Draft Away - writing the first draft of your novel

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 15: Draft Away


Writers Write is a comprehensive writing resource. In this post, we’re ready to draft away. We discuss writing the first draft of your novel.

Welcome to week 15 of Anthony’s series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week’s post here.

Goal setting

  1. Start your draft.
  2. Experiment with a wider viewpoint.
  3. Create reader clues or early warning signs.

Breaking it down

Pick a scene. Any scene. Write!

If you want to sit dry-mouthed and terrified in front of your computer screen, then try open with ‘chapter one, paragraph’ – it doesn’t work. It’s too daunting.  It keeps you stuck.

The best approach, I find, is just to start developing a scene naturally — almost as a free write. It can be an early scene in your book, but it doesn’t have to be your first scene.  The idea is just to start getting the bare bones down on paper.  What I find useful is not to start writing directly onto your computer, but to write this first ‘chaotic’ draft in a notebook.

A technique we share in Writers Write is to develop your scene through the senses. What does your character taste, smell, hear, touch, and see? What’s your character’s state of mind?

For example, in my notebook, I have: ‘Jenna in yoga sweats, barefoot, without make-up, in the kitchen – she feels tired. The tiles cool under her feet. She’s feeding Jago, the cat, checking email on her iPhone for a call sheet for a photo shoot. She smells the clean rubbery steam from the dishwasher.’

When you do this, you take the pressure off – there’s no need to write a perfect scene, a seamless narrative. You’re building the story as you see it in your mind, as you live it through your character.

The panorama view

As you can see from the above, you’re not really settling into a viewpoint with the rough draft method — I don’t think stressing about first or third person is helpful at this stage, do you?  You want to make the process as fast, frictionless, and fun as possible.

By taking a panoramic or 360-degree view of each scene, you get to see and add in as much detail as possible. You’re not restricted as a writer, and have room to breathe, explore, and test different parts of the scene.

For example, when I ‘pulled back’ and saw more of this early scene I was developing, I even put Matt, Jenna’s boyfriend, into the scene. ‘Matt, on the balcony, reading the Sunday papers – it’s a ritual, he’s a bit old school in his own way. Tattoo on his ankle. The cat is curled in the sun.’

From this, I start to get more insight into Matt’s character. Not only is he becoming clearer in the scene, but also more vivid in my mind.

To be honest, I’m still struggling with viewpoint as it relates to this novel. But I don’t think it should hold me back from starting on the draft – I even think the viewpoint may develop naturally as I continue to write the scenes.

Writing The First Draft Of Your Novel - Writers Write

Early warning

Just as early-warning radar alerts aircraft for possible dangers or threats ahead – you should give your readers some clues as to the conflict coming up ahead. These should be little uncomfortable ‘pings’ at the edge of the reader’s mind — the characters may not see the potential danger, but the readers are thrilled that they can anticipate the shake-up coming down the line.

For example, in the movie The Crush, an updated re-imagining of Lolita, a teenage girl becomes obsessed with a writer renting a cottage from her parents. We get an ‘early warning ping’ about her disturbed personality when she sneaks into his room and rewrites one his magazine articles — innocent enough, yes, but definitely a clue that she is encroaching on his life and thoughts.

In these first scenes of your novel, you should try to sneak in one or two of these early warning signals for your readers. But it’s better – and deliciously evil – to keep them from your characters.

Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

This week, you should try to write for a half-hour or one hour a day on your scenes.  Keep your weekend free – you deserve it.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. There’s that old rule about ‘never open a novel with a description of the weather.’ Break the ice – write about the weather in your scene. You don’t have to use it; it’ll just get you going.
  2. Create a list of things for your character to do that day. Shopping. Work tasks. Try to weave some of that into the scene.
  3. Imagine you’re a movie director. Where would you place your characters in a setting or scene? When would you go for a close-up shot, or even an extreme close-up? When would you want to show a wider point of view?
  4. Imagine you’re the actor cast as your main character – what would you find as your motivation? How would you approach this role?
  5. Buy a big cappuccino and drag yourself to a park bench or coffee shop. Write until you finish your coffee or your lunch hour is up.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Never sit staring at a blank screen or page. If you find yourself stuck, write. Write about the scene you’re trying to write.’ — Laini Taylor

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.