5 Tips to Writing a Successful First Draft (Even if it Sucks)

To date, I’ve completed 4.5 first drafts. I say 4.5 because I have 4 manuscripts of novels that are at various points of editing and publishing, but I also have a fifth manuscript, a contemporary YA that’s on vacation. I say vacation because it’s nicer than saying on hiatus or abandoned or acknowledging that I *may* not be ready to complete it yet.

In any case, writing a first draft is a complicated and emotional process. It’s complicated because you don’t know what you’ll end up with once you start. It’s emotional because of how invested you become: in the story, in the characters, in the frustration that the “art” you’re creating may be nothing more than a carefully-crafted piece of crap.

But worry not: all great literature had to start off as crud. In fact, all those bestsellers you admire yet secretly envy on your bookshelf were probably rejected multiple times.

So check out these 5 tips for completing your heap of crap!

Plan — Or Don’t!

Some writers are planners. Some writers are not. I am a hybrid of the two: I start off by letting things just happen, and then I start to outline, flesh out characters, and plan scenes. I’m a like a liger, if you will. Magic and all.

liger-2

It’s up to each writer to determine what works best for them. Planning can help focus a story, but it can also sap it dry of all its intrigue and leave the writer uninspired to get it finished. I find that when I plan too intensely or too early, this happens to me. Remember that vacation my .5 was on? Yeah… I planned too early. It’s like all the magic is gone, and writing it feels like homework. When that happens, it’s best I back away for some time.

But some writers are the opposite. If they have no plan, they have nothing to hold them to their goal of writing a novel. There are a number of methods out there including chapter-by-chapter breakdowns, pre-completion synopsis writing, and the Snowflake MethodChuck Wendig has a great list of methods to plan your novel.

Don’t Edit

Seriously. DON’T. Put down your red pen. Editing is the kryptonite of writing a first draft. I never do it unless I want to end up in the oblivion of perfection-seeking and aimless toiling. The number one way to self-sabotage your work is by primping and probing too soon. It’s like taking a baby out of their crib, plopping them in the driver seat of a car, and expecting them to win the Indy 500. It will be disastrous simply because they’re not ready.

The same is true for your novel. Your first draft is the infancy of your novel, and should you helicopter-parent too soon, you will experience an adolescence of bad attitude, screaming matches, and underage drinking. You need to give your first draft some space to breathe. Allow yourself to be creative and get your ideas down before you start picking and pulling it apart.

Just Keep Swimming

When it comes to writing a first draft, perseverance is key. It’s easy to entertain an idea, to write the first ten pages of a piece, to daydream about characters and betrayals and plot twists. Heck, it’s fun even! But when the novelty wears off, the only thing that will see you through the middle-manuscript blahs will be your determination to get that sucker finished.

For me, weekly writing goals work. Do I always stick to them? Haha… no. This last week alone I had a writing goal of 2500, and I only made 1600. But, you see, even though I didn’t make my writing goal, I still wrote. I still persevered. I am still determined to complete my manuscript. In fact, my writing goals are more like guidelines. 1600 words is better than none at all, and if I make even half my goal of 2500 words this week, that is 3000 words closer to a completed first draft.

Allow Yourself to Suck

You suck. I suck. Everyone sucks.

Seriously, the first draft sucks. There’s no getting around it. There’s no way to sacrifice a lamb to the demi-gods of the Sahara and write a perfect first draft (but if there is, hook a brother up!). So come to terms with it. Digest it, and make it part of your writing routine. Allow yourself to suck, and writing your first draft will go smoother, I promise.

In fact, once you liberate yourself, you may find that you don’t suck as much as you feared after all.

Expect to Rewrite

If you haven’t realized this by now, I’m sorry to break this to you: your first draft is NEVER the one you show the world. Wallow in self-pity now, aspiring writer, because if you want this, you’re in for the long haul. Even if you manage to nab an agent or an editor off of your first draft alone, they will insist you edit. In fact, my first novel has gone through 12 edits, and it hasn’t even been released yet.

But this isn’t a terrible thing. Your first draft is crap, remember? The only way to make it into gold is by editing. Essentially, the first draft is only half of the task of writing. Editing is where you get to show the reader your storytelling prowess and wow them with your spit-shined, immaculately-constructed prose.

How do you get through a first draft?

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3 responses to “5 Tips to Writing a Successful First Draft (Even if it Sucks)

  1. I started writing my first novel when I was 16 and two years later I am just about to finish my first draft. This extended time spent on one project wasn’t intentional, but a direct result of me not setting myself word count goals, which is something I now try to do. Throughout this post I could relate to many things that you’ve included, especially the fact that the first draft isn’t always enjoyable to write. Lets just say I’m quite excited to finally start the editing process, which will be a welcome change for me.

    Thanks for the writing tips, I’ll definitely be taking them on board and hopefully my first draft will soon be complete 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I try to do first drafts during NaNoWriMo so I can get them over with as quickly as possible, lol. Regardless of whether or not you actually participate in a formal write-a-thon, I find that trying to write a first draft quickly is the key to getting through one. Just set your word count goals, force yourself to meet them, and you will eventually have a book. A lot of people say that “rushing” hurts the story, but if first drafts will suck regardless, why not get them done and over with?

    I should mention that I am a heavy planner though. I already have a huge outline to go by, so that makes writing quicker. I know what you mean about the excitement/intrigue being lost because you already know what will happen, but I fuel myself with the thoughts of readers gasping and enjoying my novel. The sooner I get a good draft completed, the sooner I can share the book with my betas. Of course, it still takes 3-4 drafts before it’s ready for that, but I went from an outline to a beta round in seven months off that ambition alone. Now if only I could get it back *snort*

    Liked by 1 person

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