When people compliment my ability to “write an entire book,” they’re usually talking about the first draft. Lots of prolific short story and essay writers can’t imagine writing 80,000-100,000 words on the same project. Just typing that number feels intimidating. Writing a novel can seem a lot like climbing Mt. Everest: a feat limited a select few industrious, or simply deranged, souls.
It’s not. If I can write a novel, so can you. And everyone feels intimidated or discouraged at some point in the process. Here are a few reminders for when that happens.
Your goal is to produce bad writing in the first draft
No, really. Think of the first draft like a sculptor’s first rough cut. It resembles the final statue, but only in hindsight.
There are two reasons to write a terrible first draft. For starters, you need a finished something to edit later. The true magic happens — and the book of your dreams takes shape — in the editing and rewriting stages. Without a first draft, you have nothing to work with.
And imagine if a sculptor refined each small area of the statue before moving on. The finished product would look nice in its components, but distorted as a whole piece. Focusing too hard on individual scenes and chapters early on can lead to a weak overall structure.
This will be difficult. Once you reach a certain level of writing skill, you develop better taste as a reader. You’ll need to throw that good taste out the window. Editing as you go will only kill your confidence and motivation. There will be plenty of time to produce a fantastic novel later.
It’s okay to skip around
If you’re struggling with a scene or chapter and can’t seem to get out of your own way, skip it. Write the scene you’ve been thinking about in the shower every day. Work on scenes as they come to you and fill in the gaps as you’re able.
Same goes for finding the perfect word. Don’t worry about it in the first draft. I had a colleague who would use the word “lobster” as a placeholder when she couldn’t think of a good word. This helped her keep her flow until she finished a section of work, at which point she’d go back and fix the lobsters.
Highlight nearby text or use your word processor’s commenting feature to bookmark passages that need more work. I frequently make notes like “write scene with MC’s mom here” to remind myself of holes I need to fill before I call the manuscript done.
Listen to your characters
First drafts are a getting-to-know-you exercise for you and your characters. Some writers like to outline a novel’s plot ahead of time, others like to listen to the characters and discover the details as they go. Either way, you won’t know your characters deeply until after the first draft.
Keep a quick, light touch and listen to what your characters tell you. In art school, I had a figure drawing professor who made us draw sketches of the model in five minutes, then two minutes, then 30 seconds, and finally 10 seconds. I captured more of the essence of the model and pose in 30 seconds than I ever did in a drawing I labored over for an hour. Don’t overthink the rough sketches of your first draft. Don’t do anything painstaking or lovely. Let the characters lead the way.
Just keep writing
All this advice comes down to one thing: keep going no matter what. Don’t worry about writing beautiful prose or keeping your chapters in order – yet. Write every day, even if you only get 100 words on the page.
Of course, this can be difficult even for the most confident writer because most of us don’t write for a living. To finish a full first draft, you need to fit a daily writing practice between your work and family responsibilities.
I wrote my first novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2009. The group accountability, the deadline, and the fact that I’d announced my intentions to everyone I knew kept me writing to the 50,000-word mark. I finished my most recent book thanks to a few solo trips to my family’s beach bungalow, which conveniently lacks internet access. A busy mom and writer I know uses a dictation app on her phone when she can’t sit down to write.
However you keep your momentum, try to stay in the zone with your first draft. Put your head down and write until you cross the finish line. Then take a break and return to the real world for a little while before you start to edit.