How to Write a First Draft

To put it shortly, write quickly.


A lot of people ask how long it takes to write a book. So lets look at the bookmaking process for a minute, once the first draft is penned and you’ve gotten to “the end.”

Typically, the book is edited several times, at least three, and upwards of twenty. That means you are going through hundreds of pages several times, each pass getting iteratively closer to a finished manuscript.

Then the query letters, the bane of every author. A query letter is a short attention grabber meant to woo a literary agent to read over your story. Hundreds of queries might stimulate a few manuscript requests, and maybe an offer to take your story to the next level.

Then, more editing, more revising, and a modified query letter called a proposal being sent to several publishing houses.

Guess what happens if a publisher accepts the story and offers you a contract. Can you guess? That’s right. More editing and revising.

Eventually your book might hit the bestseller list, but the process takes no less than a year and sometimes several years, and that’s if it is successful.

Even if you plan to self-publish, a true work of literature takes time, patience, diligence, and several passes through multiple editors and beta readers. It’s not fast. But the first draft is, because that’s what kickstarts the process.

Even if the book isn’t a success, you’ll likely want to write others. Would you rather spend the rest of your life to finish one draft of a novel, or start telling stories and thus increase the odds of landing a major deal?

I thought so. Let’s get started.

What is a First Draft

You’re a word person. What does it sound like? The first draft is the first completed concept drawing of a final product that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a completed story, but it’s far from finished.

Think of it like a new invention. You’re hashing out a rough sketch of what your future machine will look like. You’re experimenting with some of the mechanical ideas. But you haven’t cut any steel yet.

Pro-tip, stop treating a first draft like a bestselling novel, because it isn’t one. It’s simply a starting point.

You might compare it to signing up for a marathon and having the courage to step up to the starting line. It’s where the race begins, not where it ends. And thinking of it this way will actually help you to write it better and faster.

How Long Does a First Draft Take to Complete?

The answer is entirely up to you. Are you scribbling with a pen and paper? Using a typewriter or computer? How fast can you type or scribble? How much time are you going to set aside for writing every day?

These are important questions that demand some thought. A typical novel is about 80,000 words. If you crank out at least 1000 new words every day, you could be done in three months. Less than a month if you are smashing out 2500-3000 words per day.

If you’re really on the ball and you put in the time of a full-time job, you can finish a first draft in a week. I know because I’ve done it.

Writing a draft is like fighting a major battle, though, and you will need to sidestep a few landmines. Let me spell them out for you.

How to Draft Your Novel Quickly

First, don’t treat your story like some fairy queen that must meet rigorous standards. Treat it like a first draft. Your job is to get to the end. I could draw numerous analogies, but I’ll stick to our marathon example. Think of it as your first practice before the real race. Just run a few miles and see how you do, then you’ll have an idea of how much training you’ll need for the real thing.

Have an outline at the ready. I cannot stress this enough. It’s a map of the race course, and it will show you all the critical points. Big hills, steep valleys, streets and intersections, possible trouble areas, and most important, the location of the finish line and everything you must pass through to get there.

Do some research ahead of time. There is nothing worse than coming to some random plot line where you must stop and research something on the spot. It could eat up hours or days of writing time. With an outline in hand, you’ll have an idea about what you need to know to write the book, and you can chop up on those bits of information before you start typing.

Write every day. Set aside at least an hour daily and hold to it. Treat it like a job. If the book isn’t important enough for you to do that, then it might not mean enough to you to actually finish it. If it is important, treat it as such, and put in the time. It does take many, many hours to write a book. Even at 4000 words per hour, you’re looking at 20 hours of work, and that’s assuming you can keep such a ridiculous pace.

Keep a notebook handy. If there are any plot points that need changing, don’t go back and edit. Instead, jot a note about it and move forward as if the problem has already been fixed. You can change things around as needed later. In fact, these notes will help you with a very focused block edit in the future.

If you get stuck, keep going. Write whatever you have to, but keep writing. Maybe your character just needs to wonder about downtown for a while and think things through. Explore the world with them until you see an opportunity to get them moving again toward the next major plot point. You can return on the first edit and remove the unnecessary steps to clean things up.

If you’re really stuck, then throw a brick, drop a safe, hit the main character’s world with a meteor, toss in a love affair with the neighbor’s cat, whatever it takes. Do something to mix things up so that you can keep writing.

Expect detours from the outline. Characters take on a life of their own, and they will escape from your planned path. Let it happen. You’ll find yourself following the main character in your head, simply writing down what they do, and you’ll eventually find them heading back in the direction they need to go to get to that final confrontation.

Always be pushing toward the next plot point. You can even skip one now and then if it fits the characters and the story, but keep moving forward.

Accept that your writing will be trash. Color it up as much as you like with fancy words and clever turns of phrase, but accept that you may spend just as much time destroying all those wonderful sentences as you did dreaming them up. Writing improves a lot after 80,000 words, and you will start to see all sorts of flaws in your own words when you begin editing.

Have fun! Believe me, drafting is the easy part. It’s the fun part. It’s the party in your head that turns random ideas, quirky characters, and unbelievable back drops into coherent and wonderful stories. You’re a painter with a galactic palette and a magical brush, drawing on a canvas of the heavens. Let ‘er rip, and have a blast. If you aren’t having fun, then you’re probably doing something wrong.

Stop daydreaming about being on TV. I know you’re doing it. We all do it. But it will get you nowhere except the land of procrastination, and you need to curb it a bit. Don’t let it distract you from the more important daydream of what is happening in this world you’ve created.

While we’re on that, stop spending so much time on the internet. Don’t update everyone on social media about your book every five minutes. Don’t post every cute sentence to Twitter, and for the sake of all things holy (or unholy if you’re writing horror) stop taking pictures of your cat sitting on the keyboard. Kick that little monster outside and keep writing. He can cuddle outside of office hours.

Lastly, don’t stop until the draft is done, no matter how long it takes. Set your time limits and write extra if needed, but at a minimum stick to your schedule. Whether that’s 1 hour 5 days a week, or weekend write-a-thons, keep driving toward “the end” until you get there.

Get the story out of your head and on paper. That way you can see what needs to be fixed and start the next step of the process.

Share me

Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.