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Friday, April 15

It’s a Start: What Not to Worry About in a First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing a novel is a lot of work. There are plots to weave, subplots to finagle, characters to grow, conflicts to craft, and that’s just the basics. With so much to worry about while your write, it might be good to know that there are some things you don’t have to worry about until after that first draft is done.

Take Note
I’m a first-draft note taker. I don’t have all the details planned in advance, and when I need something I create it and make note to make sure it fits in later. There are plot points and character groundwork that I won’t figure out until I’m well past where I should have put it in. Like this:

I hit a point in my WIP where my protagonist needed to describe a character to someone to learn their name. I needed a visual tag for him to do this (something that made this girl stand out), but since this is a minor character, I never bothered to give her more than a name. So I came up with something for this scene, and added (add tag) to the end to remind myself to go back and do this when I revise. I wrote my scene the way I needed to, and didn’t halt my momentum by having to go back to where I first introduced this girl and add in the tag I’d need later.

What makes this even more fun, is that the girl herself was a throwaway detail I wasn’t sure I’d ever need again, but I named her anyway because you never know where the story will lead. And after this scene, I thought of another way in which she’d be useful, so now this throwaway character had a bigger and important role. Not bad for someone who was named just because my other protagonist needed to be able to talk to someone at a dinner table and not using their name was implausible and awkward.

When you’re writing that first draft, don’t worry so much about the little things if you’re not sure about them. You can always mark it to remind yourself to fix it later. I can’t tell you how many (need name) or (check food) or (lay groundwork) notes I have in my first drafts. My characters need to eat, but I’m not sure what they might have that fits my world. They meet a priest, but I don’t want to use the word “priest” because it doesn’t fit my story. I decide my protagonist has a phobia but she hasn’t exhibited before this. Things come to me as I write and I go with them. As I sprinkle in random details, some of those details start connecting later in ways I never imagined.

Even better, since those random details came up naturally in the text, by the time I’m done polishing, it all reads as if I’d planned it all along.

Stuff You Can Ignore 

Minor Characters: Having too many characters is a problem for a final draft because your poor reader won’t know who to remember and who is never showing up again. But in that first draft? Use whomever you want, and name them if you feel like it. Toss in those random people in the hall, the friendly waitress, the casual acquaintance. You never know when you might need a character later, and what if one of these throwaways is the perfect person to bring back? These details can stir around in your subconscious and pop out when you least expect them in some very unpredictable and interesting ways. (In fact, the character of Danello in The Shifter was a throwaway detail. I needed someone in chapter four to do something for the plot, and it suddenly made total sense that the nameless guard from the first scene would be the same guy. A minor, nameless character became one of the core characters in the series.)

Post Draft: Once the draft is done and see how the story plays out, then go back and get rid of unnecessary characters.

Wild Emotional States: Discover you really need your protagonist to be freaked out for a scene when they’ve always been calm as a cucumber before that? Let them freak out, but make a note to go back and lay the groundwork later so their emotions are consistent and lead up to that freak out. It’s okay for the character’s emotions to be all over the place while you’re still figuring out how they feel about everything. Realizing they’ve reached a certain point emotionally can even force you to work a little harder to get them there and you’ll create a character arc you might not have done otherwise.

Post Draft:
Check the emotional consistency of your characters. If they suddenly act out of character or inappropriate, find out why and fix.

World Building Details and Mechanics: You’re bound to have some of these in place before you start writing, but often you’ll discover you need the world to work in a certain way for whatever it is that you’re writing about. A detail, a belief, a ritual, a location, whatever, and you don’t have it already established. Do what needs to be done and lay the groundwork after. If you discover a nasty secret about your world halfway through chapter twelve, just think about all the cool things you can do in chapters one through eleven to show that. You might even find a subplot or cool complication for your protagonist.

Post Draft: Make sure the world feels fleshed out and all those details and mechanics make sense. If something you planned didn’t work out, yank that out of there so it doesn’t confuse readers.

Everyone plots a different way, but I've found that leaving a lot of plot breadcrumbs is a great way to craft plots that feel connected and thought out. As my characters are figuring out how to solve their problems, they (and I) have a slew of minor things that can affect their decisions and the outcomes of those decisions.

First drafts are usually messy, bad, and scattered. Don’t worry about it if yours follows suit, and don’t worry if you don’t have everything worked out from the start. A lot of times we don’t know all the answers until we start asking questions, and we won’t know what to ask until we see our protagonist in action. Throw in what you need when you need it, and decide later how much of it stays, what can go, and what needs a little more polish to make it work.


  1. My first drafts usually get very savaged.
    As do my second and third drafts sometimes :-)

  2. I write like you, Janice and I can't see any other feasible way to do it. But Amanda Hocking said on her blog she wrote a book in a week. And John Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a similarly short period. How is that possible? They must be genius. Or maybe they're talking final drafts only.

  3. Or Amanda Hocking & John Boyne could be talking about first drafts. My first drafts tend to be shorter than the final draft, sometimes a quarter of the size of the final, which is easier to draft quickly.

    And then I've written 2k words in an hour before. That's my exception, not my norm, but if someone had that as his/her norm they could get a first draft out fast.

    …Sorry if I'm not entirely coherent. I've fallen sick.

  4. This was a great post, Janice, and something that I really needed to here. I am in the middle to the end of my first draft and everything just feels trite and stale. I had a big middle event happen, and it's like pulling eye teeth. Thanks for this advice! I am definitely going to make use of it!

  5. Brilliant post and good timing. Your reassurance comes just when I thought my first draft was getting away from me.

  6. Valid writing advice. Something rare on the web. I'll tweet that.

  7. This is great advice. I've started taking notes while writing my first drafts too. Very helpful to have some organized thoughts somewhere for me to look back at after, without interrupting the momentum of writing.

  8. I do the same thing, except that if I already have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do, I often can't resist going back to that earlier chapter and making some of the revisions immediately instead of waiting until I finish the first draft. Just can't help myself. But I am getting better at not doing it.

    Of course, I'm still on the first draft of my very first book, so it's too early to say whether it's going to turn into a habit.

  9. Carradee, I understood you 100 percent and I'm sick there a common denominator there?

  10. This is a valuable advice for someone like me. I tend to toss my incomplete first drafts, because they're not working, and start over.

  11. I read somewhere (a long time ago) that it's best to write your first draft as quickly as possible (relative term) to keep the pace and momentum of the story. I've found this to be true, as constant editing stifles those creative impulses. As well as doing a lot of the things you've mentioned in the post, my first drafts are also sprinkled with sentences that have five or six similar words in brackets because I can't think of exactly the word I need, but those five or six (sometime more, sometimes less) give me the general feel of what I'm looking for.
    I also love the way that inconsequential things in first drafts often come to have more meaning, or inspire later events. Magical.

  12. Great post janice. I will certainly use the tags as reminders. Thanks.

  13. Great advice - thanks, from someone just about finished my first draft and therefore is relieved to know I'm working in the right way.

  14. Al: Same here. And I've been known to tear apart a fourth and fifth draft when it needed it. :)

    Anon: I'd guess first drafts. My best writing day was 5K words, and that was all day with the creative juices flowing like mad. So if that was normal for you and you had the time and ability to do that, that's what, 150K in 30 days? More typical for me is 1500 words in a morning. That gives me a first draft in around two months. Everyone has their own process and speed.

    Carradee: Hope you're feeling better now!

    Elizabeth: Glad I could help. Sometimes you have to write the stale before you find the fresh.

    Anna: Thanks! Don't worry, first drafts do that. :) They're easier to wrangle once they've worn themselves out.

    Ben: Thanks to both!

    Kathryn: Totally. I use my outline for that. I have a notes section at the top, then my chapter by chapter summaries. I'll often summarize what I want to do in my outline and flesh it out before I write just to get those first ideas out of my head.

    Chemist Ken: If that's your process, run with it. Nothing says you cant go back. It usually only hints at a problem if you never get anything finished because you're always going back. But if that's working for you and you've moving ahead, go with what works :)

    Anon: Aw, more sick folks. Hope you're also feel better now. Could be the pollen. It's evil here and makes me feel horrible.

    Lazy Writer: Most books take a lot of work and lot of revising, even for the pros :)

    Shauna: I can see that. If it takes too long you forget what you wrote, and if you revise too much it can be hard to remember which version something happened in (I ran into that with Blue Fire) and you have to keep checking.

    Satnamkaurkhalsa: Most welcome :)

    Bron: Happy to help. And there really is no "right way." Whatever works for you is what works for you. But I know what you mean -- it's good to know that you're not doing something "wrong."

  15. Enjoyed your post - thanks! I leave tons of notes for myself in first drafts, too -- things like [name], or [plant earlier], or [if this character smiles and nods anymore, kill him]. Definitely helps keep momentum going! :)

  16. This is exactly how I'm writing my first draft for my WIP! So comforting to know that others write this way as well :).

  17. Jennifer, I've learned no matter what you do, there's a writer out there who does it the same way.:) Usually a whole lot of them.