unsettling. I guess if you’re a hooligan by nature, you just need the milieu?

  5. Rachelle, the tips you offer are spot-on. The turning off the internet is the hardest part for me. I’ve had to re-establish this discipline during my writing time.
    *I LOVE fast-drafting my first drafts. If I know where my story is going, I can write it pretty quickly. It’s only when I don’t know where my story is going that I get stuck.
    *Sadly, I am not participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Sometimes I have my own NaNo in another month so I can get words down on the page.

  6. Lynn Horton says:

    Great and timely article Rachelle. Thank you for it. As my agent, you know that I’m writing the first draft of the second book in the series that you are so faithfully pitching. (Thank you.)

    * I do not participate in NaNoWriteMo because November is too busy with holiday responsibilities, both at home and in ministry. This is my favorite time of year, and I am immersed in festivities. That being written, my writing is my job, and I treat it as such. Ranchman the Superhero knows that and has come (finally) to respect it. Woe be to he who opens the office door unless the house is on fire.

    * I try to write at least seven straight hours a day five days a week. I take ten-minute breaks every hour for the treadmill and to do free weights. I use my view of the mountains to reconnect with God’s natural world; it refreshes my creative juices to glance up and watch the elk, or a hunter in blaze orange, or the crazy turkeys promenading across the meadow. I sometimes walk onto my office deck to stretch and breath. Unless it’s freaking-below freezing I always have an open window for fresh air.

    * The single most important thing I do is prepare by writing a thorough synopsis. The one I’m working off of now is 26 pages, single-spaced. I have found that if I work out the storyline and character arcs ahead of time I am free to let the story flow by using the synopsis as a skeletal guide. If my characters rebel and rabbit-trail, it’s easy to get right back on track with the synopsis. This very-developed-synopsis approach has expedited my writing ENORMOUSLY. I shoot for 8,000—10,000 words a day, or 50,000 in a work week. If I don’t meet my goals exactly every day, I’m okay with that. I usually end the week near my goal.

    * I always start my writing day by reading what I wrote the day before. This ensures continuity and eases my mind back into my story.

    * Once the first draft is finished I won’t touch it for a couple of weeks. It needs to rise on its own, like a good yeasty dough, before I return to it. Then I beat the wazoo out of it during the first edit and the really tedious work begins.

  7. I do fast-draft my works. But my fast-draft usually takes about three months or so. And I love starting with a synopsis, plotting the major points. Then I take the rest of the year to edit and revise. 🙂

  8. Hi Rachelle,

    Thanks for these tips. I wasn’t going to participate this year because I have so many family commitments in November. But a friend challenged me this morning, so I’m going to try. I’m sure I’ll make more progress than if I don’t try.

  9. Patti Stockdale says:

    Thanks for the helpful tips. Like so many others, I’m excited to start my new book on November 1!

  10. Carol Ashby says:

    Rachelle, I do agree that we shouldn’t get so bogged down in deep, careful editing while we are first writing a section that we lose track of where that writing is headed. There’s plenty of time to do the many slow, “perfecting” edits later.
    *Personally, I think a quick edit right after writing a section is a good thing. To get my manuscript to publishable quality, I reread and edit each section at least 10 times. The first is right after I’ve written it. Everything is very fresh in my mind, and that first read-through catches inconsistencies and typos I’ll need to fix anyway. It also helps me keeping glaring inconsistencies out of the next section I write.

  11. NaNo is such an amazing way to prove to yourself that you can get all those words down! And to force yourself to actually write instead of think about writing and worry about writing and wish you were actually writing. With such a tight deadline, there is nothing to do but just sit down and type and type quickly. Sadly, I just realized that I have 4 rough drafts of 4 different manuscripts that were all wonderful month long writing sprints and now need some attention. So I will be revising in Nov. instead of participating in NaNoWriMo. But there is also a positive. I have 4 rough drafts done! Yay! Now all I have to do is edit them … after I edit draft #17 of something else … ugh!

  12. Chrissy Drew says:

    It appears intimidating yet intoxicating. 50,000 words…yikes! I’ve never done NaNo before, so these tips are incredibly timely. Especially turning off the internet (unless researching), or searching for moral support…okay, maybe not. Got to pray about this…Thanks all.

  13. Lori Benton says:

    Never have I ever fast drafted a novel. I can’t even get my mind wrapped around the idea. Unless by fast drafting you mean taking less than year. I did do that once. But only just.

    • It’s so fun to read this, Lori, and to be reminded that we all have the process that works for us. 🙂

    • Lori, you must be very thorough as you go along. I love hearing this, too.

      • Lori Benton says:

        I’ve learned that rushing through it, I’m just skimming the surface. I do a lot of plotting, but I leave room for a lot of developing too, scene by scene. So sometimes it’s not until the third, fourth, or sixth pass over a scene that I dig deep enough to find the core thread of character development that’s going to hugely impact and inform the coming chapters. If I pressed ahead too recklessly just to get it done… I’d probably go spinning off the tracks and end in shambles. I have a very plodding brain. 🙂

  14. Angie Arndt says:

    – Turning off my self-editor is so difficult. I almost wish I had Stephen King’s little room under the stairs. But if I can have several hours first thing in the morning, I can crank out the word-count. And yes, if hubby didn’t help by running interference, it would never get finished.
    – My current manuscript was fast-drafted in 2015 and I’m preparing to fast-draft another one next month. NaNoWriMo is a great way to get it done.

  15. Thank you Rachelle for your tips, and thanks to everyone else’s comments because not only are they helpful, but I see we all have a way we work best.

    Here in Minnesota there have been free writing workshops on Saturdays from 10 to 12. It is a push to help writers prepare for for November’s writing challenge. I won’t be working on a new novel, but I will be increasing my output on a current project. Happy writing all!

  16. Kit Tosello says:

    Excellent pep talk! I’ve been sitting on 20,000 words for too long. Working on #3, because in any relationship expectations are everything. Thank you, Rachelle 🙂

  17. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    I work from a very detailed plot outline and plod through the story, but try to stay consistent with at least four pgs. a day. Also, I’ve frequently stayed up until the wee hrs. of the a.m. to get a project done. Love that sense of accomplishment when I’ve completed something, too.

  18. Kathy Cassel says:

    LOL. Good advise–unless it is last year’s project. That is exactly what I am working on right now. Not going to get it revised in time to even consider submitting in December though. I just sent my 2015 polished and critiqued manuscript to an editor. 60,000 word YA novel that went through several rewrites and revisions. A necessity for any nano project.

  19. I tend to be a slower writer because of my first draft self-editing habit (I’m improving, but note to self: KNOCK IT OFF!! :)) So, #1 on your list is brilliant, Rachelle. I’m not taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m already toying with the idea for next year. And in the meantime, I plan to apply your four points above to my normal writing life. Thank you!