Workshop five: getting the first draft done

Workshop five: getting the first draft done


  • How to get a first draft done quickly
  • Thinking about what’s important (and what’s not) for the first draft.

In workshop two, I looked at some tips and tricks for getting started. Two things I spoke about were setting aside a certain amount of time each day for writing and setting a daily word count. In this workshop, I’ll expand on those two points and also give you some other top tips for finishing that important first draft of your crime novel.

Set aside dedicated writing time

Time management is important. You might be the most talented, creative writer in the world but if you can’t find the time to write, then the world will never know about you. From the outset, you need to think about your daily schedule and decide when best you can fit some writing time into that.

You may think you’re already too busy and there is no earthly way you can fit anything else into your busy schedule. If that’s the case, you have two choices: think again or give up on the idea that you’ll ever be a writer.

Writing a novel is not a hobby. It’s not something that you’ll be able to do whenever you’re lucky enough to find a spare fifteen minutes once in a while. The only way you’ll ever get any proper writing done is by finding the time to do it.

You don’t need much time. I wrote my first novel by getting up an hour earlier in the mornings. That was my writing time. It wasn’t much and I did get tired but, by God, I also got my first novel written.

Mornings work best for me; I’m useless in the evenings. Other writers I know write better late at night. I know other people who work during their lunch breaks at work. Or when their children are at school. Or on the train during the morning commute. Or the evening commute. Or whenever suits them best.

Find between 30 minutes and two hours each day. Stick to it.

Daily word count

This is really, really important. Writing a novel – even the first draft – is a slow process. Finding the motivation to sit down day after day after day and fill page after empty page is difficult. So difficult that many aspiring authors cannot stick the pace and they give up.

Setting yourself a daily word count makes the process a little bit easier. There really is a great sense of achievement watching the word count gradually rise as you toil away at that first draft.

Say you’ve got an hour each day for writing. If you’re using a PC and you can touch type, then a daily word count goal of 500 – 1000 words is perfectly reasonable. Just think, in 80 days you could have 80,000 words written. Not bad, hey?

Write your way through the pain

Writing a novel is a painful process. Sitting down to write your first draft, you face an empty page. Filling that page, and subsequent pages, is a daunting prospect. So daunting, that it’s often easier to put off doing it. Ooh, you think, instead of writing why don’t I spend some time on the internet researching some technical aspect of my book? Or why don’t I wash up those dirty dishes left over from last night’s dinner?

No! When the pain hits you write your way through it. Faced with an empty page? Fill it. Not sure where your story is going or whether it’s any good? Ignore those doubts and keep writing. Remember, you’ve got a daily word count you need to keep to. You need to write each day. You need to keep to your daily word count targets. You need to write even if you don’t feel like it and what you’re writing is rubbish. It’s the only way. Believe me.

Don’t worry if it’s rubbish

Yes, you did read that right. First drafts are allowed to be crap. This is the time for exploring where your story and characters are going. The time to switch off your internal editor and let the writing take you where it’s meant to go. That can’t happen if you’re constantly worrying about the elegance and grammatical perfection of every sentence.

Much of writing a novel is rewriting. At this point, you’re not rewriting. You are getting your story down on paper. At the end of this process, you will have a story. Yes, it will need work and, chances are, the writing will need a lot of work. But you have something to work on. You’ll have the pig’s ear which you can now turn into a silk purse. If you see what I mean…

Keep going forward, don’t look back

It’s tempting, as you’re working on the first draft to go back and constantly tweak and change previous chapters, especially if they’ll need changing because your story isn’t developing the way you thought it would. When that happens, instead of changing what you’ve already written, keep a separate document where you make notes, as you go along, on new ideas and things you’ll need to change. If you keep going back to change earlier sections then that’s rewriting. Which starts at the end of your first draft.

Let the creativity in

The first draft is the time you get creative with your writing and your ideas. It’s important to follow those ideas and see where they lead you. Which brings me onto my next tip.

Don’t spend too much time planning

This is a contentious point, especially when you’re writing a crime novel. By its nature, crime fiction has complex plots which require careful thought and planning if they are to work. Many crime writers spend a long time working out the details of their plot before they start. Other authors – Stephen King, for example  – don’t do this. They start with an idea, often a single scene or image, and write from there with no plot in mind. They write to see what will happen.

For your first novel, I would suggest you write and see what happens. You need, first and foremost, to discover your inner voice. You need to free up your mind, switch off your internal editor and let the creativity flow. Who knows what will happen? That’s what makes writing fun.

Remember, it’s not over when you reach the end

Finishing the first draft gives you an amazing sense of achievement. However, this is only the first stage in the long, difficult process of finishing a novel. Once the first draft is done, give yourself a big pat on the back, take a day off writing, then get back to work. The rewriting is about to begin and that’s what we’ll be focussing on in future workshops. Starting with the next workshop on 25 April where we’ll look at openings and closings in crime fiction. See you then.

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