Six Lessons From the First Draft

DraftNow that the frantic press to finish the first draft is over, it’s time to look back. What lessons did I learn from pushing through the draft of a novel in a month and a half? Here are six of those lessons.

  1. Plan ahead, This may apply more to me than to other people who might prefer to write by the seat of their pants, but I’m definitely a planner. I’ve detailed the 10-step planning process I went through as I was getting ready for this draft, and I followed through pretty much as I laid it out. These plans really helped me a lot. As I began each scene or chapter I would read through my notes about what it needed to accomplish and what little bits I had planned to include. That’s not to say that I stuck with the plan 100%, though! Some parts stretched out longer or compressed shorter than planned. Sometimes I rearranged how I achieved the goals I had established. There was flexibility, but with the plan I always had my eye on where I was going so I never lost my way. For me, this worked out best.
  2. Set public goals and deadlines. Working through Camp NaNoWriMo really helped me, since I was working in a cabin with other people who all knew what my goal was and could see what progress I was making. I had cleared the decks, told everyone I knew that I was writing a draft in July (which spilled into August), and determined that I would win Camp this year. And I did! Making things public like this kept me focused. I note that as soon as I finished the draft I kind of collapsed in terms of my writing (mostly because I really do need to get ready for classes that begin in a week and a half!). Without the public goals, I don’t have to do anything on the book right now, so I don’t. I’ll get back to it soon, though. I promise!
  3. Recycle. This is how I get around that constant reluctance to toss out things that I’ve written when they’re just not working. You know, the need to kill your darlings? But I really LIKE what I just wrote! And maybe it might work after all? What I do is keep a file called Deletions. Every time I cut something longer than a paragraph or two, I just move it whole into that file. It’s always there if I decide it will fit someplace else or I decide it was a mistake to cut it. This way, I’m not reluctant to remove something. And later, when I’m no longer in the heat of the moment and can look at the work as a hole, I gehnerally find it really isn’t missed. If I love it so much, I can always read it again in my Deletions file!
  4. Keep going. Even when it feels hard, even when it feels like you’re just squeezing out crap, keep going. I already wrote about this so I won’t go into it again here, but the determination to stay with it each day until you reach that day’s goal is crucial. There’s a bit of a law of inertia here. You miss one day – no big deal, right? But that makes it easier to miss the next day, which makes it even easier to miss the day after that, and then you’re so far behind you just throw your hands up and stop thinking about it. I wrote about this as well, back before I buckled down to the Camp NaNo grindstone.
  5. Leave yourself notes. I do my writing in Microsoft Word, and make extensive use of its comment feature so that I don’t get bogged down tweaking earlier parts of the draft or doing a lot of research in mid-draft. Say I’m in the middle of Chapter 5 and realize I didn’t set up something quite right back in Chapter 3. Rather than go back and start revising back there, I just find the spot in Chapter 3 that needs to change, highlight some words, and make a comment like “Show that Frank is left-handed.” I’ll fix it in the actual revision pass. Or suppose I need to know the distance a train travels from Paris to Moscow. Type a few asterisks, highlight them, and make a comment: “Paris-Moscow train distance?” Then KEEP GOING. It’s all about keeping going.
  6. Expect bad days. Sometimes the words come very hard. Sometimes they don’t seem to come at all. Sometimes you just hate what you’re writing. But don’t give up! Even when you feel like this, you need to keep going (see lesson 4 above). It’s probably an optical illusion from being too close to the work. What you wrote may seem fine when you look at it later in context, or may be fixable without much agony, but none of this would work if you didn’t get it down in the first place. I’ve written before about my favorite first-draft quote from Shannon Hale. There are others like it: “The first draft doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be written” and “You can’t edit a blank page.”  So don’t give up.

There you have it – my six lessons from writing a draft. Of course, your experience might be different. Tell me about it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

4 thoughts on “Six Lessons From the First Draft

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