Monday, March 19, 2018

10 Tricks For Rocking Your First Draft

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

For several months now, my posts have been about get ready to write the first draft. Researching, brainstorming, character musing, identifying where to start the book, that kind of thing.

Most of the time, once I've gone through all these steps, I'm feeling ready to dive into my first draft. Occasionally, though, I have caught myself researching a bit longer than necessary, or doing something else to stall the actual writing piece of the process. Part of this, I feel, is my perfectionist tendencies. The story still feels perfect in my mind at this point, and I know it's about to become not-perfect, because first drafts never are.

Here are some techniques and mental tricks I've learned along the way that have helped me push through my first draft. I hope they'll help you too!

"All I'm doing is typing words into a document. That's not scary."

Some projects incite more fear in my heart than others. Like The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which was my first foray with a historical or a mystery.

When I'm feeling scared, I have to remind myself that I'm just typing. I'm not skydiving or publicly dancing, I'm just typing. 

Embrace Your Pace

I know there's a big push to write faster. Word sprints, word wars, #1k1hr, 5k-in-a-day events, NaNoWriMo, and all kinds of books about increasing your word count. 

There's nothing wrong with any of these. If word sprints work for you, great! Do them! If you find great tips from blog posts or books about how to write faster, that's wonderful. If you love participating in NaNoWriMo, definitely keep doing that.

But not all of us write fast, AND THAT'S OKAY. When Roseanna and I are on writing retreats, she "beats me" every day on word count. She just writes faster than I do. There's no right or wrong pace for a first draft. 

Write A Useful But Imperfect Draft

Writing "bad" first drafts is a topic I've covered a few times on Go Teen Writers, because it's part of my process. If you struggle with your internal editorthat voice that tells you the sentence isn't right and you should sit there until you figure it out ... or maybe just scrap the whole thing and start overthen I really encourage you to try this tactic. It works for lots of writers.

But it doesn't work for all writers. Here's one Roseanna wrote for us a few years ago about her process where she edits as she goes. Click here to read, "How To Edit As You Write Your First Draft."

Set Aside Time To Go Deep

Last year, I read Deep Work by Cal Newport and found it really helpful. We are so used to having multiple tabs open in our browsers, responding to notifications on our phones, or feeling like we need to be everywhere on social media. Even when we know that isn't true, it's easy to slip into bad habits because that's the way our world works.

Cal Newport says this about Deep Work and why it's important.

"Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way."

Reading Deep Work gave me the tools I needed to mentally prioritize writing or editing time. Jill Williamson also talked about it in her article, "10 Ways To Increase Your Productivity."

Separate Storytelling and Writing

I used to find myself frequently stalling out when writing scenes. I knew what was supposed to happen, but I would still just stare at the screen.

Eventually I found Rachel Aaron's 2k to 10k book (or here's the blog post that details her process.) One technique she talked about was how instead of diving into the scene, she instead began to write out a short description of what was going to happen for the scene. Just taking five-ish minutes to do this seemed to unlock the right words for her.

This is now a regular part of my process, because I found it works well for me too! K.M. Weiland has talked on her blog about how writing and storytelling are actually two different skills, and I think that's why this works. Since I've thought through the storytelling piece, I'm now free to concentrate on finding the right words.

Discover the best balance of structure and freedom for you.

Something else that has greatly improved my first drafts is understanding more about story structure. Some writers work best with very detailed outlines, and others with no outline at all. Most fall somewhere in-between.

Finding the balance that's best for you will take time and practice, but understanding story structure basics can really help you to build stronger first drafts.

Consistency Matters

I wrote about this last year in my post Three Rules For Creating Art That Matters. You aren't always going to feel like sitting down and writing, but if you want to get through your first draft, it's really important to push yourself in this area. Maybe writing every day isn't for you, but try to write as consistently as you can.

Keep your door closed

In On Writing, Stephen King says, "If you're a beginner ... let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open."

I am SO in favor of this. I write best when I know that nobody is going to see it before I've had the chance to clean it up. I've talked about that in my post, "Writing Advice Examined: Should You Write Like No One Is Watching?"

Reward yourself

Writing a novel is a long process. And unless you're writing it for a class, no one else is really paying attention to what you're doing. No one is going to make you write or tell you "good job!" when you found just the right hook for that chapter ending.

You know who is responsible for "keeping up morale" as you get through the novel? YOU! You are your own boss. You must find whatever carrots you can hang in front of you to get yourself to The End. Find rewards for small things, like finishing another chapter, as well as big things, like finishing your first draft.

Stop reading this and go write.

Seriously. That book isn't going to write itself. Get off-line and go write. Don't even procrastinate by leaving a comment, just go!


  1. THIS. Is so HELPFUL.

    With Camp NaNo coming up and me attempting my first-ever full sequel (YIKES), I'm going to need this. I have very little time as a high school student, so what I do have is precious. And this will help me SO HECKIN' MUCH. Thank you! <3

    Faith/Florid Sword

    1. Viewing your time as "precious" is huge toward being productive. Sequels are their own beasts, and we are here to help you along the way!

  2. Sometimes I open my word document to my messy first draft and think, "Am I really doing this?!" first drafts always stress me out, so thank you for this! Very encouraging. <3

    -Gray Marie |

    1. I'm so glad this post encouraged you, Gray! First drafts feel stressful to me too at times.

  3. This is awesome!! While I'm not exactly in first draft mode right now, I'm about to get back into it during Camp NaNo. I'll have to make sure I remind myself of these pointers while I'm working!

  4. My first draft was pretty much do what you feel like today, and then go on and edit. I think since I'm a discovery writer, that's almost the only thing I could have done at that point (because I was 14), but this is really helpful to keep in mind for those lovely books that still need to be written...

  5. Thank you! I needed this as a reminder.

    My pace is so slow at the moment. And sometimes it is so frustrating! But it's the season in my (our family's) life right now, so I have to accept it. At the same time I try to be consistent. 10 minutes a day, almost every day, is better than sometimes an hour :)