Perhaps Ernest Hemingway was being dramatic when he said 'There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.'
But writing a novel is a momentous undertaking that will challenge your imagination, your will, and, yes, even your sanity.
Many writers find themselves filled with ideas for stories demanding to be written. But when they sit down to write, facing the blank, empty page, it can feel impossible to start.
If you've got an idea for a novel, screenplay, or other kind of story, this article will get you ready to put pen to paper for the first draft.
We've put together valuable techniques for preparing and organising a first draft that writers of all experience levels – from complete beginners to professionals – can follow.
Many writers find it difficult to finish a first draft. Ideas fizzle out partway in; characters get stuck with seemingly no way out of a situation; insurmountable plot holes open up, swallowing all desire to continue writing.
Momentum and motivation are so important to finishing the first draft, but preparation is the real key to being able to overcome challenges as they arise.
So, without further adieu, let's get into it!
Step #1: Find a Writing Space
Most writers have a special space dedicated to their writing, such as a study room, a library, or even a shed (see: Roald Dahl).
Having a dedicated space helps get you in the writing mindset as soon as you enter the room.
If you write in the same place that you play video games or scroll through the internet, not only will you find yourself regularly tempted to do those easier activities, but you'll find it more difficult to get into the flow of writing.
It's important to maintain a creative space that is reserved exclusively for creative pursuits. This way, you can use your imagination freely without worrying about how you're going to make that work deadline, or how many likes your social posts are getting.
A big part of concentration is breaking free of distractions. Between messages and notification from mobile phones, and checking emails on the laptop, many people find themselves distracted constantly throughout the day.
If these distractions are allowed into the same space where the writing happens, they can make it difficult to maintain a writing 'flow-state'.
Even research can be a distraction. It can put a real handbrake on things if you suddenly jump out of a creative headspace and into a reading and research headspace.
When you're writing, it's inevitable that things will come up that need further research – whether that's the precise year of a particular event, or what kind of vegetables are likely to be grown as a staple food in cold climates.
Many writers find it useful to simply take note of areas that may need further research, then continue writing. The research can be returned to later.
So, with this in mind, what makes a good writing space?
- Try to find a place where you are unlikely to be interrupted. Preferably somewhere quiet and calm.
- To create a distraction-free environment, maintain a 'switched-off' area, removing mobile phones and disconnecting the internet.
- Clutter can also be distracting, so it's a good idea to keep the room as clean and minimalistic as possible. You may also find a window useful for giving your eyes a break.
- Having room for a bit of storage will be useful, since you will probably find yourself with an array of notes, research materials and reference books that you need to keep organised.
- Finally, the room will also ideally be well-lit to reduce eye strain. People often forget that writing is not just a mental activity, but also a physical one. An uncomfortable body, strained eyes, or distracted senses can make it near impossible to write well.
Step #2: Keep a Notebook
Many writers have been there: you're on the bus, or driving to work, and you get a brilliant idea for a story. You develop it over the course of the ride: settings, voices, dialogue, plot – all coming to you like magic.
But then you step off the bus or out of the car, and go about your day. And by the time you've remembered that you had a cool idea that morning, you've forgotten what the actual idea was.
Many writers suggest keeping a notebook for this very purpose. It's a great way to preserve those fleeting ideas you get throughout the day.
This strikes to the very heart of where ideas come from: the world around us. Every story originated as an idea, and that idea originated from the world the author lived in.
What if a boy went to boarding school... but it was a magic school? What if a farmboy was really bored of his life... but then found out his father was a Jedi?
The mind is constantly watching the world; trying to make sense of it, analysing it, making connections. Ideas are the new potential connections between things – the what ifs.
Ideas tend to come more frequently when there is more fodder for your mind to process, such as when you are out in the world.
This is why ideas can come at the most inconvenient times – but then, when you sit down to write, suddenly there are no ideas to be found.
This is why it's good practice for writers to keep a notebook close by at all times. A small pocket notebook can record all those spontaneous ideas that would otherwise go forgotten.
These ideas might turn out to be useless – or they might just get you out of a tight spot in your novel when you have no idea where to go next. Either way, ideas are the bricks that build stories, so it's good to have plenty of spares around!
It's best to keep a separate notebook dedicated to the ideas and planning for a single novel. Things can get messy very quickly if you find yourself sifting through unrelated journal entries, random thoughts and pieces of story ideas.
On the other hand, personal journaling in a separate notebook can be a great way to stimulate the language-creating part of your brain, helping to get into the habit of regular writing.
Interesting ideas can also come up when journaling that might just make their way into your story.
Almost every writer will find themselves daydreaming about their project while they go about their life. If you always have a notebook on hand, you can make sure you don't lose these valuable on-the-run ideas.
Step #3: Get Serious About Organisation
Ugh, organisation – isn't that the opposite of creative writing? Well, no. Whatever the stereotype of the scatterbrained creative says, any practice can benefit from a more systematic approach.
Creative writing is no different. The last thing you want is to have to trawl through five different notebooks and countless loose pieces of paper to find the note you're looking for.
Putting a little time into cataloguing your notes can be invaluable. For example, marking pages with different colours that correspond to different parts of the story will help you quickly navigate to what you need.
A potential method might be green for Act One, yellow for Act Two, and red for Act Three. Other ways of marking out your notes might be by scene, setting or character (particularly in stories with multiple point of view characters).
It can also help to transcribe notes into a more collected form. You might, for example, have a pocket journal where you take notes throughout the day as ideas come to you.
Then, when you get home, you might transcribe these into different journals sorted by type. You might keep a journal dedicated to Act One, or categorised in other ways as described above.
The other benefit of this method is that writing out your notes a second time will help consolidate ideas in your memory, building up a sense of your world and story.
This can make the writing process itself a lot smoother, since you won't need to be constantly referencing notes.
The next point of organisation has to do with how you set up your writing space.
Try to keep reference works at hand that you are likely to need. These might include novels you find inspirational (whether it's the prose style, pacing, or evocative atmosphere), a dictionary, a thesaurus or a creative writing book.
It may seem a bit prehistoric to have a physical rather than digital copy of a dictionary lying around, but by reducing your reliance on technology, this can help stop you from getting distracted.
Physical copies can also be useful idea-generating tools in themselves.
Opening a dictionary to a random page, or checking out synonyms for a certain word in the thesaurus, can stimulate your creativity and help come up with novel solutions if you ever get stuck.
Other miscellaneous steps for organisation include:
- Backing up your files! There's nothing worse than unexpectedly losing a quarter of a novel, or pages and pages of planning notes, to digital malfunction. When something is lost in this way, it not only sets your project back, but can also be terminally demotivating.
- Whiteboards, pinboards or a brainstorm on paper can provide a good visual map of a project for visually oriented thinkers. (A moodboard tool like Pinterest can be a digital alternative.)
- Writing a 'planning schedule' can help get you through these steps. Planning is just as much a part of writing as actual writing. Set aside a week where you can focus solely on planning. Each day, spend a few hours going through each step, and write out beforehand which days you will spend on which areas of planning.
A little bit of planning can go a long way. As silly as it sounds, planning how to go about your planning can in itself be extremely helpful!
Step #4: Figure Out Structure
Structure is what separates a story from the unstructured complexity of life. It's where a story begins and ends, as well as what it includes and omits in the telling.
For example, imagine you were to write a story about yourself. Where would you begin? With your birth, your first memory, the first job in the career you've dedicated your life to, or the first time you met your partner?
Similarly, where do you end the story? With death, an astounding success in your career, the time you married your partner and then 'lived happily ever after'?
The choice of where to begin a story and where to end it defines what the story is about.
It might be about a successful author, beginning with their first time writing a story out in crayon as an eight-year-old, and ending with their first successful novel publication.
Or it might be a love story that begins with meeting a romantic interest and ends with a happily ever after.
Both stories could be taken from the life of the same person – but they are different stories, defined by different structures.
With this in mind, it's easy to see why figuring out structure is a crucial step in planning your first draft.
It doesn't need to be a well-defined structure at this point – it can simply be a loose idea of what you're going to include and what you're going to omit.
For example: is it worth including the four years the protagonist spent training with the monks on the mountain?
On the one hand, it may stall the plot too much, if there is a larger story happening in the world that your novel is ultimately about.
On the other hand, training sequences can be a great way to show who your character really is, and to show them developing skills, acquaintances and knowledge that will be important later on.
Another caveat to keep in mind is that it will be difficult to create a really granular structure when the story idea you're working with is relatively young and undeveloped (even if you have been thinking about it for years).
Don't stress about working in too much detail at this point. It's best to work in broad strokes. Remember that anything you don't like in the first draft can easily be changed in the second draft.
Editing can be really freeing when you look at it this way. As Bob Ross said, there are no mistakes – only happy accidents!
Another interesting structure that may be less familiar is the classic Chinese, Japanese and Korean narrative structure of Kishōtenketsu.
But how do you apply all this theory to the practice of preparing to write your first draft? It's actually quite straightforward.
Simply write down dot points for what might happen at each stage in the story. Begin with broad rather than specific points; at this early stage, being too specific will only tie you in knots.
Also feel free to write down any other ideas, characters, or even scenes that come to you during this stage. They might be valuable later.
At this stage, a structure outline could look something like this:
- A village boy goes to the School of Magic.
- Through his arrogance, he unleashes a great evil.
- He must flee the School, chased by the evil. But the evil is connected to him, since he was the one who freed it, so he cannot escape it.
- Eventually, the boy learns that the evil is connected to him, and so is able to reverse the chase – now he is chasing it.
- He finally confronts it, and by doing so confronts his past irresponsible actions.
As you can see, outlines at this stage are best when they're very broad. This allows you to see the overall shape of rising and falling emotion and action in the narrative.
Step #5: Know Your Characters
More than any other element, characters are what make an emotionally gripping story.
Whether your story follows a single protagonist or many, it's crucial to have a good understanding of the people of your story, inside and out.
Once again, at this stage you shouldn't feel burdened to know everything about your characters, so don't stress about writing reams of character sheets or filling in every biographical detail.
By all means, do this if it helps you to write, but keep in mind that many writers find being overburdened with information actually hinders their creative process.
Many writers also discover and get to know their characters as they write. During the drafting process, many details about your characters can pop up as they become relevant.
This can be an exciting way to learn more about your own character, and can lead to a more authentic kind of character than could be imagined through filling in details on a character sheet.
On the other hand, a character sheet can prompt you to imagine parts of your character that you may otherwise not have even considered.
For example, how does he wear his hair? Tied up in a bun? Open, wavy and disheveled? Slicked-back and meticulously groomed?
All these details can tell us a lot about a character.
Another way to help develop a sense for your characters is through writing exercises. These will stretch your writing muscles while helping you develop your character, the world they live in, and a narrative voice that suits your story.
But most of all, hopefully you will have fun with them! It can be incredibly satisfying to stop and smell the roses in a world you've created.
And who knows? Some of the paragraphs, ideas, scenes or new characters you come up with might make their way into your main novel.
Two writing exercises in particular can be very helpful at this stage:
The Wake-up Scene
Write a short piece about your character waking up for the day. You might write a paragraph, a page, or a few pages. Think about the details of your character's everyday life, and what these tell us about them.
Is their bed comfortable and warm, or Spartan with cheap, scratchy sheets? Is their room sparse and minimalistic, or covered in memorabilia from their many journeys around the world?
Do they keep their curtains open through the night because they want to be woken naturally by the sun? Or maybe they sleep in a bunk on a spaceship, where they are awoken by the day-cycle of an automated lighting system?
Do they sleep soundly, or restlessly with a knife under their pillow?
Trying on Shorts
Write a short story (or two, or three) exploring an aspect of your character's life.
You can choose whether it is mundane or an exciting adventure. It might be a prelude to the main story of your novel, or could be them living in their old age.
As in the previous exercise, aim to reveal your character's personality and thoughts through the details of their life.
This one is a little more active, so you can also show how your character interacts with the world they live in, and with other kinds of people.
Step #6: Build A Coherent Setting
Whether your story is set in the contemporary world or in an entirely imagined fantasy realm, building a coherent setting is important to make the story feel situated.
There's nothing worse than reading a story where the characters feel like they're just floating around in an undefined space. It's confusing, and stops readers engaging with the story.
It's also disappointing when an interesting setting is relegated to mere set-dressing, with no real impact on the characters or plot.
Writers can avoid both of these potential issues by taking time to plan their setting in a structured way.
A writer should aim to be able to answer the following questions about their setting...
How does the setting affect the characters?
Think of how your characters are situated in the world.
How do they provide for their everyday necessities (food, water, shelter)? Where in the world do they live, and how does this affect their everyday life? (Think climate, culture and landscape.)
You can also think along social and psychological lines. What is their social standing or status? How do the world's cultures, religions or spiritual beliefs affect the way your character thinks?
For example, a hunter in a harsh polar climate, who subsists only on the fish they catch, might follow a set of spiritual beliefs that hold hunting as the utmost virtue, while foraging is something practised only by the weak.
Similarly, a character who grew up on a spaceship might find open spaces terrifying.
These kinds of details make your character memorable and specific, while also making them more authentic in the context of the story's setting.
How does the setting affect the plot?
Answering this question will make the setting feel like an integral part of the story being told, rather than a piece of tacked-on set dressing.
Think of culture and geography. Depending on the world, a protagonist may need to spend a lot of time travelling (such as in Middle-earth or Westeros).
Meanwhile, a culture living on spaceships for generations might be very stingy about recycling everything, since they subsist on nothing more than what's onboard the ship.
This might make it very difficult for a protagonist who wants to leave the ship to be allowed access to a shuttle.
Contrary to what many may think, this step is not much different for writing a story set in the modern world compared with writing in a fantasy or science fiction world.
Writing a great setting isn't necessarily about creating an interesting, believable place; it's about suggesting one.
No matter how much world-building is done, the story is usually only going to focus on a small part of the larger world.
Writers can often fall into the trap of endless world-building: feeling like they need to fully build a real, convincing world before they can start the story.
In most cases, however, writers will find that just a little bit of detail will go a long way.
This is true for fantasy and science fiction as well as for contemporary settings. And because of this, contemporary settings are just as much of a construction as fantasy settings.
With that in mind, how can a writer actually create an adequate setting for a story? How much creation should happen before as opposed to during the writing process? And what details are the most important to prioritise?
The above questions help to set a target for when to finish planning. Once these questions are satisfactorily answered, you can be sure you're ready to move on.
Writers should have a decent enough sense of their setting that they feel comfortable manoeuvering around in the world as they write.
Readers, after all, can always tell when places or people are being avoided because the writer doesn't want to tackle the world-building it would involve to include them in the story.
Step #7: Plan for the Writing Process
You protagonist isn't going to be the only one overcoming obstacles! Writing novels is truly a marathon – it takes endurance and consistent motivation.
It also takes some degree of preparation. You wouldn't start a marathon without a water bottle, after all.
Similarly, it's best not to start writing your first draft without an action plan for when you start to get dehydrated.
Writing, especially in the first draft stage, is about gaining and maintaining momentum. That is, building excitement for the story you have planned, and building up the practice of writing as a habit.
Every writer's mileage varies. Daily writing goals can be as little as 200, 500 or 750 words, or as much as 5,000 words. (Even writing 200 words every day means you can finish a 70,000 word novel in a year.)
The lower end of these suggestions may suit those with busier or more demanding daily lives, while the higher ends may suit those with the time and energy for an extended commitment to their writing.
Depending on what you find more motivating, you might like to measure time spent at the writing desk rather than words written. Whatever you choose, it's important to ensure you don't over-commit.
Remember, writing the first draft is a marathon. Consistent pace is what's most important, not sprinting a kilometre and then being too exhausted to finish the race.
Some other tips for maintaining momentum, even on off days, include:
- Don't feel obligated to write in linear order on days when you just aren't feeling like writing a certain section of your story. You can write any chapter you want: the beginning, the end, Chapter Three or Chapter Thirty. Find a part of the story that inspires you and write from there.
- If you're really stuck for ideas, just begin a sentence with one of these: 'There I/he/she was...', 'As I see it... / As he/she/they saw it...', or, 'That was when...'
- Try beginning in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or idea. Keep going forward with it, and fill in the rest later.
- Try Hemingway's technique of finishing every writing session in the middle of a sentence so that you immediately know what to start writing next time.
- Take a moment before the start of every writing session to define your aims for that session. Having a direction in mind will help keep you motivated, and make the story feel like it's going somewhere.
- Take stock of what's going on in the story and what needs to happen next.
- Write little notes in the margins to help you remember. For example, you might write, 'Garf needs to find the amulet here', 'Here Jacinda hates George but is pretending to like him', 'Setting up here for how he's going to escape'.
Overall, remember to not overburden your first draft with expectations, or to try to perfect every part of the story before moving forward.
Maintaining momentum is crucial to getting through your first draft, and it's invaluable to have a plethora of techniques you can try to get unstuck.
From the practicalities of the room you're writing in, to the extent to which you should detail the imaginary world of your story, there are many details of the writing process to consider before beginning the first draft of a novel.
It certainly is possible to write a novel without this preparation, and many writers have. But approaching a project systematically can help you to finish it faster, more easily, and with more consistency (i.e. with fewer abandoned stories).
First drafts are never perfect. They're the blocking out of an illustration, the sketch of a painting, the seedling of a tree.
But writers shouldn't be disheartened by this. A first draft is a wonderful thing – not because of how well-written it may (or may not!) be, but because of the potential it represents.
You alone can bring out this potential. When you've finished your first draft, celebrate your momentous achievement, then go back and edit it to make it the best story it possibly can be.