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How I write the first draft of a novel

Updated on September 28, 2010

Is this expression familiar to you?

Sometimes, when you're right at the beginning of a draft, or even in the middle, or just as possibly at the end, it can feel as though this expression is the one you are permanently displaying.  This need not be the case.
Sometimes, when you're right at the beginning of a draft, or even in the middle, or just as possibly at the end, it can feel as though this expression is the one you are permanently displaying. This need not be the case.

It's not all 'woe is me, I'm so useless'...

Now, I'm not pretending to be an expert here or anything. I've only been writing for a relatively short period of time myself, so you can take my witterings with a pinch of salt, chuck them over your shoulder for luck, or do what you want with them. But I was thinking that it might be nice to let other novice novelists know that they're not alone in feeling useless. I have come to realise very quickly - as I'm sure we all do - that writing is not at all as easy as one might initially imagine. There are lots of reasons for this: isolation, lack of ideas, lack of motivation, tiredness, not being in the right mood, downright laziness. I am absolutely positive that I will write more about those negative areas of creating a masterpiece from time to time when they happen to plague me. But for today I thought I would concentrate on something more positive.

GETTING IT DONE

How do you do it?

There are, of course, many, many ways of writing a first draft. There are probably as many ways of writing a first draft as there are people in the world. In fact there are probably more ways of writing a first draft than there are stars in the sky. Actually, there are probably only about four ways of writing a first draft ... that I can think of ... off the top of my head. Erm, one, two ... three, and ... erm ... yes, four.

Now, let's just all be honest with each other from now on. And most importantly of all, let's be honest with ourselves. Are we serious about writing our respective novels or not? Of course we are. So what we have to do is stop wimpering about how hard it is, and how lonely it gets, and all that. Let's decide which method of banging out that first draft we're going to use, so that we can desist with the first facial expression I have shown, and perhaps move on to using something more akin to the one I have included at the bottom of this article.  Let's see if we can find a way of writing that brings us only happiness!

Writing it out perfectly from start to finish, and not even needing any editing

If you think that you can write a novel using this method then you are horribly mistaken. I don't think there's a writer in the world who can sit down and start at the beginning, write a few hundred pages of perfect prose, get to the end without doing any editing and be perfectly happy with the finished piece. This should go without saying, but I remember at the start of my first novel (which still is not finished, I said I'd be honest with you!) thinking that I could get the whole thing written in a few months and have it ready to submit to my chosen publisher who would snap it up without hesitation. What an idiot was I? But when we get a good idea we have these little dreams about our original and thrilling story being a breeze to write. No. It won't happen. Proper work has to be done. You're not doing this just for fun, you know?! This is serious! Take it seriously! Your first draft will probably be just awful; that's just how it is.

Writing it all down as quickly as possible

This is the way I've chosen to do it with the novel I'm working on now, my second one - yes, even though I haven't yet finished the first one: I like to make things confusing for myself. I have no idea if this is the 'right' way to do things, but it is the way I started writing it, and it seemed silly to change things half way through. I can recommend this method, of writing down absolutely anything that pops into your head that might be related to the story, because it's quick and easy. (Yes, I know that I just said that writing is hard work, but sometimes I tell lies.) I began by writing down some ideas for scenes in the book, not having any real idea where they might go in the running order. As I wrote, and wrote, and wrote (really, it was very liberating to just write down any old rubbish, without stopping to think about syntax or sense) I started to find some structure, and as I wrote some more I started to notice some chapters forming. The writing is absolutely appalling, apart from the odd bit of genius that drops in now and again. I wouldn't show any of this writing to a soul, it really is truly awful. But the thing is, it still feels like I'm achieving something. I have drafted twenty-five chapters, and have firm ideas for the final six. The first draft has taken hardly any time to write at all this way.

The downside is not a downside for me, but this is the rub. It will be a downside for lots of people. I love editing and reworking and redrafting, but I think I may be right in saying that most people do not. Most people probably think of editing as the hard work bit of writing, after the glee-filled play time that is first-drafting. But to me editing and getting the second draft underway is incredibly thrilling. Of course, I know nothing, because I'm not published yet!

Writing and perfecting one chapter at a time

This is the way I started to write my first novel. Warning: this is a very long-winded way of doing it, but it can be very inspiring.

I started writing my first novel properly when I was taking part in an online creative writing course, and my tutor told me to submit a first draft of my first chapter for critiquing by my fellow students. That was fine. It was quite well received, and there was some very useful and constructive criticism. The second task was to use the criticism to redraft this first chapter. And the third task was to redraft once more. The piece became very polished, and as far as I was concerned absolutely perfect. I was very pleased with it. But it depends what's important to you really. Some of my fellow students did not like this way of working at all, because they began to feel that they were making changes based on comments from their readers regardless of whether or not they agreed with those comments. If you respond to every little nit-picky bit of criticism by changing the section in question, and if you believe that everyone who reads your work has a more valid opinion than you then you might start to find that your work is no longer your own. Your piece of writing may start to become unrecognisable to you, and the idea you initially had may get lost. So although criticism can be very valuable, you only have to take it on board if you want to - if you think the critical comments are incorrect then you can choose to disregard them. It's your work, no-one else's.

I didn't choose to change very much based on comments from my fellow students. I did take some comments on board, and certain mistakes were highlighted to me that I would not have noticed myself. But the redrafting mainly came from new ideas that I had myself, improvements that I had thought of almost as soon as I had submitted the piece. If you're not too precious about your work it can be very easy to see the flaws in it - though, of course, you will never be as critical and/or objective as your editor (I'm assuming; what do I know though, I don't have an editor!). It was very useful to have redrafting as an assignment, because it meant that I got to experience that process sooner than I might have expected. Polishing, honing, refining (don't you just love a thesaurus?!), and finding out what an excellent piece of writing you can produce is very exciting. It is for me anyway.

But here's another rub: this way of working takes forever. I worked on my first novel for about a year and a half, and I completed (to a state of near perfection) only four chapters! Granted, I didn't have many hours available in a week, and I have more now. But to take eighteen months to write four chapters is rather disheartening. Now, this could just be me, because I am an excellent procrastinator. You could choose to work on one chapter at a time, and rework and rework until you're happy with it, and you could have a novel written in a few months. All I can say is, it's worth a try with a chapter or two. You might like it. It might help you to feel inspired. That's what's good about this method - you can see how good you can be, and you can be spurred on to create more perfect chapters, one... word... at... a... time.... As you can see, I haven't used this method with this hub - it's quite obviously been written right off the top of my head.

The fourth method

I don't actually have a fourth method to talk about. I did just make up that bit about four methods, because I thought it was a little bit humorous. If you know of more methods please do tell us about them in a comment. I'm sure there are lots of more seasoned and experienced readers out there in Hubland who will have innumerable stories about what works for them, and what definitely doesn't. Please share you worldly wisdom.

I hope, in the distant future, to be able to rewrite this hub myself, when I've had a few novels published and do actually have more of an idea of what I'm talking about. That's all for now folks.

Perhaps you would enjoy trying this kind of expression on for size?

You too can achieve this slightly nutty expression, despite not having yet completed a full and exceptional draft of your first novel.  Enjoy yourself.
You too can achieve this slightly nutty expression, despite not having yet completed a full and exceptional draft of your first novel. Enjoy yourself.

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    • attemptedhumour profile image

      attemptedhumour 6 years ago from Australia

      Well i thought that was a very entertaining hub, but, and you just knew there was going to be one, didn't you? I think your hub was fine for me but too long for ordinary hubbers without my stamina and nuttiness to slog through to the end. I shouldn't say slog because that's negative and there's nothing negative about your writing in my eyes, except the fact that I'm the only person so far who has discovered a rambling genius worth reading. So ramble by all means but in shorter, just as entertaining hubs and more readers will appreciate you. Cheers from an Aussie fan.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Hmm. Thanks for that 'attemptedhumour'. I've been wondering about the size of hubs myself. I was thinking that my previous ones were way too short, and thought that that was perhaps why they weren't getting many readers. I didn't try to make this one longer though - it just came out this way, lol.

      I don't know; a lot of the hubs I've been reading are even longer than mine, so it's difficult to gauge a good length for a hub. But I'll take what you said on board, and try to write a quick succession of shorter ones (if I can get my lazy bum in gear and get off the couch!) and see if that works any better.

      Did you just call me a genius?! Well, thank you very much. I'll get on over and read some of your work soon.

      Thanks aplenty.

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      Your first two methods work! Those come with a stamp of approval from Wodehouse who is my favorite writer and guru. He also recommended writing down a scenario, that is, just writing important scenes first, letting unimportant stuff recede offstage and, after the entire novel is broken down to scenes, build up the actual first draft.

      Voting this hub up! :))

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Thank you Kenny :) I will add Wodehouse (and you) to my reading list! I like the idea of writing the important scenes first - I can see that's it's probably useful to just get down what's in your head right off, and to have it there on a page to deal with. That's what I've started to do towards the end of my current project - when I've been getting stuck on certain scenes that are not too important right now, I've been putting them aside and getting on with the next big section of the story. It's working well for me so far.

    • mquee profile image

      mquee 6 years ago from Columbia, SC

      Very good hub in which you catch a lot of frustrations experienced by other writers. I have tried several methods of putting down stories or articles. One thing that jumps out and that you are absolutely right about is the fact that it is an impossibility to write a perfect first draft.

      My biggest problem is research. How much is too much. I research my topics for weeks at times, just for an article of 700 words or so, but wonder how much is too much.

      A very good hub, thanks for sharing.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Ah, mquee - I'll hub about that one too at some point - how much research to do. I did way too much research for my fairy story, and really I was only putting off the writing of it. Perhaps it's best to research and write a little at the same time. I'm not sure - I'll explore that some more :) And there are definitely times when I don't research enough and have to stop the writing to catch up with myself, so to speak.

      Thanks for your comment :)

    • profile image

      Why? 6 years ago

      Another way I have learned to write a novel isn't even to write at all. Well that's a lie... not totally. I like to come up with my subject / topic and then flesh out chapters /chapter titles. Once that is done and organized logically, I take the 1st chapter and record my voices ramblings for an hour or so. I repeat this for each chapter and then transcribe the audio into text and go from there... My problem is my mind thinks faster than i can type... so an voice recorder is a good writers aid...

    • mquee profile image

      mquee 6 years ago from Columbia, SC

      You are absolutely right, researching can be an excuse for not writing. I am looking forward to reading your hub regarding this.

      @Why, I am curious as to how long you have been writing. It seems to me that your method is a great one, but for someone advanced or very experienced.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      That does sound like a great method @Why?. Personally, I like taking time with writing my ideas and scenes down longhand, because that allows me good thinking time alongside writing. But I've often thought that it would be a good idea to get some kind of decent voice recorder for times when it's just not possible to spent time writing, and when I really need to get an idea down before I lose it. Hmm, useful, thanks.

    • kookoo88 profile image

      kookoo88 6 years ago from Cripple Creek

      Excellent hub. :) I tried a few times in different ways. Finally, I realized that if I tried to go back and edit before I was finished, I stopped writing. I finally finished my first novel when I started and just kept going until I was done with the first draft. It's taken 3 edits to get it where I want it, but getting that first draft was the key for me.

      Good luck and stay strong! :)

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Thanks kookoo. That's exactly what I've been finding - editing prevents writing. Just getting on with it has proved much more successful in terms of producing a finished draft to work with.

      Are you having any success with your novel?

      Good luck to you also :)

    • Peter Allison profile image

      Peter Allison 6 years ago from Alameda, CA

      Nice hub! One technique I've used (well, the only technique I've used as I only have one finished novel to my name) is outlining the story very roughly, then going in and filling it in with free-form writing using the outline points as "starters". Of course the outline gets blown to bits but it sort of anchors me in a way that keeps me coming back to writing. I think it's important to write everyday, where ever you can - public transportation is a great place to crank out ideas.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      That sounds like a very sound way of working to me. It makes sense to keep yourself tethered to some kind outline, even if you do move well away from it. At least you still have some sense of direction. And I guess it must work well if you have finished a novel! Well done. Have you had any success with your finished piece?

      And I agree, writing every day is essential, if you want to keep improving.

      Thanks for commenting :)

    • rachellrobinson profile image

      rachellrobinson 6 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      I can start and finish a whole novel, I can't edit it and rewrite it, I have six finished novels that will never see the light of day because they are only first drafts.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Rachel, that's a wonderful achievement. Could you not perhaps find someone to work with who could help you edit? Or might it be worth a try to send your work to a publisher and see if they like the bones of it? That's what they have editors for, isn't it? It would be a shame to leave your work gathering dust in a drawer when it could be out there, being enjoyed by lots of people.

      Good luck with your writing though :)

    • Word Wise profile image

      Word Wise 6 years ago

      Enjoyed the mix of personal experience, humor, and pointers.

      In my spare (!!!) time, I've been working and working and working on a novel longer than I care to admit. I've published articles but nothing on the creative side except in my college literary magazine.

      I get bogged down in the first couple of chapters, because I seem not to know what to reveal next. I think I will do a rough outline or a treatment first, although I know it will change as I write, I suspect it will be useful to help me keep the bigger picture in mind

      I'm a new to Hub and looking forward to being a member of this community. Right now I working on my first Hub and hope to get it out there soon.

    • Peter Allison profile image

      Peter Allison 6 years ago from Alameda, CA

      Hi, sorry for the late response. I haven't had a lot of luck in regards to agents, so, as I have a day job, family, and another novel I'm writing, I am probably going to self publish on Lulu and promote it myself. You can find excerpts of it on my Hub profile under the group Container Chronicles.... Anyway I cant wait to read your hubs. They look interesting!

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Thanks Peter :) I'm going to look at your excerpts when I get a little chunk of time to myself this week. I'll be catching up on my hub reading, because I've just spent a month writing lots of little hubs. I'll enjoy it!

      I'm now going to work on better quality hubs - quality rather than quantity, is what I've learned from my mini hub challenge.

      Looking forward to reading more of your work too :)

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Please don't listen to what our antipodean friend attemptedhumour has to say. You didn't ramble; you wrote with care, humour and intelligence, This hub is what I should term an ideal length, and (may I say it?) the spelling was all correct. I am getting tired of reading hubs by people who tell us how to do this and that but don't know how to spell or punctuate correctly. We all make typographical errors occasionally, and I do, more than many, but when I read something that is full of errors, I am afraid I give up and move one. Yours, my friend, are always beautifully written.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      As always Twilight, you are a tremendous motivational presence in my HubWorld :) Thank you. I am very glad that my spelling was correct, because I die a little inside whenever I notice a typographical error in my work! Honestly, I do.

      If I am quiet and seem to be ignoring everyone at the moment, please don't be offended - my laptop is broken and is away for repair. I do not like using my partner's, so am enjoying a break from the internet. Will be back soon :)

      (If you are now wondering why I am here today, it is because my computer has been returned to me today, but it is still not quite perfect, so I am sending it back again!)

      Linda.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      This was fun. I write by the seat of my pants NaNoWriMo style and then go back, edit and draft. I know that may sound backasswards but it works for me. I dissect and make chapters and decide what will go where and increase/decrease as needed. Granted, I am yet to be published but will be one day; I just know it. :o)

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      'Backasswards'! What a great word :D

      I am having a crisis of confidence about my novel today, and I think it's because I've barely written a thousand words this last month. I tried the NaNoWriMo approach in January, and it was wonderful - I felt like I'd achieved so much, even if a lot of what I produced was trash. Writing lots of words that are okay and have potential makes me feel a lot better than writing just a few words that are very good.

      I think that having that belief in yourself, as you have, is very important. I'm sure you'll be published too, as will I! :D

      Now, I just need to get going again and WRITE.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Linda.

    • viveresperando profile image

      viveresperando 6 years ago from A Place Where Nothing Is Real

      nice info... i do wish there was a fourth.. giggles.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      I have thought of a fourth now viveresperando! Perhaps I will update the hub soon.

      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

      Linda.

    • michael ely profile image

      michael ely 6 years ago from Scotland

      Hi Linda, I had seen this older hub of yours and had thought that i had read it and commented on it before, but hadn't. Thought that it was a very good article. I have no inclination to try and write a novel but it's interesting to read a lot of what is involved. I am bad enough just trying to write some short hubs. Thought that the photographs with the different facial expressions was a great touch. Unsure if i've mentioned it before but think your present profile pic is really good. Also Linda, you commented on one of my hubs the other day 'a powerful woman'and were wondering what a male version would be like. I said i would attempt it and have done and put it on this morning, called 'A guy thing'. Hopefully you will be able to check it out at some point.

      All the best. Michael.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Thanks for reading this Michael. It surprises me that this hub, written with no real expertise, stays up there with a good score! I think it must be the photos that do it! ;)

      Thank you for liking my profile pic - it's not unlike yours, both our faces being obscured as they are.

      I'll check out that hub of yours, forthwith!

      Linda.

    • profile image

      Kerry43 4 years ago

      Hello:) I am also writing a novel, and I'm only three chapters into the process as of today. I did like that you mentioned the loneliness aspect because this stops many writers in their tracks. I quite enjoy the solitude of this type of work.

      Thank you for sharing:)

      Kerry

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 4 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      I enjoy the solitude at the moment too, because I haven't had time to write (or even think) for the past two months - but the summer is well and truly over, and I am in an empty house with nothing to do but write (how lucky am I?!) and it's going to be a wonderful experience, I'm sure of it.

      What's your novel about? Have you moved on with it much over the past week?

      Thank you Kerry.

    • profile image

      Kerry43 4 years ago

      Hello, I am so glad to see the end of summer. I feel so much more energized as it leaves, so time for me to get a move on, too.

      My novel is about a journey of self-discovery - Finding Mary. The first three chapters are here on HP, with four more almost ready to publish.

      Cheers my friend:)

      Kerry

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 4 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Ooh, interesting. I'll try to take a look some time soon :) Good luck with it.

      Linda.

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