Writing a First Draft: Ten Top Tips for First-Time Novelists

If you have never written a full-length novel – whether that’s because you’ve only ever written fanfiction or short stories, or even because you’ve never written anything! – the prospect can be pretty daunting. Taking an idea from that first moment of inspiration to a fully-fledged First Draft can seem like a huge undertaking, which is probably why most of us have at least three or four nebulous sort-of-plots in the back of our minds at all time which never quite make it to the page.

A key part of my writing advice service can be helping authors get their first drafts into shape, so here is a brief breakdown of my top ten tips for writing your book. They might seem really obvious, but even if they are just common sense, sometimes it can be helpful to have a list in black and white to tick off!

Start by World-Building

If you’re anything like me as a writer, a lot of your ideas come out of little vignettes you see in your head: a conversation between two characters, a moment of emotion shared, a dramatic revelation. Sometimes these might even make it to the written stage, but the story never progresses beyond that. It’s good to get the scenes down as and when they occur to you – they function as inspiration for the book, examples of the atmosphere and tone you’re hoping to maintain. However, before you embark on the process of writing the rest of the book, make sure that you’ve spent lots of time thinking about the world you want to write about. If you start without having a good grasp on the details of your world, it’ll show – whatever the the genre.

Make a Book Outline

Before you start writing, it’ll make your life a lot easier if you can get a book outline written. You may end up deviating wildly from it, and it might be based on a very vague idea of the plot for now, but it’s such an important first step in figuring out the shape of your story. It’ll help out when you’re not sure what should happen next, when you’re working on the timeline, and when you’re working out whose perspective you want to write from and when. I have a post on how to make a book outline here.

Make Character Flashcards

Another suggestion before you begin writing is to make character ‘flashcards’: notes on all your main and supporting characters. These don’t need to be extensive or stories in their own right; use bullet points to note their appearance, backstory, aims, likes/dislikes, habits, accent, flaws, skills, and anything else that you will need to know as you write them. One of my favourite things to do here is to note down the arcs I want my characters to progress through in the course of the story: this can really help with keeping everything on track. For example, character A is very closed-off and unemotional due to trauma in her past; during the story, I want her to become more open and communicative as she learns to express her feelings without being rejected.

Plan Ahead for Writing Time

This one depends on what kind of person you are and how organised you need to be in order to get things done, but a good idea is to make some sort of plan or schedule for when you are going to write. A novel is not going to be finished in a week – it is going to take hours and hours of investment, and you can’t expect to just find those in your regular life unless you are lucky enough to be able to write full-time. (And even then I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to find a way to procrastinate.) Even if it’s just a case of setting aside a few hours a week, or pinpointing an hour or two during the day when you’re likely to be free and deciding you will use that time to write, it will help with actually beginning the process. If you wait for ‘the right moment’ to come along, chances are that you’ll be waiting forever.

Know yourself

It sounds silly and cliché, but being honest with yourself is a key part of getting your first draft written. Take some time to think about what motivates you and when you get your best writing done. Do you like to have a strict schedule? Make one. Do you crave deadlines? Set them (and tell your friends so you can’t back out!). Does pressure make you anxious and unproductive? Keep that in mind, and don’t set yourself targets you know you can’t realistically achieve. Do you work best in big chunks of time? Set them aside. Or do you prefer to do little and often? Plan for it. Do alarms on your phone help remind you to get stuff done? Set them. Do you like to work exhaustively on one project until it’s done, or switch from WIP to WIP to keep your ideas fresh? Remind yourself that it’s okay to work that way. We all have really different approaches to finishing work, and there is no one-size-fits-all advice that will be perfect for you – you need to figure it out for yourself.

Write When Motivation Hits

Setting aside time to write is all very well, but sometimes that inspiration just STRIKES. If you’re at all able to, take advantage of that when it happens! You can use various tools to help you if you have a busy day-to-day life: scraps of paper to scribble ideas on, apps to record your notes, even photos if they help jog your memory for when you do have time to write. Your writing is likely to be much fresher and flow better if you write when you’re motivated to, as opposed to forcing out a scene that you’re not especially interested in at the time.

Know What to Do When Motivation Is Lacking

More of that knowing yourself thing – plan ahead for those times when inspiration just isn’t happening. For some people, that’s taking a break from writing this book, or writing at all. This can make them feel refreshed and ready to go again when they do return to their novel, having given their mind a bit of a rest. For other writers, taking a break is the worst idea – it means their inspiration cools off completely and that project will never be finished. If you fall into that camp, the best idea is to just write anyway. Write rubbish, knowing it’s rubbish. Write hastily or sloppily and plan to scrap it, but write anyway. Going back over a scene you know you’re going to cut may help you figure out what was going wrong with it in the first place, and even if your first draft is full of weak sections, having a finished manuscript will make you feel more confident about spotting them and fixing them. I believe Brandon Sanderson has said that he uses this method before, which makes me confident it’s good advice!

Keep Notes!

The most important thing you can do is write everything that occurs to you about your novel. Whether it’s seemingly irrelevant details like what colour someone’s socks are, moments you want to include in the final draft like a specific conversation or joke, or the important world-building stuff like the basic tenets of a religion or how many days there are in a week, it’s important to make sure you keep them in one place that’s easy to access. Your notes might be really well-organised and neat, or they might be a complete mess (ahem – random Word documents full of seemingly unrelated bullet points, anyone?), but as long as they work for you it doesn’t matter. It’s also worth keeping these separate from your book outline, as they serve a slightly different purpose.

Allow for Change

Sticking too rigidly to any of the above points can lead to feeling stuck, so keep in mind that it’s okay to change things up! If one of your characters suddenly decides to do something completely different to what you expected, or a scene comes out entirely differently to how you had seen it in your head, or a sudden plot twist occurs to you, go ahead and embrace it. Don’t stick to your outline for the sake of it, especially if the book isn’t flowing well. Be open to more inspiration and for your own ideas to mature and develop as you put them into writing.

Have Faith in Yourself

One last cliché: you can do this!! Don’t give in to those doubts. You can and will finish your first draft, and determination is half the battle. It’s okay if you take ten years – what’s important is ensuring that you don’t give up and you keep up a pace that works for you. Before you know it, you’ll be editing your final draft and submitting it to agents!

Still stuck on your first draft, or looking for some more detailed and personalised advice? Feel free to get in touch and ask about my writing advice or copy-editing services. I’d love to help out! In the meantime, happy writing – may your pen never lack ink, and your laptop never run out of battery!

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