So you’re an aspiring author looking to bite the bullet and do the impossible: write the first draft of your novel. Welcome to the boat that I was in less than six months ago.
It started when a dear friend from undergrad shared the exciting news that her book, Medea, was picked up by an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I was instantaneously and overwhelmingly excited for her, but if I’m being honest, I was also kicking myself. It had been nearly five years since I conceived my own novel idea, but I had always been too perfectionistic and too nervous to sit down and write it.
When I asked her how she did it, she told me something that, honestly, I think only she could have been capable of: without any fanfare or overthinking, she sat down and wrote the book from start to finish in thirty days, living and breathing her manuscript. And that was it. She wrote her book, queried agents, and landed the publishing deal of every English major’s dreams.
Mind you, this friend is a unicorn, but she had a point, so I set aside my own excuses and got to work. In my approximately six months of work, I trial-and-errored every writing method under the sun. I read what Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Annie Dillard had to say. I read blogs. I listened to YouTube videos. But at the end of the day, these are my top five indispensable tips for finishing your first draft as a first-time author:
01 Bite the Bullet
For every ten aspiring authors, there are nine people who will leave their dream as a hypothetical, never actually taking the steps to make their goal a reality. I didn’t want to be one of the nine, and if you’re reading this, you don’t want to be one either.
No one actually wants to be one of the nine who sits on their hands and chooses to dream at the expense of actually doing, but many people will inevitably end up in that position. I heard a quote once: “That which you do not change, you choose” and choosing inaction is a recipe for dreams that never come to fruition.
The deciding factor is: at what point does your desire to actually write a novel outweigh your excuses, your hesitation, your fear– whatever it is, it needs to be eclipsed by your determination and grit to get the job done.
02 Don’t Write Every Day
I’m proud of this tip because it directly contradicts almost every piece of advice that I’ve read on the matter. If you’ve tried and failed at the advice to “write every day”, don’t fret– you’re not doomed. Here’s the thing: once you get the ball rolling, you need to keep it rolling. You need momentum. You need consistency. And you need discipline. But what that looks like for people varies from person to person.
I am not the type of person who can sit down and write parts of my novel every day. It just isn’t in the cards for my workload, my family commitments, my energy levels, or my motivations. I have and always will be someone who likes to block out multiple hours, sit down, and churn it out. I thrived on setting word count goals per week, and whether I achieved them in one sitting or in seven was irrelevant to me.
But whether you want to set the goal of writing something every day, even if it is just one sentence, or you want to set word count goals or chapter goals per week, maintaining momentum is essential.
03 Don’t Go In Blind
I used to be the type of person who would get an idea in her head, pull out her laptop, and get to writing. “Chapter 1: Once upon a time…” Let me tell you, that was the #1 reason I spun my wheels for so many years, even though I had an idea I loved and believed in.
My solution to this was to plan. And for me, that didn’t mean to world-build ad infinitum or flesh out characters that I hadn’t even “met” down to their preference in tea types. Instead, it was to plot. I created a comprehensive plot before I ever endeavored to write a single sentence, and it served me well. It gave me a roadmap through my concept and an understanding of the main players I thought would be actors in it. I was able to incorporate the different components of my mythos, but at the end of the day, scaffolding first, substance second is what worked for me.
A bonus tip: write sequentially. Don’t try to make a patchwork quilt’s worth of scenes. It doesn’t work.
04 Finish, Badly
By this point, you’ve made a commitment and bitten the bullet. You’re keeping the ball rolling at whatever cadence is feasible (because I get it, life happens). Your version of keeping the ball rolling hopefully started with meticulous plotting.
Now? Your mission is to finish. Your characters are lumpy? It’s okay– they can walk through the story like the tortilla version of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story 3. Your geography lacks continuity and consistency? You can map and make changes retroactively. Your dialogue feels choppy, or your descriptions feel flat? That’s fine– you’re meeting your characters for the first time, seeing your settings for the first time, and need to have a look around before anything is crystallized in its final form.
The saying that perfection is the enemy of progress rings so incredibly true. I know so many people who fixate on the first chapter and spiral down the drain, obsessing over getting descriptions of forests or lore dumping so comprehensibly that it’s basically canon history… And they never actually write the book that these components are meant to serve.
All of the issues that hinder the completion of your draft can be fixed in your subsequent drafts. (And potentially fatal structural issues are negated with the strong plotting you already did.)
05 Don’t Go Alone
Nothing satisfies the overachieving student syndrome I have like wanting to follow through and overdeliver. In tandem with that: nothing satisfies my people-pleasing syndrome like not wanting to fail in delivering on my promises.
Luckily, another dear friend wanted to write a novel at the same time as me. He was writing in the same genre, but in a very different tone, with completely distinct concepts. We had a shared literacy in Celtic mythology, and fortunately for the both of us, complementary abilities. He is a fantastic generator of ideas, while I possess more organizational and analytical skills. He was the prolific creator, while I was the methodical planner. We rounded each other out, and scheduled workshops once a week. These workshops were standing meetings even if the other person wasn’t able to deliver on their word count, and I’m a firm believer that this consistency and camaraderie was essential for the completion of my first draft.
Find a friend, a classmate, an acquaintance with shared literary tendencies, or a writing group in person or online, and hunker down: you’re in it together, and you’ll be better off for it.
If you’re on your own writing journey and found these tips helpful, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below or send me a DM on Instagram. To keep up with my writing journey, bookmark this blog and follow me on social media where I’ll be sharing the best (and worst) parts of being a first-time novelist.