How To Turn Your Messy First Draft Into Something That Resembles A Novel

When we write we are at war, mostly with ourselves. We have to silence the editor and allow the creative to run wild. Natalie Goldberg writes about this in her book, Writing down the Bones and it is advice I go back to time and again.

We have spent so much time studying the rules of fiction and creating our plots that it is hard to let go. It is hard to write ‘free’.

We have rules and check lists and plot points to obey. We should be showing. We should be avoiding adverbs. We should be creating strong characters that can carry us through an 80 000-word plot. We should be writing in a compelling style. We should, we should, we should… 

But, if we have to wait until we have mastered all the rules, we will never write a word. We will never type a letter.  I often refer to the rules as ‘second draft stuff’.  That is when you start paying serious attention to the rules. The ‘first draft stuff’ is more fluid, freer.

When you write your first draft, you should have an outline. I usually start with my main plot line. The sub-plots develop as I go along. I am unrestricted. I go exploring. I follow my characters. Most importantly I don’t stop, even if I know I am making mistakes. I don’t go back to change it, yet. I don’t edit anything. All you end up doing is rewriting the first half of the book a gazillion times and never finishing the story. 

When I get to the second draft that is when I get serious. 
  1. I take my outline and pull it apart. I consider the new developments and make sure they add to the story and don’t hinder my plot. 
  2. Because it is a second draft, I have a stronger sense of who my character is. I have a very clear idea of his goal and I can flesh out the story a lot more. I can brainstorm and strengthen my story. 
  3. I also cut the deadweight, because so many of my meanderings are just that, meanderings. They helped to create a character or setting, but I don’t need them. It’s never fun chopping off 10 000 words, but I have never read a piece of writing that hasn’t been improved by a good cut.  
  4. I examine the structure and timeline. What happens when I shift things and swop them around. (Cut and paste is a wonderful tool, but do save an original version before you let rip.) 
  5. I’ll start looking for mistakes. This could be a lack of setting description, talking heads etc., but only after I am happy with the story. 
  6. Repeat the process for draft three, four and five and keep going until you are happy. Each rewrite adds, cuts, and improves. 
Don’t expect perfection after writing your first draft. First, you write free, and then you check out the rules. And if you know them well enough you can break them…

Happy writing.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

 by Mia Botha

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