How to write the first draft of your novel in three months or less

You want to write a novel, but maybe you don’t know where to begin. I was right there six months ago. Now I’m clearly no expert, but I do know exactly where you’re at now. Maybe you have a great idea you want to share with the world, but you’ve never imagined yourself as a writer, or maybe you don’t think you can become a writer. I don’t want to mislead you, it’s a huge commitment, and will take a long time until you’re ready to publish, but once you realize you’re a natural storyteller, nothing will stop you from telling your stories.

Before I begin, I want to give credit where credit is due. Some of the ideas I mention below were first presented to me in workshops led by my writing coach and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, Lori Deboer.

So, where do you start? First, you need a story to tell.

I joined the Boulder Writers’ Workshop recently and found that many of the members have several ideas for stories. Some are even working on multiple projects. There are also those who joined the group because they want to write, they just don’t know what to write.

If you don’t have an idea yet, take a look at the books that inspire you. What are they about? What genres are they in? What messages comes across? You will probably want your story to share some of the qualities you love about your favorite books.

I would also suggest you consider writing what you are truly passionate about. This comes across to readers. If you’re just writing a story because you think it might be a best seller, but it doesn’t really resonate with who you are as an individual, it will probably stink. Art is only art if the artist pours a piece their soul into their work. Make sure your story reflects who you are.

Once you have an idea for the story you want to write, you should determine what kind of writer you are. Are you a plotter (someone who plans your novel out scene by scene before you write it) or a pantser (someone who flies by the seat of their pants)?

Are you someone who needs to plan everything out before hand? If so, do it! Give yourself a certain amount of time to plot out your book scene by scene or by writing a solid five hundred word synopsis. I would suggest not spending six months to a year doing this, more like one to four weeks. That being said, I sat on the idea of my first book for over five years without writing a word. I just wasn’t ready yet, but when I started writing, I already had a good idea of the beginning and ending of my story. If you need more time, take it, but know that the time you spend planning is time you are taking away from writing the darn thing.

If you don’t enjoy planning things out, don’t worry. However, I would still recommend having some sort of an ending in your periphery, just so you don’t stray too far from the main point or goal of the story. In some ways, this technique is a wonderful way for you, as an author, to learn more about your characters. For my novel, I had a beginning and an ending planned out (both have since changed slightly), and everything in the middle was the path my characters took to move the story from one point to another. Through the process of asking myself everyday, “What would my characters do in this situation?”, I was forced to think deeply and get to know them as individuals. Now that I am revising my first draft, I can see how the voice of my main character develops and becomes stronger as I read further into the story. I know this is because I’m seeing my relationship with her unfold. When I first started writing, she was a mere acquaintance, but by the end of the book, it’s obvious that I know her extremely well. The better you know your characters, the easier it will be to know what they would do and this is what carries the story. Your characters move your story forward.

Ha! I think you probably know by now what kind of writer I am. That’s right! I did not plot my scenes out one by one; I had an idea of the world in which certain people lived and I let them tell the story.

Just to be clear, my first draft was FAR from perfect. And no matter what kind of writer you are, all first drafts need a lot revision and editing. I have already changed so much during the first revision. This is just the process.Your first draft will likely be a mere shadow of what you end up publishing.

So now that you probably have some idea of what kind of writer you are, it’s time to determine your writing goals. If you’ve read anything about writing a novel before, then you know almost all writers make goals for themselves. Some people set aside a certain amount of time each day, and others set word-count or page number goals. The point is, you should set a realistic goal for yourself every day.

When I began writing my first draft back in July of 2014, I didn’t have a goal. I just wrote when I felt like it. This worked for a while, but soon I realized I needed to force myself to stay on track if I was ever going to finish my book. On September, 21st, I began the ritual of writing every day. My goal: to write at least 1,000 words/day (or an average of 7,000 + words each week), and this is exactly what I did up until the end of my first draft.

You will also want to get an idea of how long you want your first draft to be. I would suggest doing some research about word count averages for your genre, just to get a sense of what publishers expect and look for. I was shooting for 80,000-90,000 words for my first draft, and finished just under. This is not something I’m too worried about as the final word count is still within the perfect range for the YA genre.

When you begin writing your book, you will also want to take a look at external forces that might interfere with your writing during the time you’ve given yourself to complete the first draft. If you plan to be done on Jan. 1st and expect yourself to write 2,000 words a day when you have friends and family in town for a week, maybe you need to rethink that goal. When I set my daily writing goal, it was during a time when I knew I would have very little going on for the next two months. I predicted I would be done before Thanksgiving, and sure enough I was. And so I was able to enjoy the holiday without feeling guilty that I hadn’t met my goal.

It was also during the time of year when the weather was changing, and I didn’t want to spend too much time outdoors. I would pay attention to this if I were you. If you start writing your novel in May and want to be done by August, AND you’re not the type of person who likes to sit indoors at your computer all day, I would suggest waiting until the colder months begin. You DO NOT want to set yourself up for failure, it’s not good for you or for your book. Give yourself the opportunity to succeed by setting attainable goals.

So let’s say now that you’re a pantser writing 1,000 words a day (I’m using this example because it’s obviously the most familiar to me), and you get stuck. I mean you are stuck! You have no clue what to do next. The last thing you wrote stinks and you just don’t know how to move forward. I think every writer knows what this feels like. You will get stuck at some point, and it’s not easy to get unstuck, but there are tools you can use to help.

There is a lot of advice about writers block, so I would recommend searching for help. But be careful of getting sucked into the downward spiral of procrastinating. In some ways the internet is a writer’s worst enemy. I’ve wasted hours on wikipedia when I should have just been writing. You can research the facts later, the first draft is your opportunity to lay out your story, so don’t waste this time on the unnecessary details.

When I was feeling stuck in my story sometimes I would just delete the part I had written before that I didn’t like. It’s not easy to delete that oh so precious word count, but if it stinks, it stinks, and it needs to go. Another thing I would do was use the opportunity to make something bad happen. Let’s say my main character is walking down the street to her friend’s house, but nothing exciting has happened for a while, and the last thing I wrote was that she gets to her friends house without any trouble. That’s no fun! Maybe she could be mugged. Much more exiting!

Getting stuck is also a sign that your characters don’t have enough volition. For a story to be good, they need to act of their own will, not move around like they’re your puppets. So maybe you need to do some back tracking and see where things went wrong. “Oh, he wouldn’t have really done that?” you say. Well what would he have actually done in that situation? Maybe it’s something you didn’t even expect. Once you are able to get in tune with your characters, writing the story will become easier and easier. All you need to do is set the scene for them to strive for their goal (possibly even reach it).

If you have an idea for a story that reflects your passions, know what kind of writer you are, set attainable goals for yourself, and know how to work through getting stuck, then you have a solid foundation for getting started on your first draft. Just remember, you are now a writer! So go write!

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