Monday, December 03, 2018

A Faster Way to Write a First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Writers are always looking for a way to write faster, and sometimes, writing more means starting out with less.

For this year’s NaNoWriMo, I tried something different to see if I could raise my word count and productivity, and get a finished first draft faster. Since my goal was 80,000 words, I’d started a few weeks earlier than November 1, and planned to finish the first draft by November 30.

In seven weeks, I wrote my 80,000 words, 50,000 of them during NaNo.

What constitutes a “fast first draft” varies by writer, but for me, that’s at least half the time it normally takes me to complete a first draft, and a third of the time for those harder-to-write books. That’s an improvement of 50-66% over my regular drafting process. Writers who already write that fast might be able to shorten their drafting times as well.

Being able to get a first draft down in six to eight weeks means more drafts for me in a year. I also suspect I’ll get faster as I continue with this process, and I’m aiming for a draft in a month by the end of the year.

If you’re looking for a way to shake up your process or get a draft done more quickly, here’s a process that worked very well for me.

Write the plot first.

Now, I’m not talking about outlining (though I do outline my novels), I’m talking about focusing the writing sessions on the plot and ignoring the rest to create a finished rough draft. For example:

I ignored writing the descriptions.

I knew where this novel was set, and I’d done some basic world building research, but fleshing out the setting didn’t matter to the plot in most scenes. Same with what the characters looked like. When I hit a descriptive passage, I simply wrote [describe] and moved on. Things such as:
  • What someone’s office or house looked like
  • What the character looked like
  • What people wore
  • What the environment around them was like
  • What they ate
If I knew what the “something” looked like, I wrote it, but most of the time I skipped it.

(Here’s more on writing descriptions)

I ignored writing the backstory and history.

I did some backstory and history research ahead of time, and had plenty of it in my files, but there were multiple times I hit a spot in the story where I’d refer to something that had happened and I really didn’t have time to go searching through my files for it, or figure out something new. But I knew it was the right spot for something that either showed a character’s history or an element of the world’s history, so I wrote [history] or [backstory] and kept on writing.

(Here’s more on writing backstory)

I ignored writing the emotions.

This one’s a little tricky, because emotions are vital to a story, but in this particular case it worked. My protagonist wasn’t human, so his reactions were different from how a human would react. So I’d write scenes or moments where I knew he’d have an emotional reaction, and even the gist of it—such as anger, fear, grief—but not the specifics for how he’d display that emotion. Using [emotion] or [reaction], or [anger] worked just fine for the rough draft.

(Here’s more on writing emotions)

I ignored what I still needed to work out.

While there were some spots I had to stop and work out before I could move on, there were far more areas that didn’t matter to the plot if I didn’t know all the specifics. For example, I had an autopsy scene. I knew that the result of the autopsy had to look like natural causes, but I hadn’t done quite enough research to know what that might look like or how a medical examiner would determine that. Instead of stopping the drafting process to research autopsies and causes of death, I wrote [research autopsy] and went back to it later.

(Here’s more on researching a novel)

I ignored naming things.

The big names I had going in, such as my main characters and primary locations, but there are always things that need a proper name as you write—minor characters, smaller locations, companies or organizations, etc. These are the types of nouns I didn’t worry about. I had [bar], [name], [company], [street], [neighborhood] and anything else that could be decided later.

(Here’s more on naming things in a novel)

I ignored writing the transitions.

I write in Scrivener, so I had a file per scene. I usually spend time getting the right transition to smoothly go from scene to scene, but this time, I just jumped to the next scene and got into it. No worries abut explaining how the protagonist got from here to there, no boring travel scenes, no awkward summations. I got to the point of the scene, which meant I didn’t waste a lot of time writing things I’d probably cut later anyway.

(Here’s more on writing smooth transitions)

I moved on when I got stuck.

This was one of the bigger changes in my test process, since I like to write chronologically and finish a scene before I start the next one. But sometimes I got halfway through a scene and I wasn’t sure how to end it or what to do with it. In the past, I’d struggle to figure it out, but this time, I just stopped and went to the next scene.

In most cases, I either realized that scene wasn’t needed, or I found something in a later scene that I could use to “backfill” the scene that needed help.

If the scene was okay, but had no hook to entice readers to turn the page, I made a [needs better ending] note and dealt with it later. If the scene just kind of stopped halfway through, I marked it with ## in the file header so I knew it wasn’t done.

(Here’s more on getting stuck in a scene)

Filling in the Gaps

The rough draft plot part of this novel was finished in the first four weeks—the last three weeks focused on fleshing out the notes I’d made along the way. I took it scene by scene, note by note, and filled in what needed to be developed.

On some days, I did the easy writing, such as naming the things that needed naming, or figuring out what characters looked liked. Other days, I spent time on the more detailed information, such as creating and further developing the backstories or histories needed.

I found grouping these by “category” of details needed made it a lot easier to stay in the zone and keep things organized.

(Here’s more on backfilling plot holes)

The Benefits of Writing the Plot First

Some writers might be horrified at this process, but I found it quite liberating. It also had a few unexpected benefits as well.

I didn’t spend a lot of time creating things I didn’t need. In the past, I’ve spent weeks or even months developing detailed world building or histories that never made it into the story, and even had to be thrown out completely when the story changed. This time, I had the plot down and knew what I needed to add.

The story itself guided my backstory and character development. I develop my characters as I write them anyway, so this worked very well for me. I could figure out their backstories by how they acted in the story, and what I needed for the scene. I used backstory that emerged organically in the story, because it appeared when needed, not because I wanted to explain something I’d come up with I thought was fun.

I knew the right details to describe that best fit the story. Doing the description afterward made it much easier to decide what details to use. I knew what mattered, what else had been described, what needed to be explained more, etc. And doing the descriptions over the course of a few days meant I wasn’t repeating the same details. They were all fresh in my mind.

I could see right away when the plot wasn’t working. This was a huge benefit. I wrote more than 80,000 words on this draft, but I had several scenes that didn’t work or weren’t needed once I got into the story. When the goals weren’t strong enough, it was painfully obvious, same as when there were no motivations for the protagonist’s actions.

Trying Something New Is Healthy

I know how I write and I stick with that most of the time. But now and then, I like to try new things and see how they work with my process. Not every experiment works, but when it does, writing a novel becomes a step (or more) easier. This is one experiment that worked great and I’ll be doing this again for sure.

Can You Benefit From Writing the Plot First if You’re Not a Plot-First Writer?

Maybe. I think what made this work so well for me is that I spent my writing time writing, not trying to figure out what to write. Writing the plot first gave me a solid direction to write every session.

I don’t know if writing, say the character arc first and worrying about the plot later would work or not, but I’d be interested to see if it would. I imagine if you made notes that gave you a direction for your plot, and you knew basically how it ought to unfold, then I think this could work for character-first writers, too. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t interested in ways to be more productive, so if this sounds intriguing to you, give it a try. You never know what technique might be the one that lets you be as productive as you want to be.

Have you ever tried to write the plot first? Does this sound like a process you might want to try? Why or why not?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This all seems perfectly logical to me...and much like a sculptor working on a statue. A sculptor works with great blocks of clay that define the general shape and 'movement' of the piece. Then, the details that make it unique, an individual, are added.

    I've used your process for ages on short stories -- and only because it felt right -- the process, that is, for the situation of tight writing time and how to get it done faster.

    I would think your process would force tighter writing, less overwriting, and a more focused approach to supporting the story.

    Great post!

    1. It has so far, and I'm curious to see how it works with a less plot heavy genre next. Detective stories are pretty structured, but I think this will work well for me no matter what genre I'm doing.

  2. Just what I needed to read. I've been working on my WIP for several years, so I have all the research and backstory I need. I've been struggling to get a first draft, start to finish completed. Using some of my scenes as material for exercises in online classes. I write in sprints and I'm approaching by writing crucial scenes. I have a whole lot of words and definite plot points, but I've been feeling stalled. Your description looks likes a path out of the wilderness and toward my goal of finally having an entire first draft finished by December 31, 2018. I'm printing out the article for ready reference.

    1. Oh good! I'm so glad this resonated with you. I hope it works as well for you as it did me. Sending good writing vibes for your deadline.

  3. Interesting. Did you start with just key scenes, or "most" scenes or a complete scene list. Do you have typical page with your reminder tags we could see? I like this approach!

    1. I did my outline first just like always, which starts with the major plot points. then I flesh out the steps to get to each of those points. Usually a paragraph per scene.

      Afterward, I started with the opening scene and wrote chronologically. If I wasn't sure what to do in a scene and it really had me stumped. I moved to the next one.

      Occasionally I jumped around a bit and wrote other scenes out of order, but only during word sprints for NaNo (grin).

      I've already fleshed out of most of my notes, but I'll see if I can find something in the end I haven't yet for you.

  4. Thank you for this interesting and helpful article, Janice.

    I have written the plot first and it worked for that story. It hasn't worked for others. Those manuscripts demanded a different approach.

    1. I suspect that will be the case. The more plot-heavy the genre or book, the better this will probably work.

  5. This is great! I do something similar already, but it's not nearly as systematic; I just highlight places I want to come back to. I particularly appreciate the [category] coding system you've created. I'm definitely going to start using it!

    1. Thanks! The brackets are awesome. They're easy to write (no hitting the shift key!)and easy to search for later since you don't usually use brackets in a novel.