I’ve been a bit m.i.a. this past month for several reasons, but one of which is that I was working on completing the first draft of my novel. Having finally finished the dreaded first draft, I’ve realized several things that I did well and several more which I could have done better. Here are some of the biggest things that I wish someone had told me before starting. I hope these little pieces of advice are helpful!
DO outline, outline outline!
I’ve attempted to write novels in the past and one thing I did differently this time was create an in depth outline before starting to write, and let me tell you, it was so incredibly helpful!
I would say that anyone who is writing a novel should have a general idea of beginning, middle, and end before writing, however, if you want to take it a step further, a chapter by chapter outline can be extremely helpful. Knowing the key things that needed to happen in each chapter focused my writing and kept me on track. Creating an in-depth outline also helped me to get to know my characters better. I was able to focus less on figuring out nit picky plot elements and more on getting my characters to come to life on the page.
Even if you know you hate outlining, I highly recommend giving it a try. Not only does it make the writing process ten times easier, but it’s also a fun way to play around with different ideas for your story!
DON’T let that outline become law
While I’m all for outlines, remember to allow for deviation. Your outline shouldn’t be set in stone.
Sometimes your characters just have a mind of their own and that’s perfectly okay. Plots can change. Characters can change. Think of your outline as a helpful but highly flexible set of rules. As Emma Swan once said, “they’re more like guidelines anyways”.
DO keep pushing forward
Just keep swimming, just keep swimming! Seriously though, just keep writing.
Moving forward instead of looking back can be one of the most difficult parts about writing a first draft. I can’t count the number of times I had to tell myself to just keep writing.
There’s only one way to get to the finish line and that’s moving forwards, no matter how slowly. Even if you only write a single page, thats one more page of writing in your story that wasn’t there yesterday. Just keep pushing forward!
DON’T go back and edit
Resist the urge to go back and edit!
This was a huge thing for me. If you are anything like me then it is a near irresistible temptation to go back and edit previous chapters. While editing is great, the problem with this is that editing is moving you in the wrong direction, backwards instead of forwards. If I succumbed to the urge to edit I would have never finished my first draft.
If you have a problem with editing (like me), I recommend making this a hard rule. Do not go back and edit until you have finished writing the first draft.
DO set goals
Set goals. Personally I made it a goal to finish my first draft by the end of this summer, which I did!
Whether it is a daily, weekly, or monthly word count goal, let those goals motivate your writing. Goals don’t just have to be about word counts either. They can be something as simple as trying to get more varied vocabulary into your writing, or improving dialogue, or perhaps fleshing out a certain character more.
Goals can be a great way to maintain motivation in the long process that is writing a first draft.
DON’T kill yourself if you don’t reach every goal
Goals can be great and hitting those milestones can feel like the greatest thing in the world, but conversely failing to meet those goals can be crushing. Don’t kill yourself if you don’t reach a certain goal. We are all only human. Set another goal. Get back at it. Don’t let a failure be the end of your writing.
Failing is a hard but necessary part of life. Let yourself be disappointed then pick yourself up and get back to work.
DO stay accountable
I’m very private about my writing. I simultaneously hate and love having other people read my work. But even if you’re shy like me, I recommend telling at least one person your writing goals.
Telling people that you are trying to finish writing a novel by a certain point in time adds a sense of accountability that can help keep you motivated. If someone else knows about your goals then not completing them feels more monumental.
Plus, think how good it will feel to tell that person that you did it!
DON’T let outside pressures stress you out, writing shouldn’t be (too) stressful
While a certain level of accountability is helpful, at some point it becomes less productive and more inhibiting. Too much stress can lead to writer’s block and an inability to get words out on the page.
Fear of failure can be one of the most difficult things to overcome when writing that first draft. Don’t let that fear control you. Believing that you can do it is half the battle.
Writing shouldn’t be stressful. Okay sometimes it will be stressful no matter what, but writing shouldn’t be TOO stressful. Remember to have fun!
DO accept that this is a “first” draft and it will probably be bad, that is 100% okay
One of the things that you are going to have to accept when writing a first draft is that it won’t be perfect. If you are a perfectionist like me, this can be a difficult but necessary pill to swallow.
First drafts aren’t supposed to be brilliantly crafted complete manuscripts. That’s why they are “first” drafts, and not final products. As Jodi Picoult said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”.
DON’T give up because you are at an “I hate this, it’s awful” stage of writing
During the process of writing my first draft I had numerous moments of “I hate this” and “this is awful”. When you get hit by these feelings just keep pushing through. Nine out of ten times, I ended up liking what I thought was so horrible.
If you let these feelings overwhelm you, you’ll never finish that draft. Even if you really do end up hating a part of your novel, you can always go back and edit once the first draft is written. Keep in mind that this is not (yet) a polished product. Don’t give up!
DO use the idea of an amazing finished manuscript as motivation
A big motivator for me when writing my first draft was thinking of how amazing it would feel to have actually finished writing a novel. When I felt like writing another page was the hardest thing in the world I would remind myself of why I was doing it and what I was working towards.
If your novel is just for you, make a list of all the reasons why you want to write it. When you’re feeling unmotivated read through that list and remind yourself of all the reasons why you are doing this.
If publishing is your goal, which it is for me, keep that goal in mind. Thinking of your novel on a bookstore shelf can be an amazing motivator. While the road to publishing is a hard and uphill battle, just imagine the feeling when you finally reach the top of that mountain.
DON’T be so focused on the finish line you forget to enjoy the writing process
One of the best pieces of writing advice that I ever received was in my college fiction writing class. Our professor told us that the best thing we could do was “learn to enjoy the writing process”.
While having an end goal is great, if that is the only reason you write, you will find it extremely hard to be a productive author. You should enjoy writing. Seriously, writing is supposed to be FUN first and foremost. If it’s a chore then you are doing it wrong.
This summer I really tried to change my mindset when writing, working on enjoying the process of putting words onto a page and bringing characters, settings, and plots to life. My productivity was so much better for it and my attitude towards writing is no longer, “I should write this”, but, “I want to write this”. Enjoy the process!
I hope this was helpful for anyone who is thinking about writing or is in the midst of writing that first draft of a novel. Of course, these are things that worked for me and may not work for everyone else. Good luck to those brave individuals who take on the daunting task of writing a first draft. It’s an amazing accomplishment and I promise it will feel amazing when you finally get to that last sentence! Happy writing!