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How To Write The Rough First Draft Of A Novel For The First Time In Your Life

On Thursday morning I saved a file of 75,575 words called “First Draft ACM 8.23.2018.” That overly portentous phrase means, First Draft All Changes Merged August 23rd 2018. In other words, over the past year I have written 75K words, and merged all previous changes into the first draft of a novel.

It’s extremely rough, I mean, let’s just say that right up front. By the end I was simply throwing words at a page. There are still notes inline like WRITE MORE HERE. I have to spend next week cleaning it up to send to my writing partner. But since my original goal was only to write 75K words that told a story from beginning to end, I am taking a moment to blink and consider.

I mean, it feels weird.

First I was exhilarated. Briefly. I had to admit to myself that I got where I said I would go.

Then I felt something (what, intent?) hiss right out of me. I deflated. Turns out despite how hard it has been to sit down five days/week to do this, I am (as I suspected) someone who needs a big project underway if she is to sleep at night. Otherwise I make a big project out of waking up at 2am and figuring out how to get back to sleep.

But if I speak to myself in a kind but clear voice I remind myself that acknowledging milestones and taking small breaks are critical parts of big projects. I remember that someone here asked me what my process has been, and that maybe now is the time to answer.

It’s been more of an experience than a process, if that makes sense. But here goes:

One Possible Way Out Of An Infinite Number To Write The First Draft Of A Novel For the First Time In Your Life

(Note that the order may not be 100% accurate. Who at the hearth can remember the fray?)

  1. One day in the spring of 2017 find yourself  thinking about a scene, two women, one older, one younger.  Then think about their larger relationship. Find that the idea of that relationship doesn’t leave you.
  2. Now research How To Write A Novel, find a site called Master Class, sign up for the one with James Patterson. He writes supermarket thrillers. Find this quite amusing, also decide to use the thriller genre as your putative structure.
  3. Research locations and technology. Imagine three main characters – three because the minute you choose to write a thriller you need a bad guy. All of this will change when you start writing.
  4. Take your time.
  5. In October, write a first chapter, just to see if you can do it.
  6. In early December, travel to Minneapolis, where you have for no good reason at all felt compelled to set much of your story. Get cold. Excruciatingly cold.
  7. That Christmas, give said first chapter to your two children, to see if they say it’s stupid and you should stop. They do not say that.
  8. In January, start to write in earnest. Set what feels like an achievable goal, only to finish a rough first draft.
  9. Make an outline in Google Docs. All of this will change when you start writing.
  10. Sit down every morning, Monday-Friday, and write for an hour, or two, if you’re amazingly lucky and/or crazy, three. Develop new respect for authors.
  11. Get a writing partner.
  12. Try using notecards and post-its to plan one set of scenes. Stick them to a closet door. Write the scenes, then revert to your Google outline while the post-its fall off the closet door.
  13. Make a spreadsheet to keep track of your plot by characters, by date, and emotional tenor. Realize they don’t talk about story “arcs” for nothing.
  14. Decide you have to write in sections. A, B, C, D, E. Find that amusing, also refuse to write a section F and call it Endings instead.
  15. Write some more. Redo your outline. Redo your spreadsheet. Write some more. Rise from the sofa in exasperation often, saying, out loud, “Bah humbug!” This will help you keep perspective on the foolishness of what you are attempting.
  16. Arrive at a milestone. Realize that the concept of ending a novel is one of the most fluid things in the known universe.

Then tell your very nice and supportive blog readers what you’ve done (as best you can).

And what now?

I have defined the next milestone. Call it, “A Polished First Draft.” Meaning, something I would not be embarrassed to show to a person who reads or writes books for a living. I hope to keep working with my current writing partner; I think I will also need to expand the audience. I’m thinking about joining a writing group.

Also must edit. Edit, edit, edit.

Final thoughts. It’s weird, trying to write a novel. To move from the very cognitive and fact/detail-filled process of plotting and outlining, to what is, for me, the almost unconscious process of actually writing scenes – it’s nigh-on psychedelic. Like, what even IS a brain? And there’s absolutely zero guarantee that the intensity of my experience means I’m any good at it. Could be transformative and intoxicating for me, garbage on the page.

But at the moment I feel like no matter what the outcome it’s been an adventure.

I guess that if I give up, or eventually fail to find an agent or get published, I’ll feel disappointed. I might even feel terrible, I have no way of knowing. In this kind of thing, where nothing exists except by my hand, I have to move forward on what little I do know. Writing this thing (hard to call it a book, since it’s just that file, All Changes Merged etc.) has made the only life I’ve got more satisfying. So I will keep going.

I feel happier about this entire experience – about what I’ve learned, about what it does for my days – than I do about any success in achieving the original goal. That seems important.

I hope you are having a wonderful weekend. Advice for the day, might be useful, move the goalposts towards you.

68 Responses

  1. Huge congratulations! And thank you for this wise advice, which I’m taking to heart today. Moving the goalposts a bit closer —I think I might just make that my goal for today.
    Also, I love that your kids read a chapter first and encouraged you to keep at it. One of my daughters asked me the other day, “So, this thing you’re writing. Are your children allowed to read it?” Might have to take a belated leaf from your book (goalposts and book leaves, I can really mix my metaphors

    1. @Frances, Metaphors are made to mix! And I knew I could trust my kids to tell me the truth, which was what I most needed right at the start.

  2. I am so proud of you Lisa. What an achievement! Love hearing about your process. During thirty years of teaching writing to high school students, and not being a published writer myself, I have long been fascinated by reading what writers write about how they write. It’s something we talked about a lot in class. And everyone is different in some ways and many are similar in others. This is so cool. Deep breath, now. And then get editing, I guess.

    1. @Sue Burpee, Thank you! Would never even have tried it without the blog. At some point in the future, when I’ve either stopped or else gotten comfortable with this, I’d love to read about other people’s processes.

  3. That’s an amazing achievement, and you should be so proud. How did you arrive at 75K words for your goaL?

    Also, are you able to mentally put it aside when you’re done writing for the day or do you think about it at 2am and make notes???

    What’s a writing partner? Sorry for so many questions….xo

    1. @KSL, More than happy to answer the questions:). Thank you for the encouragement.

      75K is the lower end of the recommended number of words for this type of book. I always write short, so I picked the lower end. It helped to have a goal, helped me structure the plot (not that it’s well-structured, but, it has a structure of some sort:))

      I can put it aside, except when I’m in the shower after I’ve been writing, then ideas come, but I like it. Before I go to sleep I actually make an effort to think about what I have to do the next day – maybe I hope that will give my brain something to do while I sleep? Or maybe just so I won’t wake up having forgotten everything I knew.

      And a writing partner, as we’ve done it, means we have been sending sections to each other as we go along, and then sending back whatever feedback the other asks for – very general in this first go round.

  4. So interesting Lisa ! The first thing that struck me was how unlike the process of visual art – for me at least . The second that maybe writing fiction isn’t so different from non-fiction ie dissertations , theses etc . And above all how impressive an achievement !

    1. @Rukshana Afia, I would guess it does differ from the visual arts. In my experience it also differs from writing analytical non-fiction. I’ve had to toggle between logical brain and less conscious brain and it’s been WEIRD.

  5. Congratulations! Getting your first draft done is a huge achievement. I’m so happy that we readers are part of your un-numbered step 17. I know only about writing legal briefs and articles, not about writing novels, but in my field getting the first draft done was always the hardest part. The refining and sharpening wasn’t easy, but at least you had the story down and were no longer starting from scratch. I hope the same is true for you. Take a well-deserved break, pat yourself on the back, and come back refreshed and renewed to tackle the next part of the project.

    1. @MJ, Thank you for the good advice. I am interested to hear that legal briefs/articles are the same, the first draft being the hardest part. Not having written anything long since 1978 when I graduated from college, I really wouldn’t have known.

  6. Congratulations! It’s a marvelous achievement. That you’re happier for it really says it all.

  7. This is terrific – you should be so proud! Also, in truth, I cannot wait to get to a time in my life where I can prioritize writing a novel. How tremendously awesome is that?! You are a woman with time and means and intelligence and impulse. That’s everything. Congrats to you for getting to this stage and I wish you lots of joy in getting to the next one.

    1. @K-Line, Thank you. Time, yes, means, yes, intelligence I hope, impulse – it wasn’t an impulse it was a long held desire and it STILL took and takes so much self-discipline. So I am very fortunate to be in a place where I even have the opportunity to whip myself into doing it five mornings/week;).

  8. Lisa, You will never regret writing this novel. That, I can say with certainty.
    As process becomes memory I think you will admire your resolve and realize how truly rare such an undertaking is.
    As my father used to say we only regret the things we don’t do.
    Remember the skill to publish is quite different than one to write.
    Along with your other readers I congratulate you. For right now enjoy this time. It is an accomplishment like few others in life.


  9. Congratulations Lisa! You’ve achieved what you set out to do on the Spring of 2017. A tremendous accomplishment. Well done and looking forward to future updates on the book. xx

  10. Lisa, your description of your novel-writing process is so interesting to me. Thanks for describing this and for not prettifying it. Yes, writing is messy and psychedelic and constipating and infuriating and exhilarating and depressing and boring and electrifying and exhausting and disappointing and so very precious.

    But for those who are writers (and we know who we are) and whatever our favored writing form(s), write we must. On that note, this morning I read an old essay by Zen priest Norman Fischer, which you may have already seen … Norman Fischer, “Why I Have to Write”

    So I send you hearty congratulations on finishing your First Draft All Changes Merged and wish you the very best in your upcoming Polishing First Draft Project. I would love to read that draft.

    P.S. Writing groups can be wonderful. In my experience, like spouses, they should be a good fit, which means, like Rocky and Adrian, they should fill gaps. :)

    1. @Ann, Thank you. Maybe if/when I have a polished first draft I can put into a broader set of hands I will look back at this post and email me. Again, thank you. You’re clearly further down this path than I.

  11. Lisa this is awesome. I think you should keep at this. Do not be afraid and remember every author began the same way. You above all the bloggers, have writing talent and I look forward to your novel! I just saw a great quote today, ‘Everything you want is on the other side of fear.’ Kick butt! xo Kim

  12. Congratulations, Lisa! Give yourself a huge pat on the back and allow yourself a bit of puffing with pride. You set yourself a challenging task, and through diligence, determination, and daring, you have completed it with energy to spare.

    Now set it aside for a while and give yourself a treat – a new sweater, a spa day, a long walk on the beach, whatever pleases you. Refresh your head and your heart (and give those typing fingers a break!).

    Your novel (ACM) will be there when you are ready to return. I hope you will enjoy reading it, and (re)discovering what you wrote. Then the (metaphorical) red pencil comes out and you start the polishing process … with all of us cheering you on!

    1. @victoire, Thank you:). So far the only treat I’ve given myself is the freedom to do exactly as I please, every day. But that feels pretty good.

      I am, however, itching to get back to it. At least to start looking at the plot outline again:). Trying to hold off so as to let the brain cells, and yes, the fingers, recuperate.

  13. Wow Lisa, that’s awesome! As in, I am in awe.

    I remember last year in Vancouver when you were talking about starting the process, and look, here you are! Yay you!

  14. The fact that writing is making a positive difference for you is a very good thing all by itself. I especially like your topic — working women in high tech. There is so much to say about this topic. I can’t wait to learn more about the direction you take this topic.

    1. @Susan, Thank you. It has been a good thing all by itself indeed. I am glad you like the topic – there is so much to say I am sure I’ll get to maybe 5% of it, but I will do my best on that 5%.

  15. I really enjoy reading your posts here and am thrilled that you have written a piece 75-frickin’-K long! Wow. Huge congratulations! It’s a juicy length to be sure. Next steps, next steps, but for now, maybe print that out and fan yourself with the pages. Hahaha!! Again, well done!

  16. Hello Lisa, I admire you for sticking to this and accomplishing so much, and especially in the complex format of a longer novel. Writing a larger work is much different than an accumulation of small writings, but is it possible to calculate how many words you have written for this blog?

    1. @Parnassus, Thank you. And that’s a good question – I wonder how many? Since February of 2009, must be a lot;). Writing the blog definitely taught me how to sit down every morning and write. I am having to learn arcs and characters and plot continuity;). So complex.

  17. Congratulation,Lisa! To finish a first draft of one’s first novel is really a great achievement-you have to be very proud of yourself
    It must have been a huge adventure and journey and now the other one begins-with the first (step)draft…..
    It is wonderful when you can share it from the beginning with your children
    And it is great,when you have it (inspiration,ability,drive…) in yourself,to make it a project and follow your dream.
    I liked to read about the process
    I wonder-did you wanted to write a book before,a long time ago, or was it an inspiration after writing a blog?
    Have a nice Monday,

    1. @dottoressa, I’ve always wanted to write. I always said, I could never write fiction. But then I thought a lot about a non-fiction book and it just seemed like such drudgery. Then I realized that I read novels, so if I were to write a book it should be a novel.

      Way back when I used to write silly posts over here about Lilly Pulitzer clothes, which had a fictional character – and they thought me that if you have a person you can put yourself into you can at least start to write fiction.

      Finishing it has been something else all together;).

  18. Wow that is so inmpressive and the dedication required must have seemed daunting at first…Keep going…you are in the home stretch!
    I look forward to reading your book when it is published…have you got a title yet?

    1. @Leslie Anne Lord, Thank you very much:). I don’t have a title, I’m terrible at things like titles, if and when I feel like this is worthy of a real title, maybe you can be in my focus group to choose it?

  19. Congratulations! What an achievement. Reading about your process is fascinating, entertaining, familiar, and made me laugh. The step that I’ve considered before, at a time when I was looking at writing a non-fiction book about my dad and his family, and a separate book about Indigenous artists and their studios (photos and text), is the writing partner step. Writing is intimate and revealing, sharing it with another person for whom I was doing the same would require a melding I think it might be tricky to find. I’d love to hear more about how you did that. I’ve done a lot of writing of articles and books, but they were for my profession, so not personal. I was good at structural, copy, and proof edits, and also good at taking edits without taking them personally. I actually loved edits in all their various forms. When I did the year of selfies, I wrote more to accompany each selfie as the year wore on. I wrote the text because I wanted to, but getting it down was torture and I’d wait until the last minute, write quickly, edit, post, and re-edit the post. By the next morning the words would be fixed, to a point, and I could let them alone. The selfie text and the posts and comments I write within social media are my experience of personal writing, other than what I write in my journal, which no one sees. None of it has partner feedback. I see your writing partner as your first audience. I’d love to hear more about that, and about your movement into a writing group. I had begun in a writing group for the book about my dad when unexpected life events set all that to the side. In my limited experience it would have been a positive adventure. You inspire me to reconsider my non-fiction writing in essay form, though the list of tasks ahead of it is lengthy. Again, congratulations. I hope you enjoy your accomplishment as if it were a particularly lovely white rose you grew in your garden. xo.

  20. It sounds like you’re well on your way to becoming an author. I just finished my first novel and have started on a second (follow-up to the first). It is also a mystery/thriller. It took me a lot longer than a year with many interruptions for medical issues, moves, grandchild care, etc. I loved the process, but it can also be exhausting and stressful, expecially toward the end. I’m now trying to publish and getting closer. It amazes me at how the process of writing can be so different from writer to writer. Thank you for sharing this with your readers. For some reason, I didn’t tell anyone that I was writing a novel. Best of luck to you.

    1. @E. Jane, I think many people don’t like to talk about it when they are writing a book – or about their process until they’ve done it several times successfully. I’m just a blabbermouth;).

      Congratulations on having finished one and started another!!! That’s spectacular. Best of luck for your publishing efforts, I’m so happy you’re getting closer.

  21. Well, can I just say: what she said. And add to it – don’t sit about procrastinating about what to do next.
    You have provided me with the impetus to move to the next bit with my own opus. The longer I sit about harbouring negative ideas, the less stuff might happen. Tonight I will start paying attention again. Good luck with whatever you decide to do next.

  22. As someone who has attempted three starts of a first draft(meaning a million messy, meandering pages) of 3 different novels in a drawer, as well as copious notes and story lines to merge a 10+ year blog into a memoir, I stand before you and salute.


    This is MOMENTOUS!

    Don’t give up the ghost. Read Bird by Bird – again and again and again. “Shitty first drafts” was coined by Anne Lamotte. I think of it every time I put pen to page.

    You are my role model and if you are looking for any online writing partners, I’d be glad to throw my hat in the ring.


    1. @Loretta, Oh wonderful! I will absolutely get in touch for writing partner type feedback. Just have to figure out when it will make sense.

      See, I think it’s harder to start 3 novels than to write a first draft of one, so it’s I who should salute you.

  23. wow, Congratulations. So fascinating to read about your experience through this process! Thanks for sharing! It is encouraging to read about setting a goal and then doing it!

  24. Congratulations. What an enormous achievement! I remeber feeling a combination of pride, exhaustion, and bewilderment after finishing a major step in a (non-ficton) writing project. It appears to me that you are feeling something like that, too. The best of luck for the next step.
    Thank you for taking the trouble to analyse and describe your writing process. in a way, I find thast very encouraging.

  25. i missed this til today, but huge congratulations! To get from beginning to end is an enormous achievement, and few manage it. (One of my grad-school profs once joked that he was going to start a business half-writing novels, and selling them to people who wanted to say, “I’ve got a novel half-written in my desk drawer,” because there were so many of them.) Allow yourself to rejoice in this, and don’t be at all shy to be proud of it.

    My unsolicited advice for this moment is to give yourself a break — literally, put the draft away and don’t read it for a while. Very interesting things happen when you let a narrative wash out of your brain, and then come back to it fresh.

    And also, there is zero shame in choosing thriller as your initial genre (even if you don’t stick to it) and modeling yourself on Patterson. There’s a reason he’s a multi-million seller; he knows how to hook readers, and keep them on the page. We should all have such skill.

    1. @maryn, Thank you!

      I agree, we should all have such skill as Patterson, and I can’t even get close. But any narrative structure is better than none, so it’s been very helpful as scaffolding – if that makes sense.

      I have put it aside. And I find I miss it. But, of course, I’ll have to steel myself to actually pick it up again and edit. First, to figure out what needs to be done…

      I love your professor’s joke;).

  26. Wow. That is an incredible achievement. And your description of the whole thing is so enlightening and encouraging of yourself and others, and all so human. I love the way you do that, make everything so human it feels touchable.

  27. I had this urge to visit you tonight. I don’t read blogs anymore and have even neglected mine for reasons that require an email and a cocktail but my first thought behind my huge smile was “Good. For. Her.” Oh missy, I’m so thrilled for you! !! I understand your desire to to this and this just makes me happy. I cannot wait to hear more about all of this! I’d love to catch up more in an email, off the record. In the meantime, keep it going! Your ardant fans await your greatness!


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