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Some Tips for Getting Through Your First Draft

Let's talk about some things you don't need to stress over when you're working on the first draft of your novel. If you are an intuitive writer, aka you discover write more than you plan, it can be difficult to get through the first draft of your novel.

As an intuitive writer myself, I've learned some things that may be able to help you tackle your first draft whether you're new to writing or have been writing for a long time.

typewriter with a paper that reads write something to encourage writers to start their first draft

Regardless of what you personally choose to call it, the first round of putting your story down on paper (or screen) in full - is ground zero. It's the story unfolding for you the creative, not the editor that takes up residence in your head who's going to whip it into a book that makes sense and looks effortlessly written later on. It's certainly not for the reader you want it to reach when it's published. Not yet.

The first round is all for you.

It's all about telling the whole story to yourself so that you can uncover how you're going to tell it to your audience later. Getting out the first draft is HARD. Creating a story and world from scratch is HARD. It requires more thinking and brainstorming than you anticipated, and even writing fiction, you’ll find yourself worrying about what you have to research to get right. If it were anything else, there'd be more published authors and no one would say things to you over family dinner like, "Oh I'd write a book too if I had the free time."

Somehow, even knowing that no one is going to see the very first draft (unless you decide otherwise) doesn't seem to do very much to lessen the pressure that you may feel with writing the first draft.

Slice it however you want, but you can't escape the roller coaster of feelings that comes with having to write the first draft. It's the only way there's going to be a story to share with other people at all. I mean otherwise, it just lives in your head in spurts you might share with a writer friend over coffee now and again.

Despite how hard it is to create a story to share with the world, it's incredibly rewarding to be a writer and play with our imaginations on the page.

Though there's no advice that can tell you how to produce the book without actually sitting down to write the book (I have searched everywhere, I promise) I have instead decided to share some of my writing tips and "tricks" I lean on to get through the zero draft phase of a project.


The Opening Chapter

I simply don't worry about it. I don't stress if the first opening line or scene I think about is the "right" one, because I can open another file and brain-dump the next idea. I know, I know, the first chapter is where your reader is going to decide if they are going to keep reading or move on to the next book. But not really because your reader is never going to see this version of the opening chapter.

So, I'm advising you to ditch perfecting the opening chapter when you're drafting because I'm here to remind you that you're going to rewrite the chapter anyway. The opening chapter is always be the most edited chapter within the editing process, no matter how many revisions you make, and that's okay. That's exactly why you don't have to try and get it all right the first time.

Sometimes, you get stuck in the first chapters of the novel because you're trying to set the opening up perfectly, except you can't always do that until you know what you don't know. The only way to discover that is to move past the opening chapter.

If you find you often get stuck opening up the story "correctly", focus on writing only what you already know, even if it feels a bit like following a template, or like you're far removed from anything that resembles one, and instead allow yourself to learn more about your story as you go. Doing this is going to allow you to not only put down on paper everything you already know, but it's also giving you room to learn things about your story you can't predict or plan out. These details are usually the ones that fill in that something-is-missing feeling.

Also, did you know your mind can only consciously think about a certain amount of things before you need to kind of "empty" it to make room for other things to come forward?

Let the opening chapters be the best you can make them in the drafting phase, and remember, you'll be returning to the opening more than most other areas of your book to keep improving it anyway, don't use up all that creative energy on one area right now.

The drafting phase will always be you the writer telling the story to yourself. It's the first time you're taking all of the story out of your head and laying it out. I promise no one's opening chapters are clean right out the gate.

It's more important to have opening chapters to perfect later, than no chapters at all simply because you wanted to get it all right the first time.


Fuck That Outline (Respectfully)

Okay planners, hear me out.

This tip comes on the tail end of the one above. Even when you outline a full story all the way through, there are going to be things you can't account for and can only be figured out through writing and actually putting your characters through the trials. Sometimes, you outline a story and find that while writing it, it's not actually the best journey for your characters and things may have to alter from the plan down the line anyway.

That's okay!

Most of the time, your outline is what's going to help you keep going and keep you from getting stuck. Sometimes that same outline is going to be what's standing between you and your finished draft if you cling too tight to every single pre-planned detail.

It's important to let your outline be a guide for your creativity but not a barrier between it and your chosen canvas. You can update and change your outline as much as you want and you can follow it out of order if that helps -- but the key is that it's your tool, not a rule book.

Use it as you intended - to help you get through writing the book. Don't let it hold back other creative ideas that may come to you when writing. Anything you don't love can be removed, fixed, or updated later.


Change Methods

Sometimes, I can’t type as fast as I’m thinking, or I can’t get what I’m thinking out into coherent sentences. That’s when I know it’s time to consider other methods. This could be going back to pen on paper, typing on my phone instead of my computer, getting a change of scenery, or, my new favorite, dictation.

Mulling over an idea or a block out loud can help get the words on the page faster or help you make sense of all of the ideas happening at once. Voice notes are also great for getting ideas out without losing them. If you’re looking for ways to get more words in on the go, dictation through apps like Otter, which offers 300 free minutes per month, and leaving yourself voice notes can help you get thoughts and words out and may end up helping you solve plot or character issues at the same time.

Don't be afraid to change things up during the process to keep the creative flow going.


Skip It!

As creatives, and writers especially, it can be easy to get stuck in the middle of a good writing rhythm by the smallest thing like the name for a person place, or thing you made up, or not remembering the eye color or detail you gave a side character in the last chapter. Sometimes it's bigger things that trip us up like a line of dialogue you need, or a transitioning scene that makes everything mesh.

These things aren't unimportant, but they may not be the creative problems you can immediately solve at the moment. Instead of letting it stop your flow or your progress as a whole - SKIP IT!

It's okay to put smaller reminders to yourself in brackets, a different color, or in ALL CAPS so that you can come back to it later and keep your writing momentum flowing. Big or small, all things missed in the drafting phase will be taken care of in the editing process so it's okay to skip some things in order to get the story down.

The draft doesn't have to be perfect, so don't be afraid to skip chapters or scenes, or anything in between. There's no escaping reading through that draft when it's finished, everything can be filled in later.


Read in Adjacent Genres

Most writers tend to avoid reading in the genre they’re writing in for fear of accidentally stealing another author’s idea, though reading in genres that are adjacent to yours, with a critical lens, can help you recognize areas of your story you may need to work on, incorporate, or even remove.

So what do I mean by adjacent genres? For instance, if you’re writing a paranormal romance, you might read thrillers, horror, or suspense novels. These stories can help you think of ways you want to,

or don’t want to, convey suspense and tension without getting in the way of your unique development of the paranormal world.

The goal with adjacent reading is to pick the genre that’s going to help you learn how to strengthen your weaker writing areas and to pick stories you want to critique on a line level.


Word Count Goals? Ditch Them

If word count goals motivate you, that's great. Keep doing your thing. However, if word count goals have a way of making you feel like you've failed after a writing session, then they may not be for you, and that's okay.

Word count can be an important factor in many ways when it comes to writing but, they do not have to be as important in the drafting process.

Your word count goal is going to matter when you're looking for an editor within your budget, when you're formatting your book, and researching the book-length expectations for your genre. It's going to matter when you're booking your cover designer and have to give them a final page count.

Word count is going to factor in often during the revision and publishing process, it doesn't have to matter when you're drafting.

If you find that you set word count goals that feel too easy, you can up them in increments until you feel challenged. If word count goals overall make it hard for you to feel successful throughout the drafting process, stop using them.

Yes, they are popular.

Yes, they are part of the writing community when we talk with each other.

But 500 words for one writer can be the opening of a scene, while that same number is a full scene for another writer.

Other ways to measure your progress in drafting can be by how many scenes you've written, how much of the character you've uncovered, how many chapters or how much of a chapter you've written, how much time you spent working on your project, or even just how good you feel after your writing time.

Never feel the need to measure your progress in any way that doesn't make you feel good in the end. It's usually a sure sign that the way you measure progress doesn't work for you.


Don't Write Every Day.

Sitting down to write every day isn't for every writer and that's okay. The popular advice of writing every day is great advice in theory but it's far from a one size fits all suggestion.

In practice, it's not practical for most writers to find the time every day in their schedule to write. Not everyone can carve out an extra hour in the morning to get the words in before the day creeps in. Wanting to write every day, and actively being able to write every day are two different things.

While I've never met a writer who doesn't dream of being able to spend every day writing and crafting their worlds for their readers day in and day out -- I have met a whole lot of writers that can't make writing every day work for their schedules and feel like less of a writer because of it.

But here's the thing, writing every day doesn't work for everyone for a lot of reasons and that's okay. Instead, write every day that works for you, and don't beat yourself up about not writing every single day just because the most popular advice has a way of making you feel like less of a writer if you don't.

Whether you write every day for the rest of your life, write every day for a few weeks and take a break, or write whenever the mood strikes, you're no less of a writer and you can still get your story written and out there however you want -- and it's not dependent on you writing every day.

Write when you can and take breaks when you have to -- it's not the same, or comparable, to giving up on your story.


Go Back but Don’t Edit

The whole idea that you shouldn’t edit as you write doesn’t work for everyone and can be harder for you if you’re an intuitive writer because there will be details revealing themselves to you as you move through the story.

Going back and reading through what we’ve gotten down on the page is also great for getting through writer's block, finding your rhythm after a few days off, filling in the small details that have already come to you, and filling in those gaps left between scenes, or whatever else’s you’ve left behind.

The trick is to not fall into the trap of editing and overhauling everything before you’ve made it a significant way into your story. It’s always better to have more details on the page to work with than rely on yourself simply “remembering the idea or detail for later”. If you can't resist the urge to edit, do it in a separate document and keep a running list of changes you want to make later. This will help Future You with revisions and satisfy your current need to make the change (that you may realize later you didn't need to make).


Write the Fun Stuff First

There’s no rule that says you have to write in order. The same way you can skip details to come back to later, you can also skip to writing all the fun parts that excite you and feel clearer to you instead of dragging yourself through the muddy areas that make you feel like setting the story aside.

Remember: this is a draft you don't have to have all of the details and nitty-gritty down pact before you start writing a scene, or get the prose just write when describing a setting or character interaction.

In the same way, you can go back and fix the details and areas you skipped, you can write out of order and fill in the gaps later. Writing the parts that excite you first can help you get the momentum and inspiration rolling that you’ll need when it comes time to fill in the gaps.

Sometimes you can’t figure out what happens “before” or “after” because you need to get down everything you already know is happening “right now”.


Don’t Stress the Length

The length of your first draft should be as long or as short as you need it to be in order to get everything out. "Everything" is going to look different for every writer but, a good marker for “everything”

is when you feel like you’ve expressed every idea or detail of the story that you have in mind.

You don’t have to measure the length of your draft by the length of what’s “expected” within your genre (this number is the published expectation).

It’s also okay to plan for a novel and end up with a novella, or the opposite, or for the short story to become a novella and so on. Allow your story to be as long or short as it needs to be.


A Method for the Madness

It's normal to have hard days throughout the writing process where you begin to question why you even bother, or you feel like you can't remember what the point of your story is. It's for these kinds of moments that it's important to have a method to help you manage the madness.

This could look like journaling, which is my personal favorite, talking with a friend, or making a creative date with yourself to refill the well, or whatever it is that helps you feel grounded and calm again about your writing and the stage of the process you are in. having a plan for when the doubt and negative emotions start to take over will help you maintain focus on your project, keeping you from slipping into the temptation of giving up and never finishing the draft.


Trust Yourself

The most important part of getting through the first draft of your novel, no matter how experienced, is all about trusting yourself throughout the process. Trust that you have the full story within you and that you can get it out onto the page. Trust in your ability to improve over time and that your first draft isn't your final form.

Trust that you are a creative being with the ability to tell stories readers will love.

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