Starting Your First Draft

Having worked really hard on outlining his novel last week, Morgan felt more than ready to start writing.

In the past he has started a manuscript, only to lose impetus in the middle. He is determined not to repeat this pattern, so he has spent the week investigating writing methods, motivational tips and tools to keep him on track.

I’ll hand you over to him to explain.

Morgan

I’ve been busy again this week.

I thought, with the outline completed, the writing part would be plain sailing but, sitting in front of a blank page on Saturday morning, I realised there was more work to do.

So, I’ve spent the week looking into various writing tools and techniques which might help me stay on track during the writing process.

I can’t write your novel for you – in fact, I’m not sure at this stage whether I can write my own – but I hope this blog will give you some ideas on staying focused.

Ways To Stay on Track

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I guess there are almost as many methods of writing as there are authors.

Which of these approaches you will end up using will, no doubt, be down to personal preference and to trial an error. Any approach that helps you to begin, is a winner. What will make it a champion is if it gets you past those doldrums in the middle – which is where I got stuck in the past – all the way to the finish line.

Here are a few of the better-known methods that looked promising to me at the beginning of the week.

Linear First Draft

This method consists of writing your story from the very beginning and continue until the very end.

Remember, this is just for drafting purposes, the beginning of the story is very often not the point at which the novel begins. Writers often choose an important action scene to hook their reader and then fill in the backstory as they go along.

In this method, we ignore the starting point and simply write from the very beginning, get it all down on paper, and then worry about ordering the scenes and fitting the story together in an exciting way, at a later date.

Jigsaw Method

In this method, you just write the scenes you already have clear in your mind and as you write those, other scenes will (should) come to you as you write.

The truth is, you will definitely have some of your scenes and characters far more developed in your head or in your outline than other scenes and characters.

If you are not a particularly linear person, this method of chucking the information down on paper might work for you. Later, we will look at some tools which will help you to store and move these scenes around in your story.

 Different Sessions

This method is to have different sessions for different activities.

For example, I’m much more creative in the morning so it would be pure madness for me to be editing anything at that time. However, in the afternoon and evening, my inspiration is much more sluggish and so it might be worth me doing something like researching/checking facts or editing and revising at that time of day.

Doing different things at different times may also help you stay motivated when you are sick of writing about snarky Gabby and her high-handed ex.

Perfectionist Method

This method certainly isn’t for everyone. It is aimed at people who are motivated and gain inspiration from drafting and redrafting. Say, I’m writing a chapter about a dinner at Gabby’s dad’s house, by going through it over and over with a fine tooth comb I might, eventually, if I polished it into a bright lustre, be able to visualise a scene between Gabby and one of her half-siblings.

It is a risky choice because many people when they start editing, get so stuck in editing mode that they lose all creativity or become obsessed with finding that perfect description of Lady Helen’s hair and are literally unable to move forward with the story until they do.

 Incubation-ists

There are some people who are able to visualise every second and every detail of a scene in their heads. They will ruminate and develop that scene, right there in their little grey cells, without putting pen to paper. It is only once they have it all right in their heads that they feel the need to put it down in black and white.

In the Outline blog, I decided to use the linear first draft method, since this is my first novel and I suggested you do the same. The key to this is to go all the way through in one draft without doing any editing at all.

If you want to know more about these methods I’d recommend LitHub’s article on the subject here.

What these methods lack is any system of goal setting so I’ll now take the opportunity to talk about motivation from the point of view of goals, rewards and consequences.

Goals, Rewards and Consequences – How to stay motivated

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Writing a book takes willpower.

But willpower will only get you so far so I, for one, need to find techniques to encourage or penalise myself for good or bad behaviour. Sound harsh – well, once you’ve stalled part way through a novel, you’ll understand that you are going to have to be harsh on yourself if you want to succeed.

Here are a few ideas which might help you to stay motivated when the going gets tough.

Setting Goals

The very first thing you need to do at the ‘first draft’ stage is set yourself some goals. For example, if your outline suggests your novel is going to be around 70,000 words long, you will need to decide on a target number of words you want to write each day, week or month, in order to achieve this word count.

I really think you need to be aiming to write the entire first draft in two or three months, as a maximum. In my experience, motivation comes in small, time-sensitive, packages.

If you are aiming for 70,000 words in two months, you could aim for 1,200 words a day or 8,000 words a week. If like me, you work on weekdays, you could aim for 500 words a day from Monday to Friday and 3,000 words a day on Saturday and Sunday.

Whatever system suits you is fine, but make sure you are clear on your goals, and that there is no wriggle room or space for negotiation.

Intention-ing

I’m not 100% sure this is a word but I think you’ll get my gist when I explain.

Every morning, before you do anything else – except pee, always pee if you need to – you should tell yourself you are a novelist. Then you should set your intentions for your first draft. I will have written my first draft in two months.

If you are a visualiser – I’m not a visualiser – you can then imagine yourself sitting in a peaceful or inspirational place to write. More about your writing place in a minute.

Time and Place

Okay, so you are planning on writing 1,200 words per day for two months.

But where are you going to do this writing, and on what? In the next section, I’ll discuss some of the writing tools you could use to help you stay focused and structure your work, but for now, you should decide whether you want to write in a pad with a pen, on a laptop or computer, or even on a tablet or phone.

This decision may influence further decisions, such as where and when are you going to write?

If you are going to use a pc or mac, you will have to write where it is located and at a time it is free – from teenagers doing their homework or husbands working from home, for instance. If you are using a notepad, laptop, tablet or phone you are free to choose a location.

For most people, the best location is a place which has some or all of the following:-

  • Peaceful atmosphere.
  • Inspirational beauty.
  • Plenty of provisions – think coffee and cake.
  • No distractions – turn off the phone and disconnect from the Internet.
  • A way to connect with your muse – suits the scene you are writing.
  • Physically comfortable.

Although many of us need to be alone to write, there is another group – the writing extroverts – who feel energised by writing in the company of others.

I would encourage you to try writing in a coffee shop or similar people-y location or to join a Meetup or local writers group to see if this is something you would find inspiring.

Choosing the time you write, may well be influenced by your location needs. For instance, if you want to write in a coffee shop, you won’t be able to do that during their busiest periods or late at night. If you like to write looking out of your living room window, it might be best to avoid early evening when your husband is watching the evening news. You get the gist.

As I said, I feel fresh, revitalised and creative in the morning. I have all my good ideas for new scenes before midday, so where possible, I have scheduled my writing times early in the morning.

Make Yourself Accountable

Isn’t it strange that people cheat, even when they are only cheating themselves? Here’s a tiny example.

I set myself a target to write 10,000 words in the first week of July. Yesterday was 7th July and at 7pm I had written 9,873 words. I was hot, tired and frustrated. So what did I do? I yawned, stretched, put down my laptop and then called across to the nearest, disinterested, adult –  “mission accomplished!”.

It wasn’t exactly a lie. I had almost reached 10,000 words – but it wasn’t the truth either. I was robbing myself, not only of 127 words but of the genuine satisfaction one gets from achieving something difficult. In the long term I am also devaluing my targets and, by making it okay to miss this small one, I am setting an unfortunate trend.

So, how do I make myself accountable? There are many ways. Here is a few:-

  • Make a writing buddy and find ways to encourage one another.
  • Join a writing group and share goals and targets.
  • Join NANOWRIMO.
  • Set consequences for failure – this has its own section.
  • Set rewards for success – again, this is so important it has its own section.
  • Set a timer and write. When the timer goes off, take a break then set the timer again and again until you have hit the day’s target.
  • Phone your best friend when you begin writing, and call her again to tell her when you’ve finished. This only works if you never lie to your best friend.

Consequences

Consequences can be good or bad, but in this context, I’m thinking of negative consequences for not hitting your goals.

The Internet is full of ideas for consequences, some more tortuous than others. The idea of escalating consequences is a good one – so, set a minor consequence for the first infraction (missed goal), a slightly more onerous one for the second and something truly catastrophic for the third.

Make the one for the third something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Here are mine:-

First infraction – delete candy crush from my phone until I’ve caught up.

Second infraction – no Netflix until I’ve caught up.

Third infraction – spring clean my wardrobe using the ‘Kon-Mari’ method.

Rewards

Consequences are horrible as they should be.

But rewards are delightful and, if used right, are something which will really incentivise your writing. Examples of small rewards I give myself are: –

  1. Play with the puppies.
  2. Buy myself a yummy speciality coffee from my local coffee shop.
  3. Treat myself to a healthy snack (don’t even consider getting fat and unhealthy for your art!)
  4. Get a facial – but only for a big goal. otherwise, this writing thing is going to get expensive.

Writers’ Software Tools

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There are a ton of tools you can use to help you remain focused and to structure your novel. I’m going to give you a brief rundown on some of the best and leave you to decide for yourself which you want to try.

I’ll put an asterisk next to the ones I really think you should try.

I’m using Scrivener for Gabby – that’s the working title for my novel although I’m sure that will change when inspiration strikes. I know Jobie is using it for her Writing Your First Novel project too.

Microsoft Word – if you already have Microsoft Word, you may know you can use some of the more advanced tools, such as headers, to easily order and navigate around your manuscript chapters. The spell check and grammar checking functions can also provide a useful tool to get your manuscript into a publishable condition.

Google Docs – this is really is a more streamlined version of Word, which you edit online. It is great if you want to see previous drafts and versions as it keeps track of all that for you within the one document. You can also share your document with others easily and use it anywhere without the need to forward or take a USB.

*Grammarly – everyone should use Grammarly to pick up spelling, punctuation and grammar errors in their writing.

*The Hemmingway App – this may not be the time to talk about editing but Hemmingway is an invaluable tool when editing. It picks up grammar issues but it also gives additional information on sentence complexity etc, which helps to focus your editing effort.

*Evernote – is a useful note-taking app which can help you keep track of ideas you have when you are out and about.

yWriter – is a free word processor package which is specifically aimed at writers. It helps you organise your project into chapters and has space for notes, characters, POV, scenes, etc.

Dabble – is another paid app, and it is more expensive than the others. It aims to help you write, plot, character and world building. Like the other text editors, Dabble has a free trial, so give it a go and see if you like it.

Focus Writer – this is an app which attempts to eliminate distractions. It is a simple text editor with daily goal setting.

Ulysses – this is paid software ($40 per year at the time of writing) but you can take a 14-day free trial. It is a ‘no distraction’ clean text editor which has some cool features to help write, edit and export/complete your work.

*Scrivener – was created for writers and has templates for fiction, non-fiction and other manuscripts. Scrivener allows you to organise your project into parts, chapters and scenes.

With Scrivener, you have all the outlining and plotting tools you could possibly need including templates for character development and for settings, plus you can create any template of your own. The functionality is amazing, with areas for ideas, notes, research and references. You can attach pictures, chapter summaries, keywords, footnotes, comments, snapshots and much more. You can compile your work into epub files, Kindle files, word documents and pdf.

Scrivener gives you a 30-day free trial and I would definitely recommend that you sign up for that. It is a paid app but at the time of writing the cost for windows was only $45.

Freedom – this app helps you in your productivity by blocking selected websites and apps during your scheduled writing session. For example, I can block Facebook for my three hour Monday morning writing session. Give it a try and see if you like it.

Writing Tips For Your First Draft

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I’m finishing this chapter with a checklist of ideas for getting started on the actual writing of your first draft but also some pointers for if you get stuck.

  • Switch off your phone and the Internet or use the Freedom app to help you stay distraction free.
  • Find your chapter outline each time you sit down to write, and re-read what you last wrote. This will help you to get started.
  • When I sit down, I picture the narrator in my head and each of the characters who are in that scene. I picture the location and I imagine the weather, the atmosphere etc. Then I just write.
  • Don’t keep going back and polishing the first two chapters, it may be soothing but it isn’t getting a first draft.
  • Write something every day until it is done.
  • Write CHECK in the text if you need to look something up. That way you can keep writing and come back to do the check later, without getting in the way of your creative flow now.
  • If you have an idea for another scene but you still have some words to write for the day, write down a note on the new idea and keep writing.
  • If you can’t weave in the backstory, character development or world building/setting in at this stage, you can come back and do that. You could put a note WB or BS or CD to indicate places where you feel you could drop this information in when you need to. Don’t let wracking your brain for this stuff get in the way of your flow.
  • The quality of your first draft is going to be terrible. Accept that and just write it anyway. Almost everyone’s writing is terrible in the first draft. It doesn’t mean YOU are terrible, and remember, no-one but you is going to see your first draft. Stop worrying.
  • You will likely write three or more drafts. First draft – skeleton, second draft, adding backstory, world building etc. Third draft, polishing, rewriting, cutting, revising etc.
  • Even though we said we were going to write from beginning to end, if you really can’t write the next scene, put a note in the text and skip to another scene you feel able to write/connected with. It is better to write something than nothing at all.
  • If in doubt, leave the editing for another day!

 

Hopefully, this blog will help you to begin to write your first draft.

Remember, set your targets, find ways of being accountable, use the best writing software tools, then start at the beginning and keep writing until you reach the end.

The next blog looks at what is known as writer’s craft. Don’t forget to subscribe so you will know when it’s available.

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