How to Write a First Draft: 15 Writing Tips

How to Write a First Draft

Every stage of the writing process is challenging for different reasons. But in a lot of ways, first drafts are the most challenging.  This is when your story goes from an idea in your head, to becoming an actual book. It’s the first major hurdle to clear if you have a goal of publication. Because of that, it can be the hardest. 

To help you clear this first hurdle, I put together fifteen tips to help you write your first draft:

1) Tune out doubters 

There will always be people who say you “can’t.”  There will always be people who point out how hard your task is or how unlikely the chances of success are. This is especially true if you’re writing your first first draft. Learn to tune the doubters out from the very start. These people are not you. They don’t know what writing and your story means to you. They don’t know what you’re capable of.

However, if it’s difficult for you to tune these people out, then consider keeping your circle very small and only telling people you can trust to be supportive.

2) Don’t try to be “good”

First drafts are by nature, a hot mess. Ideas that seemed good in your head may not work on paper. Additionally, it can be hard to think about the story and write the story in polished, easily understood language all at the same time. Because of this, being a “good” writer should be the least of your concerns when you’re at this stage. The only think you need to worry about is making it to the end with a completed draft. It doesn’t matter if your language is repetitive, choppy, or unclear. Just get to The End.

For more on why your writing doesn’t have to be “good,” check out this post!

3) Do You

It’s not a bad thing to read about how other writers approach first drafts, but ultimately, you have to do what works for you. If you’re someone who does well with a plan, then take the time to brainstorm and/or outline before you start. If you’re someone who does better figuring it out as you go, just dive right in and get working.

Try techniques that appeal to you, but don’t feel like there’s any “right” way to approach a first draft. The right way is the way that gets you a finished novel as quickly and painlessly as possible. Do whatever works for you to make that happen. 

4) Try different techniques if it gets “hard”

If you find yourself truly struggling, it’s very possible that you’re following a technique that just isn’t working for you. I’m a firm believer in the idea that writing can be challenging, but it shouldn’t be “hard.” If showing up to your book to write becomes something you’re dreading, consider trying a different approach. If you’re a planner, try abandoning your plan and either making a new one, or diving into your story without any idea what’s coming next. If you’re someone who always gave yourself plenty of time to write, consider writing on the clock to keep yourself moving. 

I’ve got a whole post that talks about why writing doesn’t have to be hard, so if you want more on this topic, be sure to check it out!

5) Set manageable goals

Set goals that you know you can meet on a regular basis. When you first decide you want to write a book and tackle a first draft, it can be easy to get swept up in your story and in the idea of writing your book. You may look at the calendar and decide if you can write a chapter a day, every day, you’ll have a completed book in about a month. And while that math may work out, reaching that goal on a day-to-day basis may quickly become unsustainable.

If you set a goal you can’t keep up with, you’ll likely find yourself falling behind. And once that happens, you may start to get discouraged and think you can’t do this. But you can! You just have to make sure you create goals that fit into your life–even if your book takes a little longer to complete than you’d like. 

For more on setting manageable writing goals, check out this post

6) Set quantitative goals

Additionally, when it comes time to set goals, focus on setting quantitative goals, not qualitative ones for a first draft. Like we talked about earlier, the main goal of a first draft is simply to finish. Don’t let yourself get caught up in getting a specific scene right or nailing a chapter. Worrying about quality at this stage holds you back. Instead, set a goal you can measure numerically. I’m a fan of word count goals, but if you’d rather do page count or something else, that’s fine too! When you hit your numeric goal, let that be your win for the day, even if what you wrote is terrible. 

7) Commit to your goals and plans 

Now that you have your plans and goals, it’s important to commit to them! If you don’t commit, your book will never be more than an idea in your head. It will always be something you wished you could write. Committing is what will make your goals a reality. For more on how to commit to your writing, check out this post

8) Write when you don’t feel like it

If you’ve committed to your plans, that means showing up when you don’t feel like it. That means turning down fun things so you can get your writing in. It means putting the time in even when you know your story isn’t working and you’re probably going to have to rewrite and revise. Your goal is to get to the end. If you planned to write, show up and do something that gets you closer to that goal, even if you don’t feel like it.

9) But take time off when you need it

I know, I know. I just said to make sure you don’t slack off. But if you genuinely need a break, it’s okay to take one. Burn out is no joke and if you feel like you’re well and truly fried, you’re better off taking a day or two away, even if you planned to be writing. This is the difference between taking a genuine sick day and playing hooky. It’s important to take care of yourself. You will not reach the end if you’re brain is too fried to put a sentence together.

For more on this, check out these tips on taking care of your writing brain, and things you can do when you’re too drained to write.

10) Get a support system, but be selective

It’s a good idea to have people who can encourage and support you throughout this process. They can be other writers, but they don’t have to be. You really want people who love stories, creating, and believe you can do this. However, be selective about who you trust. There’s a reason the first point in this post is about ignoring doubters. Be sure you’re entrusting your dreams and goals with people who will build you up. You don’t have time for negativity.

For more on how to find these people, check out the post on finding the right early readers for you book. You can apply a similar principle here.

11) Leave placeholders for revision

As you draft, you may come across details that you didn’t think to develop or whole scenes that you know need to happen, but just can’t figure out how to execute. Don’t let those things hold you up. The goal of a first draft is to have a complete book–as in, you want to have a beginning, middle, and end. There’s nothing that says every scene and element needs to be in place. If you’re really struggling with a transition scene, it’s okay to write [ADD TRANSITION SCENE HERE!!!] and move on. 

Similarly, don’t let the fact that you forgot to come up with a character’s last name or some other small detail slow you down. You can just write LASTNAME for now and drop the details in later.

12) Don’t rewrite as you draft

You may write some scenes that you know are terrible as you’re writing them. Or you may figure out a key plot point halfway through the book that will mean a handful of scenes you already wrote don’t work anymore. I would advise against going back and rewriting before you finish the draft. There will always be things that needs to be fixed in a first draft. If you stop moving forward to fix every problem that reveals itself, it will take you forever to finish (if you ever finish at all). Instead, keep a notebook or a blank word document open on your computer and make note of the changes you want to make. This way, you’ll be sure you won’t forget the change, but you won’t stop your progress.

13) Celebrate small victories

Writing a book is a long process and, like we’ve covered, first drafts are typically a hot mess. That means you need to find your wins wherever you can. Celebrate every day you show up and meet your goals. Celebrate every week. And celebrate every milestone–making it to 10,000 words is a big deal. Making it to 100 pages is a big deal. Do something to appreciate and reward yourself. Then get back to work and start aiming for the next goal and milestone. This will help keep you going.

14) Remember why you started

If you find yourself struggling to stay motivated, remember why you started this. Remember the excitement you felt that brought you down this path. Remember how it feels when your story is really fun to write. If you felt those things once, you will feel them again. But that will only happen if you keep writing.

Which brings us to the last point:

15) Don’t. Give. Up!

If a completed and/or published book is something you really want, don’t let yourself get discouraged by the time it takes, the quality of your first draft, or the people who say you can’t do this. I promise you, every published author has been in the same place. They persevered. You can too.

I hope these tips help you get your first draft down!

Now it’s your turn: What do you struggle with when you write your first drafts? What helps you power through? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process-Part 5: Editing and Polishing

My Process Editing and PolishingWe’ve reached the final post of my writing process series: editing and polishing. ICYMI: in this series, I break down my writing process and share what I’ve found works best for me in the hopes that some of my process might help you too! (Missed the first four parts? Find them here: Part 1 – Brainstorming, Part 2 – Outlining, Part 3 – Drafting, Part 4 – Revision.)

If I’ve reached the editing and polishing stage in the process, I’m feeling pretty good about the book. I feel like the story is working, there aren’t any more glaring problems or inconsistencies to tend to, and my book is almost ready for an agent or editor. But before I turn it over to anyone, I want to make sure the project is as shiny and polished as I can get it on my own. Here’s how I approach this final stage.

Critical read

Most of this part of the process happens during one or two critical reads of the book. Mistakes jump out more to me when the book is printed out, so I print a copy of my draft, put it in a binder and go over it with a green pen. In the previous reads, I typically make notes in the margins or circle/point out problems to consider later. This is the only stage where I write the changes right into the book. This is largely because in the previous drafts, those changes require more thought and planning. But at this point, the corrections are a lot more obvious and it’s easy enough just to note them without having to pause my read.

Typically, I’ll read through the draft looking for a handful of elements that I’ll talk about in the next few points. I make note of the changes, then go through my document and input those changes into the computer. This also gives me the chance to double check the corrections as I enter them.

Check all previous changes

One of the biggest things I pay attention to this round is that all of the previous changes I made in the story. I want to be sure they fit into the story seamlessly and don’t require any additional attention. If it turns out I missed something big, then I’ll make note of it and revise like I do in the previous stages. If it’s a more minor change (like adding or revising a sentence to a paragraph), I’ll likely write the change in the margin just like the other changes at this point in the process.

Check on the clarity of sentences/ideas

Up until now, I haven’t paid too much attention to my writing on a sentence level. My priority has been the story. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about the quality of my sentences when there’s a good chance I’m going to have to rewrite most of them. But now that the story is set, I want to make sure all of my sentences are as clear and concise as they can be. I’m also checking to make sure the ideas I’m trying to express are coming through. I consider the editing phase to be when I start looking at things on a sentence and language level.

Vary language

This is a big one for me towards the end of the process. Similar to my sentences, I’m not all that concerned about my language choices until I reach this stage. I will often lean on the simplest or most common words to get my point across just to get the story down as quickly as possible. But at this point, I want to make sure I’m using a wide variety of words and actions.

If I start to notice words, phrases, or actions that I’m using way too much through the whole book, I make note of them on a separate sheet of paper and do a search for them on the computer after I finish my read through. Then I can see exactly how many times I’m using the word/phrase/action and how close together the repetition is occurring. If I’m using the word/phase/action as frequently as I suspected, I’ll brainstorm a list of alternatives then go back through the document and vary the repetitions as need.

Check grammar and typos

I do my best to catch as many grammar errors and typos as I can before I turn my book into anyone. It’s also worth noting that some grammar errors and typos are expected by agents and editors. They know writers are human and probably won’t catch everything. But It doesn’t look good if a manuscript is riddled with careless errors that are hard to maneuver around. I read the book once or twice and do my best to catch as much as I can, but I try not to obsess. You should absolutely do your best to be as thorough as possible when you’re editing, but  I don’t think it’s good to hold a book back just because I might have missed something. It keep you from reaching your goals, but errors like this can always be corrected down the line.

Pay extra attention to my most common errors

While I’m editing for grammar and typos, I try to keep an extra special eye out for my personal most common errors. For example, I’m known to either repeat or skip words, or sometimes use the wrong homophone. Since I know these are areas of concern for me, I try to slow down and really look at what I’ve written. A lot of times these mistakes are hard for me to pick up on because my brain seems to know what I meant, and I don’t always register what’s on the page. I’ve found giving myself plenty of time and reading slowly can be beneficial with this. It helps me pay more attention to what I actually wrote, instead of what I meant to write.

One last read from critique partners and myself

Before I really declare a book “done” I have my critique group, who has read every draft, sign off on the final version. I also have a couple of readers who are particularly good at catching grammar, typos, and my most common errors read it over. This is helpful because not only do I get to pass off a more polished draft, but I get a final fresh perspective, which is so valuable at this stage. If these readers have any other bigger notes, I do my best to incorporate them, then (depending on how much I changed) give it one final read.

Send it out

Once I feel like I have the book in the best possible shape I can get it in, I send it out. Before I had an agent, this is when I started querying. Now it goes right to my agent. For more on how to tell when your book is done, check out this post!

I hope this helps you with your own editing and polishing!

This is also the end of My Writing Process Series. I hope I shared something that helps you build your own process!

Now it’s your turn: How do you edit and polish your novels? Do you have any editing tricks to share? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process – Part 4: Revision

My Writing Process: Part 4 - RevisionWelcome to Part 4 of My Writing Process series! In this series, I break down my writing process and share what I’ve found works best for me in the hopes that some of my process might help you too! (Missed the first three parts? Find them here: Part 1 – Brainstorming, Part 2 – Outlining, Part 3 – Drafting.) Today, we’re talking about Revision!

Yes, we’re at the revision stage! What that means to me is that I have the skeleton of the story figured out. I know who the characters are, I understand the world they live in, and I know what the beginning, middle, and end of the book will be. However, often times it takes writing the book for me to really understand those elements, which means they may not be fully realized in the drafts I have. That’s where revision comes in.

Read for character, plot, and world

Before I do anything, I sit down and read what I wrote. In the drafting post I mentioned that sometimes I won’t bother reading old drafts if I know I’m going to change a lot. By the time I get to revision, I’m definitely reading the book. I go through it with a green pen and a notebook. For earlier revisions, I’m mostly focused on the big picture issues in the characters, plot, and world. I’m looking for inconsistencies and out of character behavior, plot holes or incomplete plots, and elements of the world that are unclear or just don’t make sense. For even more details on what I’m looking for, check out the post: How to Identify Your Novel’s Problems (and keep in mind at this stage, I’m only really focused on the early stage revision problems).

I don’t do too much writing in the book itself at this point. I may box out or make notes about a big section, but typically the issues are bigger than any one page, scene, or chapter. Instead, I make notes on paper about the problems I come across and the chapters or page numbers I find these problems. Here’s an example from when I was working on Enemy Exposure:

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Freewrite/Brainstorm solutions

Once I know what my book’s major problems are, I brainstorm solutions by freewriting. This is similar to how I brainstormed at the start of the book. Up until this point of my process, I’ve moved more or less chronologically through the book as I worked. (As in, I focused on chapter one, then chapter two, then chapter three, etc). Now I start jumping around focusing on each individual problem. When I brainstorm a solution, I freewrite that solution out in its entirety, even if it means skipping whole chapters/sections that have other issues. I’ll freewrite until I feel like I have a good working solution, then I move on to the next problem. I’ll repeat this until I feel like I know how to solve each of my book’s issues. Here’s another example from my Enemy Exposure revisions:

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Make a revision plan/outline for each problem

Once I know how I want to solve my problems, it’s time to figure out how to practically apply my solutions. I take my freewrites and I go through my book and figure out which chapters and scenes need to be changed to incorporate my solution. Like in the last step, I tackled this problem by problem (as opposed to planning changes chapter by chapter). This keeps me focused on working in the necessary changes without getting caught up in the other moving parts of the book. I make a plan/outline for each of my problems, which looks like this:

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For more on how to make a revision plan, check out this post!

Make a revision schedule

Since I made my plan, I know exactly how much work I have to do. To keep myself on track, I make a revision schedule so I know what my goals and objectives are each day. I typically work from the biggest problem to the smallest.

Part of this is for practical reasons. It makes more sense to me to make the big changes first since they typically run through more of the book and are more likely to interfere with a smaller problem. I’d hate to take the time changing a small problem, only to realize a bigger problem’s solution interferes with my new change and I have to change the smaller problem again. The other part of this is about momentum. I typically have more momentum and enthusiasm at the start of a revision, so it’s psychologically better for me to use that energy up front, then work through the smaller problems, which are usually much quicker to work in. Comparatively, if I take out my smaller problems first, the big problems feel even more intimidating if I’m losing steam at the end of a revision.

Revise by problem

Just like everything else so far in this stage, I revise by problem. Not only does this keep me focused on fixing the one specific problem at a time, but it also makes my book new again when I go to read it. When I read my book after a drafting phase, I typically have an idea of how the book will read since I drafted sequentially. But when I read a revision, I have no idea how my changes will work in the book as a whole. Revising out of order gives the whole project a fresh perspective that I desperately need when I’m three drafts in.

Get feedback

At this point, I know my book pretty well. Even though revision makes my book new to some extent, I still need to hear from people who have no idea what happens. So I seek out some trusted early readers for some feedback. I did an entire series on feedback, and you can find the first post here!

Repeat once or twice

I repeat this process until I feel like I have a book that’s really working well. Typically I put a book through at least two or three revisions, but sometimes it’s more than that if the book needs it.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how I revise and I hope you find something here you might like to try!

You can find the last part of the series, Part Five: Editing and Polishing, here!

Now it’s your turn: What’s your approach to revision? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Evaluate Writing Advice: 7 Writing Tips

How to Evaluate Writing AdviceThere is a ton of writing advice out there! From books to one sentence nuggets to blogs just like this one, it seems like everyone has thoughts and opinions on how to write. And while there is plenty of great advice, there’s also a fair amount that’s not that great. So how do you tell the good from the bad? That’s what we’re going to take a look at today! (Shout out to commenter Johanna for inspiring this post!)

Understand why there’s SO MUCH advice

It’s important to know that the biggest reason why there is so much advice out there is because there are so many different ways to approach writing. There’s also a lot about writing that’s subjective. I’m sure you’ve found yourself in a situation where everyone is raving about a new book or TV show and you just don’t like it. Or maybe you’ve been the person really excited about a book or TV show only to come across someone who can’t stand it.

Everyone had different tastes and different minds. Which means when it comes to writing, we’re all going to have different things we want to see in books and different things we never want to see again. So before you do anything, recognize that you’re likely going to find conflicting advice and you shouldn’t follow every piece of advice you read. Everyone has different priorities, and sometimes those priorities won’t align with your own.

Only look for the advice you need

Now, because there’s so much advice out there, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by what you’re taking in. This is especially true if you’re just browsing Pinterest for general writing advice. Evaluating writing advice is important, but it’s hard to do if you’re overwhelmed that sheer amount you’re faced with.

So instead of just searching for “writing tips” search for advice on the specific problem you’re having. If you want tips on writing your first book or drafting, look for that. If you want tips on character creation, or plot development look for that. Whatever your problem is, only look for info on that one specific problem. This will narrow your search results, which should help you avoid overwhelm. If you come across an unrelated article that looks like it might be helpful for later, by all mean, save it. But don’t give it too much of your brain power until you’re ready to process and apply the information.

Try as much as possible (but ditch or modify as needed)

Once you’ve done your search for your specific problem, you are probably still faced with plenty of different techniques and approaches. Try as many as possible. You may be surprised by what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to ditch a method that isn’t proving useful, or to modify one that got you started, but isn’t quite right. Because there are so many approaches to writing, the only way you’re going to figure out the best approach for you is to get in there and try a bunch out. If a piece of advice works for you, add it to your toolbox. If it doesn’t, make note of that and move on. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer if something doesn’t work for you. It means you need a different approach.

For example, one piece of common advice I tried but I don’t follow is to write every day. I tried it. It didn’t help me, it drained me. Committing to writing 5-6 days a week helps me write regularly (which I believe is the point of the advice) without feeling fried all the time, so that’s an approach I added to my toolbox.

Consider if the advice will help your process or writing life

This applies mostly for drafting and process advice. Not every piece of advice you read will fit your life and your process. When you’re evaluating a piece of writing advice, consider if it will fit with you and your work style first and foremost. Just because a piece of advice worked well for a very successful writer doesn’t mean it will serve you well.

For example, if a person is struggling with ironing out their story, my first advice will always be to try brainstorming and outlining. Pre-writing like this really helps me, and it’s what I would do in that writer’s situation. If you’re someone who either likes outlining or has been curious about outlining, you might want to give my approach a shot. If your someone who has tried outlines, but never found them helpful, then you shouldn’t take this advice because it doesn’t fit your writing life. Instead, look for someone whose approach jives with your personal style at this stage of the process.

Consider if the advice will help you tell your story

This applies mostly for craft and structure advice. Every story is unique. And sure, there are some conventional approaches and structures that will help you tell an effective story, but every piece of craft and structure advice will not be true for every book. If you read a piece of advice that you think will strengthen your story, take it. If you come across advice that you honestly believe will hold your story back, don’t feel like you have to listen to it.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a fantasy and you come across advice that says the Hero’s Journey plot structure is the best structure for fantasy novels. You might look into the structure, realize all of your favorite fantasy books follow this structure and decide that it would really help your story. Or you might look at it and decide that so much of what you envision happens in the “ordinary world” so the plot structure doesn’t completely make sense for your story.

However, with that said, try to be open enough to consider honestly if the advice will help you–even if it means a lot of work or completely changing the direction of the book.

Understand where the giver is coming from

I truly believe in most cases writers give advice that has worked for them in the hopes that it might help another writer who is struggling with something similar. That’s largely why I blog. I learned so much from hearing other writers’ thoughts and techniques that I wanted to share mine too in case someone else might benefit. That doesn’t mean the thoughts or approaches shared by myself or anyone else is the “right” way to write. There’s plenty of advice I read that I don’t agree with or doesn’t serve me. That doesn’t mean those tips won’t serve someone else.

Most advice comes from writers, editors, or others with a strong understanding of what works for readers and what has worked for writers in the past. Every piece of advice cannot work for every writer or every story. Know that most advice is out there because it will work for some writers and some stories, and it’s up to you to decide if it will work for you.

Know that there’s now “right” or “sure fire” way to write

There are no guarantees in writing. Even if you find a process that works for you, it’s unlikely that it will work all the time. That’s just how writing is. No one has the secret to writing the perfect book time and time again. If you want to be traditionally published or tell a coherent story readers can follow, then there are absolutely some conventions you should consider adhering to, but at the end of the day, it’s all your call. If you don’t feel a piece of advice works for your process, your life, or your story, you are under no obligation to take it. No matter how wildly successful the person offering the advice is. It has to work for you and your story first and foremost.

Personally, I do my best to be open and to consider everything, but it all comes back to what will make me a more effective writer and storyteller. I follow the advice I believe will help me meet those goals.

As always, I hope this helps!

Now it’s your turn: How do you evaluate writing advice? Did I miss anything? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process – Part 3: Drafting

My Writing Process Part 3: DraftingWelcome to Part 3 of My Writing Process series! In this series, I break down my writing process and share what I’ve found works best for me in the hopes that some of my process might help you too! (Missed the first two parts? Find them here: Part 1 – Brainstorming, Part 2 – Outlining.) At this point in the process, I’ve thought and I’ve planned, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly what I’m going to write. Which means it’s time to start drafting! I consider the construction of the first two drafts to be my “drafting” phase. Let’s take a look at what they entail!

Draft One

Set project and daily word count goals

At this point, through trial and error, I’ve come to learn what my general goals should be for a first draft. Typically, I shoot for a 60,000 word count draft goal. I tend to underwrite my early drafts, so while my finished books have been between 80k-100k, they’ve all started with 60k first drafts. If you’re someone who overwrites, you might want to shoot higher and be prepared to cut. Publishers like most novels to fall between 70k-100k (with exceptions, of course), but there’s no “right” number for a first draft. It really comes down to your writing style and how much or little details you like to write while you figure out your story.

The daily goal is dependent on the book. If I’m writing a book that’s more fast-paced, I tend to write quicker and move from scene to scene pretty easily, so in those cases, I start with a higher goal. But if the book seems a little more methodical, I tend to write slower, so a lower word count goal makes more sense. Typically, my daily goal is usually 2,500-3,000 words a day, and that’s something else I’ve figured out through trial and error. As a writer, my goal is to write as much as I can each session without killing myself. Any more than this and I feel fried and even a little burnt out.

Create a writing schedule

Once I know my goals, I get a calendar and plan exactly when I’m going to write. Typically I write 2-3 hours a day, 5 days a week, so a draft can take me anywhere from a month to six weeks. Again, this is something I figured out through trial and error. I tried being a writer who writes every day and I burned out pretty quickly. Even writing less, but writing every day, didn’t work for me. I need a few days where my brain can turn off and completely reset, so I take weekends off as much as possible. I’ve learned I can do a six day writing week if I have to, but five days a week is my ideal.

Daily drafting

I do my drafting in Scrivener, but any word processor or notebook will work! Some people draft best if they write slowly and take breaks. I’ve found I draft best when I draft fast and messy, and if I let myself get totally locked in and power through my session. My only concern for a first draft is to follow my outline and to meet my word count goal. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter if the writing is bad or scenes don’t completely make sense, or if I lose a character or contradict myself. I’ll fix it later.

To keep me from overthinking, I try to plan my days to the minute when I’m drafting. This limits my writing time so I don’t have any extra time to think too much. If at the end of the day, I reach my word count goal and moved my outline along, I’ve had a good day, regardless of the quality of my writing or the book as a whole.

It’s also worth noting, that I started writing on the clock when I tried writing “out.” So if you want to learn more about the benefits of writing “out,” I’ve got a post for that too! And for more on drafting on the clock, check out this post.

Dealing with issues

Since I’m prioritizing quantity over quality, there are A LOT of issues that come up as I write. The most important thing about a first draft is that it gets finished. Because of that, I don’t want to stop to writing to fix every problem that springs up. Instead, I keep a notebook next to me and jot down all the problems I find as I write. This way, I can keep moving forward without worrying I’ll forget what I need to fix later. As long as an issue doesn’t prevent me from moving forward, I keep working.

If I figure something out that does significantly change the course of the rest of the book, or if what I’m writing feels so wrong that pushing through is truly painful, then I will stop, re-outline, and create a new schedule. Typically, this happens pretty rarely thanks to my outlining, but it does come up from time to time.

Take a break

After I finish my first draft, I try to take about a week away from the story to clear my head and give me a fresh perspective. If I don’t feel fried, I’ll work on another project (learn more about a creative shift here), but if I do feel fried, I take a complete writing break and catch up on some TV or do something else that doesn’t overtax my brain.

Draft Two

Read the last draft (or not)

I usually don’t share my first drafts with anyone, largely because I don’t need help or feedback yet. At this point, thanks to my own notes, I have a good enough idea of what I need to do, that I don’t need anyone else to weigh in. Sometimes, I’ll read the first draft and take more notes about the changes I want to make. Other times, if the book really felt like a total disaster while writing it and I know I’m going in a very different direction, I won’t bother reading it. I’ll go right into prepping the next draft.

Brainstorm and outline

Once I have my notes and changes, I go back through and brainstorm and outline just like I did for the first draft.

Open a blank document

Because I drafted so quickly, I change A LOT between my first and second drafts. So much so that I’ve found the best thing I can do for myself is to retype the second draft in a blank document. I’ve found that because I change so much, it’s easier to start with a blank page than try to squeeze changes into the terrible draft I have. I don’t get rid of the first draft entirely. I print it out and keep it next to me so I have easy access to the good stuff, but I retype everything–even the stuff I plan to keep.

Sometimes, I will completely trash the draft altogether if I’m changing it that much, but often times, I’ll end up retyping at least half the draft. It sounds a little unconventional, but approaching my second drafts this way really opened up my writing process. I did a whole post about this technique, so if you want to learn more, check it out here!

Draft again

Then, I start drafting again. I follow the same approach as the first draft. Typically by this point, I have a better understanding of my story and my world, which means there are more aspects I want to explore. Because of that, I usually increase my word count goal to 70k. I also may give myself a little extra time each day. Now that I have a better idea of the story, I try a little harder to write the story I envision. There’s still a fair amount that I will need to fix later, but I try to be a little more purposeful with what I’m writing this time around. Other than that, my approach stays the same.

Share with Readers

When I finish this draft I still have another list of notes of changes I want to make, but usually by this point, my story is developed enough that I’m ready for other people’s input. I send my book to anywhere from 1-3 people I feel like I can trust to see what I want this story to be, and who can help me get it closer to my vision. It’s important for me to have people I can talk things out with and bounce ideas off of, so my early readers are essential to my process. If you want more on this, I have a whole series on feedback you can check out. Here’s the first post.

That’s how I approach drafting! I hope this helps with your process!

You can catch Part Four: Revision here!

Now it’s your turn: How do you draft? What do you struggle with when you draft? What helps you keep at it? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process-Part 2: Outlining

My writing Process--Part 2: outliningLast month I started a series on my writing process! I started this series largely because a lot of you asked for it! The first post was all about brainstorming. If you’ve read that post, you know most of my brainstorming happens in the form of freewriting. Once I’ve freewritten the story to death and I have a good idea about the characters, the world, and the general plot and storylines, it’s time to make it start to look like a book. For me, this means outlining!

Of course, not every writer is outliner. You may have heard that there are generally two schools of thought for prewriting. The planners who outline and try to work out their story first, and the pantsers, who fly by the seat of the paints and figure the story out as they go. I am definitively a planner. What I’ve come to realize is that when I write, I don’t do well when I try to do two things at once. I can’t think about the story and write the story at the same time. Outlining gives me the space to think first and write second. I’ve also learned that if I don’t know what to write next, I’m more likely to let my characters wander aimlessly, and I have a hard time staying motivated and showing up on a regular basis.

I’ve also found that I get the most out of my story if I have a series out outlines that get progressively more detailed and specific. This gives me and my story room to grow and evolve. Here’s how I approach my outlines:

1) Outline the Plot

I already have an idea of what I want the plot to look like from my freewriting stage. Now it’s time to give that plot an actual plot-like structure. My outlining starts with my favorite plot structure is this three-act structure. I like this plot structure because it focuses on consistently raising the tension in the story, which helps create a steady build to the climax. I also like it because it has more crisis points/rising actions than most plot structures I’ve come across. Thinking of my story like this helps me create a more balanced and consistent story. Here’s an example of an early plot outline from Enemy Exposure:

Plot Outline
Click to enlarge

Each important plot point gets its own color in the chart, then I briefly expand on each point around the structure. I don’t plot every storyline like this–just the main plot. That’s what ultimately drives the story, so that’s my main concern. But I do tend to have a bullet point outline for each storyline I use so I know what needs to happen and can plan accordingly when the time comes.

2) Outline the Character Arc

Once I have the plot outlined, I go back and make a second chart just like the first, only this time, it’s for my character. I look at each of the plot points I worked out in the previous outline and I figure out how they tie into my character’s development. Typically in my brainstorming, I’ve come up with one big developmental lesson I want my main character to learn. In order to maximize my plot, I try to make sure that each plot point pushes my character closer to learning this lesson.

For example, in my first book, I wanted my main character to learn to trust people, so I made sure each plot point somehow challenged her to trust the other characters more than she was generally comfortable with. I try to keep the same pacing as the plot here. So, in the beginning, the developmental challenges for my character will be relatively small and grow as the story progresses. This outline typically looks the same as the one above. For more on how I use plot and character together, check out this post!

3) Pacing Outline

Once I have the plot and character outlines done, I start to think about how these points will fit into the overall book. I want to make sure I have the crisis points evenly distributed so there’s a consistent build throughout the book. To help with that, I make a pacing outline. I typically shoot for thirty chapters in a first draft. (There’s no real reason for this–I just found that’s a good marker for me.) I take a page in my notebook and write the chapter numbers down the left side of the page. Then I go through and estimate roughly where I should hit each point of crisis. I put a small dot next to those chapter numbers. Sometimes I have to move them a chapter or two, but I try to keep it close to my original estimate.

Next, I go to each chapter and write one or two key events that happen in that chapter with a focus on building to the next plot point. I’ll also touch on key moments in my subplots, but they’re still not my primary goal. I try to keep it short, but as you’ll see, I typically have a hard time with this and end up squeezing as much as I can onto each line. Sometimes as I’m outlining, I’ll add post-its with key scenes I want to make sure I include in the final detailed outline. Here’s one of Enemy Exposure‘s pacing outlines:

Pacing Outline
Click to Enlarge

4) Detailed Outline

Now that I’ve got my story paced, it’s time to really dig in and figure out what’s going to happen in each chapter. For this outline, I get three sheets of computer paper and position them so they’re landscape. Then I fold them so I end up with six squares. Each square is a chapter. I fill the page front a back, so each piece of paper has twelve chapters. Then I go through and figure out exactly what will happen in each chapter. This is also where I start to really consider each storyline–there’s typically around five or six. I use a different colored pen for each plotline. This makes outlining more fun for me, and it also makes it easy to see if a plotline appearing consistently enough. I’ll use post-its if I want to add to a chapter or make a change based on something I work out later in the outline. Here’s some of an Enemy Exposure outline:

Detailed Outline
Click to Enlarge

A lot of times, if there’s going to be a problem in my story, I find it in the outline. It shows me if a storyline is too flat or if there’s an aspect of my characters or world I need to develop more before I write. However, there’s no substitute for actually writing the story and discovering what it is and isn’t supposed to be. If you follow me on Instagram, you know I still do a fair amount of revision. The biggest way these outlines help me is to give me a direction and a goal. They make it so every day, when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I need to do, which makes it easier to keep moving my story forward.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how I use outlining and how it may help your process!

You can find Part Three: Drafting here!

Now it’s your turn: Are you an outliner? How much outlining do you do? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process-Part 1: Brainstorming

My Writing Process: Part 1--BrainstormingLast month I sent out a survey to my newsletter subscribers (you can sign up in the sidebar or at the end of this post) asking what types of posts they’d like to see more of. A lot of people asked for more process posts and for more about my own writing process. So with that in mind, I’m kicking off a series that’s going to be all about my writing process! First up, brainstorming!

There are some writers out there who, when asked about their favorite part of the writing process, say something to the extent of “whatever part I’m not doing.” I am not one of those writers. While I genuinely enjoy each stage of the process for different reasons, the earlier in the process my book is, the happier I am. So, brainstorming is unquestionably my favorite.

I think this is partly because I’m more of a big picture person, so the less I have to sift through the details and explain the science or reason behind some small-but-essential plot point, the better. And partly because I love writing because I love the characters and their MOMENTS. At this stage, all I have are the characters and their moments and no problems. I don’t have to worry about why a part of the plot can’t happen or doesn’t make sense. The story isn’t developed enough to be difficult yet, which makes it so much fun!!

When I start brainstorming, I do a lot of freewriting in both a notebook or on my whiteboard wall (more about my wall here). Here’s how I break down my brainstorming:

The Idea

The idea for book starts with a spark (perhaps you know the feeling?) that usually comes after watching a tv show or movie with a concept that intrigues me. I got the idea for Crossing the Line when I was watching The Avengers. Once I realized that main character Black Widow wasn’t always one of the good guys, I became fascinated with what the transition from bad to good must have looked like and I needed to explore that more. The idea for a book I’m finishing up came after watching a Netflix series (but I’ll share more about that down the line). Nearly all of my ideas have come to me after watching something.

Typically I let the idea cook in my brain for a month or two. From time to time, I may jot down some notes, but letting the story develop a little on its own has always been good for me. I can’t tell you why, but if I try to write things down too soon, I find I run out of steam quickly. I tend to have a very loose idea of my main character, the immediate supporting characters, the world, and the story before I put anything on paper.

Then, when I feel like I need to write it down, I take my brainstorming to paper and start freewriting. This is the most scattered and undeveloped my story will ever be. Usually, by this point, all of my thinking has given me a handful of key moments for my characters to experience. I write those moments down. They’re messy, out of order, and I go off on tangents, but it’s awesome because it’s too soon for any of those things to be a problem.

The Characters

Once I have all of these rough ideas out of the way, it’s time to dig into the characters. I write commercial fiction, which means my books are more plot-driven. However, I’ve always liked to think that it’s my job to write an engaging plot so my characters have the opportunity to grow and overcome. So the plot may drive my story, but I write my plot for my characters first and foremost. I’ll do a dedicated freewrite for each of my main characters that focuses on these three big character questions. I’ll typically spend 2-3 notebook pages per character on the first question, 1-2 pages on the second, and 3-5 (or more, if I need it) on the last.

All three questions are important to the character, but to me, the last one is the most important for the book. I’ll do a complete freewrite on the entire arc for each major character as I see it at this stage. This freewrite typically focuses on key moments in the character’s story. There will be massive holes, but again, those things don’t matter right now. By the end, I have a big picture understanding of who my character is as a person and what their journey will be in the book. Sometimes these arcs change later. Sometimes they don’t.

The World

World building is probably one of my biggest weakness, especially at this stage. This is most likely because out of everything, it needs the most details ASAP to function. But at this point, I try not to go too crazy. I figure out the bare minimum I need to understand about my world for my characters to live in it. Typically, these essential locations and systems have shown themselves to me in that early idea freewrite. I’ll also develop any relevant history to the world.

For example, with my spy series, I knew I needed two spy agencies (the good guys and the bad guys). My character was staying with the good guys, so she needed a place to sleep, train, learn, and work. So I developed those place and some minor characters to go with them, which was enough to get my story off the ground. I also came up with the history of the agency on its own, and with my enemy agency. I approach the world building in all of my books very similar to this, though each story has slightly different needs.

The Main Plot

Once I have the characters and the world down, I start to freewrite the main plot. This stage of brainstorming often starts on my whiteboard wall to get some rough connections and ideas down, then when I’m out of room, I’ll transition back to my notebook. Typically in the idea freewrite, I’ve figured out what the main plot is and how the book ends. The character freewrites help me understand what I need out of the plot to serve my characters and the world gives me the vehicle to make it happen. This is where I bring it all together.

I do a freewrite of what the complete book would be at this stage. It’s essentially one big long summary that can run anywhere from 10-15 pages. It often leads me to uncover aspects of the story I hadn’t thought of and I go off on tangents to explore those ideas as I need to. Again, there’s still a lot of the story missing here, but it’s the first time it has any kind of book-like shape.

The Subplots and Weaknesses

I like to have a handful of subplots running through my books. Some of them I know from the start, but others surface in the main plot freewrite. At this point, I have a good idea of what those plots are, so I do a free write of each one independently. This helps me see how big the subplot it, how it connects to the main plot, and how it serves my characters. I tend to have anywhere from three to five subplots at this stage and each freewrite is around 3-5 pages long.

I do my best to only figure out what I need to know. That way I don’t get too locked into minor details while the book is so young. The main plot and subplot freewrites often expose some big holes and problems I overlooked earlier. If they’re problems I need to solve so I can write my story, I solve them now before I move on to the next step.

I hope this helps you build your own brainstorming process!

Check out part two of this series where I talk all about how I outline!  And if you want to see more about why I love freewriting so much and how it helps, check out this post.

Now it’s your turn: What approach do you take to brainstorming? Are you a freewriter like me or do you have another favorite approach? Tell me about it in the comments!

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