Outsell James Patterson

5 ways to finish that first draft

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series How to Win at Authoring

Already, during this course, we’ve come so far together.

We’ve grown to know each other well. Better than well. Intimately.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say I think of you as more of a lover than a mere student.

Together we have completed the first three stages of any writing project.

1. Generate an idea, 2. Create amazing characters & 3. Plan your novel.

These three stages we group together. Novel foreplay, some call them. A term I regard as needlessly sexualised.

I like to call this stage procrastination.

That’s right, none of it matters. Well rounded your characters may seem. Concrete beneath your feet your plot may feel. Arousing, your idea may be.

Yet, it is all for nowt. The past three lessons have been a waste of your time and a waste of mine. Mine more than yours, in fact, because this course was free and I can’t afford to feed my kids.

Truth is, once the first draft begins, everything you thought you knew about your story is gone. Chuck it out window. Why? Because those characters you thought you knew are about to sucker punch you. The plan you thought was concrete is sinking sand. And the idea is that guy you took home last Saturday. Not as it first appeared, nor how you wanted it to be.

This will terrify you, as it terrified me and good writers, too.

For my part, I’ve started 10,000 first drafts, and 99.99% of them went the way of my pet goose. I picked them up, thinking I knew what they were. But they shifted and trembled in my hands. They become unpredictable and so I sent them to an early grave.

This reaction. This brick to the head of so many early drafts was beyond foolish.

I grew afraid when ideas I hadn’t reckoned on started popping into my head. When the plan I had formulated no longer seemed right. When different directions sprang up in the path of my characters. Characters I once knew but seemed to be changing faster than a child hitting puberty.

Yes, the fear took me, as it had many before me. And it took me as there was one thing I hadn’t realised.

These changes are good.

The beauty of fiction is the way it drags us, the writer, in directions we were never expecting. If we wrote up a load of plans and followed them to the letter it would be boring, like architecture. No, we want the story to grow. To be something more than some plan executed with precision. We want this story to be a living breathing thing, and there’s only one thing stopping it reaching its potential.

You, and that fucking voice in your head.

So give your story a chance. Let it take you where it will and deal with anything that don’t work in post. That’s what editing is for.

So, to help you achieve this, I’ve compiled the below list.

5 ways to finish that first draft

ONE stop thinking

I’ve said it above and I’ll say it again, you are the problem.

You created these characters. You chucked them into whatever world you devised. Kicking them up the arse with whatever kick arse inciting incident you came up with.


Now let them run.

As you write, the characters will develop a life of their own. They will say fuck your plan and do their own thing.

Let them.

This is natural. As they come to life on the page you will realise they need to make decisions you would never have anticipated.

That’s okay.

Stop thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong and write on instinct. Follow the characters minds, not your own.

After all, you are an idiot.

But if I follow my characters this way and that, won’t my novel become a mess? I hear you ask.

Fuck yes.

But that’s okay also.

Plus, segues into my next point rather neat like…

TWO stop editing

No seriously, stop it. I see you scrolling back. Don’t do it.

This is not your final story.

This is your first draft.

View it as such.

If you stop thinking and write free, the back end of your book won’t match the front. That’s almost guaranteed. Your characters will have changed beyond recognition. The story will have veered off at some mad tangent

You’ll read it back and it won’t make one lick of sense.

That’s okay.

That’s great, even.

Think of the first draft as a discovery period. You had your ideas about your characters and your plot but now you’re finding out for sure what is what.

By the end of your first draft, you will have something you are unable to read as a novel. But that wasn’t the point in the first place.

The point was to work out what your story was. Who your characters were. What actually needed to happen.

You thought you knew when you did your plan.

You didn’t.

Now you do. Now you can turn that mess into a novel. Safe in the knowledge of what the structure and characters arcs actually need to be. You know, the shit the ‘general public’ care about.

So edit once you’re done with the first draft.

And if you can’t switch that inner critic off. The one demanding you go back and review what has come before?

Well, read on. We’ll deal with him.

THREE start burst writing

Once in the zone, it’s easier to stop listening to that idiot in your head otherwise known as your brain.

Still, it can be hard to stay in the zone as you get tired and hungry and you wet yourself. So, why not try burst writing?

Set a timer for fifteen minutes, half an hour, thirty seconds. Whatever you can manage. Then start writing.

Jump into the novel, wherever you were, and write whatever feels right without thinking about it or referring to that useless plan I helped you create in the last lesson.

Do this until your timer goes off, or until your mind kicks back in and tries to tell you you’re not following the plan and you should start editing or just kill yourself.

Then stop. Wait. Burst again tomorrow or whenever you feel ready.

And if you can’t shut your mind off for even long enough to write three words?

FOUR start drinking

If there was ever a way to stop your bloody mind getting in the way of crafting great fiction by doing that FUCKING THINKING THING, it was by drinking.

You won’t need much, I’d wager. A couple of pints or glasses of wine and you’ll feel looser. You’ll be ready to switch off and relax a little.

caveat if you are an alcoholic, best not to even have half a glass of wine. Cases such as these I’d stay safe, avoid alcohol altogether, and use heroin or crack cocaine or something.

That should do it.

FIVE start blaming your characters

The main reason we panic and start editing when we should be ploughing forward with our first draft is fear.

Fear we’re no good.

Fear what we’ve created will make us laugh.

Fear our mother was right about us all along. That we are good for nothing wasters who deserve to be put down.

That’s what makes us so eager to start editing. As though someone will look over our shoulders and see something half done, take it as finished and start laughing.

So we go back, we try and fix what’s there as fast as possible and in doing so we fail to finish what we started.

Well, with my method, we need not fear.

See you are not the God of this piece. You are not the be all and end all.

You had your ideas about this story, but you are only documenting the activities of these characters. This is who they are, and this is their story. So if they aren’t likeable or interesting, what fault is that of yours?

None, it’s them.

So forget to think and start writing down your characters exploits.

And if it’s shit in the end? Just tut, shrug your shoulders and point at the bastards responsible.

Your shitty characters.

WRITING is depressing

It’s also hard work, stressful, tear-inducing.

It drives us into the crowd. Tells us we’re worthless. Shows us we will never amount to anything.

For many, it is the end of our lives.

This will always be the case but out of all the stages of writing, the first draft is by far the best.

It is the stage where we can let go and allow the words to just flow. It is a stage of discovery, and it should be the stage where thinking doesn’t get involved, nor worries about how good our story may or may not be.

So get down to your first draft, and just write, writing and nothing else.

The rest – the real hard shit – comes later.

I’ll see you for that next month.

Series Navigation<< 10 stages every novel plan needs5 tips for turning your crap first draft into a decent book >>
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International worst-selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). An author of mystery and suspense novels including the James Perry Series of mysteries.

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