How To Make Sure You Finish The First Draft Of Your Novel

How To Make Sure You Finish The First Draft Of Your Novel

By Neal Martin/ October 10, 2014
Last Updated April 27, 2023

Finishing the first draft of a novel for the very first time is for a writer akin to finally learning to swim.

You’ll have spent so much time struggling to complete a finished draft—floundering in a sea of confusion, frustration and procrastination—that when you finally finish it can seem like you’ve been saved from drowning.

You have learned to swim and you are now free to take yourself in any direction you want to go. Suddenly, it’s not about keeping yourself from drowning, but about staying afloat and swimming towards the goal of a fully completed novel.

The choppy seas have calmed somewhat, making it easier for you swim.

Once you know you are capable of finishing the first draft of a novel, things change. A mental shift occurs and suddenly you have the confidence to feel like a real writer.

You now have what it takes to write novels.

There’s no going back after that.

You’ve done it, you know you can do it and you will keep doing it.

It’s a milestone that every novelist has to cross in order to find success, which is why it is so important that you do all you can to insure that first draft gets completed.

If you still struggle to finish the first draft of a novel, don’t despair, all is not lost. It’s not as hard as you think and there are things you can do to make reaching that goal even easier.

Plan Out Your Story First

This may seem a little obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it. Even if, like me, you are a panster at heart, you still need some sort of plan or outline to follow as you write that first draft.

This is where I went wrong for so many years. I tried and failed to write many novels, but never finished them because I had little or know idea of where I was going with the story.

As a result, every draft soon ground to a halt before it got anywhere near completion.

It wasn’t until I discovered story structure that I was able to finish the first draft of a novel.

Story structure, as put forth by Larry Brooks in his excellent book, Story Engineering, gives you a structure on which to hang your story.

Story structure will allow you to map out your story by planning all the important elements and plot points ahead of time.

If you can plan your story according to the needs of the story structure, you will find it difficult to fail.

Effectively, you have already written your book when you plan the story out like this. It’s a way to test it, to see if it makes sense, to see if there is a proper story there in the first place.

With these signposts in place, it’s just a matter of writing towards each one, filling in the blanks as you go.

This more than anything will make it possible for you to finish that first draft because you will at least have a good idea of where you are going next with your book.

Not having that basic outline in place, or an idea of your characters and who they are, will make it extremely difficult if not impossible to get anywhere near finishing a draft.

You’ll be back to drowning again.

Think of story structure as a life jacket that lets you float on the surface of your story for long enough so you can see which direction you have to go in.

The plot points that you worked out will be like flashing buoys in the water, giving you a destination to head for with each part of your story.

That sure beats floundering around in vast open water with no markers and no sense of direction.

Plan beforehand. It doesn’t have to be a detailed plan, just a basic structure to work from.

Do that and writing that first draft will become a whole lot easier.

Settle Into A Good Writing Process

Contrary to what many believe about writing, it is not a mater of sitting down and just allowing some invisible power to take over and show the way. That’s certainly a part of it, but writers have to have tools to help them get the job done.

One of those tools is the story structure we just talked about. Another tool is a good writing process.

This process begins with finding a good writing environment. It will help you immensely if you can write in the same place every day.

Routine is important when it comes to writing.

Find a routine that suits you and settle into it.

Before you sit down to write, have a good idea of where you want to go that day with your story.

If you are like most writers, you would have been thinking a lot beforehand about where you are going next, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Most of the time, the story itself will dictate where have to go next and exactly what you have to write, especially if you have your outline done.

Remember those flashing buoys? Head towards them! They’ll keep you right.

Some further tips:

1. Visualize yourself writing before you start. This is a little trick I picked up some time ago that I mentioned in my 1500 Words Per Hour book.

Before you write, sit down and close your eyes and then picture yourself writing. Don’t worry about details, just envision yourself in the act of writing, seeing yourself sitting there, fingers moving like mad on the keyboard, the words pouring out of you on to the screen (do people still write by hand? I don’t why they would, but anyway).

This is telling your subconscious that you want to be writing full tilt and your subconscious will do everything it can to make that vision of you writing a reality. When you actually do start to write you should find the words flow easily.

2. Relax and let the words flow from your subconscious. I’ve discussed before the importance of allowing your subconscious to come through and help you when you write.

Learn to connect with it and your subconscious will take care of the rest. As long as you have some idea of what direction you need to go in the words should flow easily.

3. Approach your writing with confidence. When you sit down to write, do so in the belief that you will do great work that day; that you will do nothing but write and write well.

Have faith that the words will come, that the story will come together, that your characters will come alive, that everything will go right.

And if things don’t go right for some reason, have faith that you will find a way to sort it out. For every problem there is a solution. Take confidence from that.

4. Tell don’t show on your first draft. Don’t worry about showing everything in your first draft. In my experience, showing everything takes a bit of thought and working out that you don’t have much  time for while writing a first draft.

Trying to show everything will only slow you down and kill your flow and it will make you obsess over whether things are right or not. It’s a level of detail that is not needed at this stage.

At this stage the only thing you should be worrying about is getting the bare bones of the story down, nothing else. There will plenty of time later in the revision stages to add in the color and details.

For now, write as fast as you can, not worrying about details or showing everything. If they come to you at the time, great, write them down. If not, state what you have to say in basic terms and move on to the next part.

Just keep writing!

Speed Is Everything When Writing First Drafts

As must be evident from the previous tips I gave you, speed is important when writing the first draft of a novel.

There is no time during this early stage to slow down by thinking too much or trying to get everything right in the first pass.

This is where many people slip up when writing. They try to get everything perfect the first time around.

Firstly, there is no such thing as perfect. Get that shit out of your head right now or you will suffer miserably like a flea infested dog that can never scratch enough times to get relief.

Part of being a creative is learning to recognize when you have done your best with a piece of work and then learning to let that piece go.

Work in passes. The first draft is simply a first pass, a first stab at getting your story done, so don’t expect it to be right, or even good.

First drafts are usually shit. Learn to accept that. The greatest writers in the world all write shit first drafts. You are not alone there.

Lord knows it’s hard to write when everything you seem to be writing sounds like its being written by a retarded monkey, when every line of dialogue reads like the stilted mutterings of an alcoholic bum, but keep going you must.

Just bear in mind as you write that you will have the opportunity to fix things later in the next pass or the pass after that.

Letting go in this way, killing your need for perfection, will allow you to work fast and actually get shit done.

That’s what we’re aiming for here, getting shit done and done quickly.

After The First Draft The Rest Is Easy

Okay, maybe not that easy, but at least you have something tangible and concrete to work with now.

You have a rough piece of work that you can shape into something potentially amazing and beautiful and entertaining and awesome and maybe even inspiring.

You can’t do that if you have nothing to shape.

This is why it is so important that you do all you can to get that first draft done.

And here’s the kicker: Once you complete that first draft and polish it up into a saleable novel, the next time around, it will be much easier because you have already done it once.

And that’s what I mean when I say finishing your first ever draft is a milestone.

Your career as a writer will be on the up and up after that because you have proven you have what it takes to do the work and get it done.

Go and write that first draft and don’t stop until you’ve finished!

And finish the damn thing; show the world and all your doubters (including yourself, especially yourself) that you have the balls to be a writer.

If you don’t, I’ll come round your house with a baseball bat and kill your whole family. How about that? Motivation enough for you, you little pussy?

Just kidding.

Prove you can do it and go get it done.

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