Photo by Magdalena Roeseler

10 Tips to Start and Finish that 1st Draft

Writing a novel is a daunting task. The mere scope of it is enough to make most people choke, but with a little bit of planning, you can make the writing life a lot easier. Here is a collection of 10 tips that will assist you in successfully completing that vital first draft of your story.

One thing to keep in mind: these are not rules, just tips. There is no single best or correct way to write, and some of these tips might resonate more with you than others. That’s great! Use what makes sense to you.

1. Hatch the plot

First thing you’ll need is a story to tell. Chances are, that you already have an idea, but that you’re unsure whether or not it’s good enough to last the entire length of a novel. My advice would be to apply the good old what-if technique here. Jot down your basic idea, then examine it by supposing that characters and circumstances were different than you thought.

Explore how many different directions your plot could go in. Soon more and more ideas, twists and sub-plots will present themselves. That’s when you know, you’ve got a writeable story.

2. Understand your characters

Take your main characters and write up profiles for them. Short one-page bios about their backgrounds, their passions and dreams, their most embarrassing moments and regrets. Having this kind of information in advance will prove a goldmine later, when your characters are put into the action, and you need to figure out how they react. Don’t do it for every character. Pick the five or six most important ones. You can always write up extra bios later, if new and important characters present themselves.

3. It begins with the end

J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, has long said that she drafted the final chapter of the seven book saga very early in the process. This is a great idea, because it will give you a distinct goal to write towards. If you don’t want to actually write a chapter (personally, I think my stories flow better if I don’t write them in fragments), you should at least make a few notes on, how you want it all to end. Where will your main characters be, when it’s all over? What is the fallout from what happened?

4. Write out scene-cards

Try to identify what the main turning points in your story will be and write them down on index cards. Include a brief (2-3 lines) description of the scene along with a location and the names of characters present, if applicable. Don’t bother trying to get every scene onto a card, just the ones that are crucial for your story.

The idea is that when you’re actually writing, you’ll start with the opening scene, while having the card next to you as you write. When that scene is over, flip to the next card and write whatever you need to write, to get your characters to where that scene begins. There may be lots of scenes in between, but you’ll still know where you’re going, and it will give you a sense of accomplishment every time you get to move on to the next card in the stack. If you prefer to go all digital, check out Scrivener, a writing tool that lets you use virtual index cards (and many other things).

5. Don’t forget that this is a draft

Throughout the writing process, you have to remember that a first draft is just that. A draft. Your main concern should be to tell your story, plain and simple. Try not to be overly concerned about the more technical aspects of writing, such as dialogue or description, and concentrate on the flow of events instead.

Make sure your characters act like themselves and that the story progresses and eventually comes to its conclusion. And leave the details for the editing process. Practically no novels are written in one draft, but rather through many revisions and editing sessions. Don’t expect that your first draft will be any different.

6. Find your writing space

Some prefer to write in the comfort of their home, some like to stay after hours at the office. I like to write in coffee shops. Yes, I am one of those.

When deciding where to write, consider the following: Will you be able to relax there? Will you be able to concentrate? What I like about coffee shops is, that I have a clean table to start off with, I have someone to supply me with a steady stream of caffeine and I often use the other people in there as inspiration – when in need of a quick description for a character in your book, look at the person sitting next to you.

7. Get rid of distractions

Clear your desk of unopened mail, disable your internet when you write and make sure you had something to eat (but not too much). If you go out to write, leave your cellphone at home (or at least put it in Do Not Disturb mode).

If you stay at home, close the door and tell your room mate to stay out. When you write, eventually your mind will tell you, that this is hard and that other things might be more fun. I’ve found that putting yourself in a position, where distracting yourself requires an effort, you’ll end up getting more writing done.

8. Set daily goals and stick to them

Even if you don’t write every day, on the days when you do write, you should set yourself a goal. Promise yourself to write for exactly two hours or that you’ll write 2000 words that day. Don’t set it too high or you’ll end up not making it, but don’t make it too easy either.

The whole point is, that it will be a victory for you, when you get to the finish line. I used to say, that I’d write as much as I could, in the time it would take me to finish a cup of coffee, then take a ten minute break and do it all over again. But I’m a slow drinker, so that model might not work for you. It’s all about driving yourself and the story forward. Not writing, is the writer’s worst enemy.

9. Never stop at the end of a chapter

I’m not talking about when you’re getting ready to finish the entire novel here, but rather the individual writing sessions. If you leave off in the middle of something, you’ll be wanting to get back to it and finish the scene you were writing on.

Starting at the beginning of a new chapter or scene requires more effort, and will feel like a cold start every time. If you’re afraid to forget that brilliant surprise at the end of the scene you were writing, chances are that you’ll find time to write again sooner than you might otherwise do.

10. Keep it to yourself as you go

As soon as people hear that you’re writing a book, the first question will be: What’s it about? My advice is: Don’t tell them. There are two reasons for this.

First of all, there’s a tendency, that once you’ve verbalized your plot enough times, you’ll eventually start feeling like you’ve already told the story, and it will be a lot harder to do the manual work of actually writing it. The second reason is, that you now know that there are people out there, who are curious about your writing. That’s fantastic motivation for getting it done, so they can finally read it.

If you feel the need for feedback or critique, join a writing group or get an editor. Both are much better options than asking your friends and family, who are likely to give you positive feedback rather than constructive criticism while trying to be supportive and encouraging.

I hope you liked this list of tips, and that you’ll go write the most amazing thing! Have fun and good luck.

Originally published on Photo by Magdalena Roeseler.