So at long last, I finished my first draft. It was a long process, messy, unbearably dull and frustrating, but I finished it at long last! So the celebrate this milestone, I decided to share some of what I’ve learned through this process. I’ll also be writing a follow-up to this specifically geared towards writers of speculative fiction, which goes into more detail about worldbuilding and such. I assume most of my readers are here for fantasy, but I’ve tried to make this post as general as possible, so writers of all stripes can hopefully find something useful.
So here’s what I learned while writing the first draft of my fantasy novel!
Stick to it, no Matter What
Okay, so I get it. This is like, the bog-standard advice one is given when looking for first draft tips. It’s almost as generic as the phrase “just believe in yourself,” or those dry-ass Cheerios you give to babies.
The thing is though, as someone who’s gone through like, four different first drafts that never made it because I gave up halfway through, I understand the appeal of looking at a barely-coherent trainwreck of a manuscript and saying “egh screw it, the next one I write will be better.”
Will that actually be the case though? Perhaps, but in all likelihood, by the midpoint of that “better” draft, you’ll be hatin’ life all over again, and repeat the cycle anew. Because no matter how objectively good your first draft really is, in your mind, it’ll still be Son-of-the-Mask-tier-bad. Everyone’s like this, even Hemingway and he’s better than you.
On the other hand, if you stick with it, you’ll at least have a basic framework that you can polish up and turn into something slightly readable for the second draft. For example, I once did a cyberpunk hard sci-fi short that I later rewrote as a high fantasy one. Almost nothing from the first version of the story made it into the second one, but having the basic skeletal framework of a narrative to work off of made writing the fantasy version a thousand times easier.
So just to recap here — thanks to writing out a first draft, I was able to write a second draft that was a complete and total tonal, thematic and genre shift, and yet readers still liked it. It came out alright. If I can do that, then you can polish up your story, or even make a new one out of the flaming clown car wreckage of your old novel. Again, no matter how good it is, you will think it’s horrible beyond repair while you write it. And chances are it is.
It’s kind of like those rice crispy treats and pipes and wood planks the Cake Boss uses to support those monstrosities he creates (is Cake Boss still a thing? I only use Netflix, so I dunno). I mean, if Buddy just stopped there and left the rice-krispy-treat-and-plumbing-tape sculpture at some event, everyone would scream and run. But when you add the sponge cake, and the fondant, and the buttercream ribbons, a few hours later the rice cereal mound is now a beautiful Squig from Warhammer.
Your first draft is basically that rice crispy treat nightmare. It’s unspeakably ugly, but if you don’t prepare those foundations, you’ll never finish your novel/pastry monster. Tell the Negative Nancy in your head to put a sock in it and trudge on anyway. Because heroes don’t quit.
Outlines are Everything (ESPECIALLY in SFF)
You need an outline. There’s no ifs or buts about it, you need outlines and supplementary notes, especially if you write Sci-fi & Fantasy fiction. Anything that involves even semi-rigorous worldbuilding requires notes, character profiles, a lengthy list of places that don’t exist, magic or tech systems, the menu for that one diner on Vance-VII your scuzzy space-faring bounty hunter hangs at…the whole nine yards.
Now some of you who are “pantsers” are probably soiling said pants right now at the thought of all these outlines and notes. And again, I wanna stress that this is coming from the perspective of a fantasy novelist, so if you do cozy mysteries or middle grade science detective books, then maybe this doesn’t apply to you as much. I doubt Chocolate Chipped: A Hawkinsville Bakery Murder Mystery requires anywhere near the amount of lore that The Wheel of Time does. But you still need to outline all your characters,the Hawkinsville Sweets n’ Eats shop, Mrs. Darcy, our intrepid baker/PI, and why Sheriff Patters’ body was found in a vat of cookie dough.
That doesn’t mean you have to organize all your ideas like Martha Stewart and have neat little notes and index cards and all that jazz, though. If that sounds like Chinese water torture to you, then there’s all sorts of alternate ways to outline. A quick google search will net you all manner of different ways you can visually organize your ideas, whether it’s corkboards, flow charts, or complex Rube Goldberg machines involving hamster wheels and electric wires. You name it, someone’s done it. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you get your plot structure and story elements written down and accessible.
Outline-wise, I came up with one simple rule a while back, and it’s helped me a lot. Because I’m kind of an idea guy who’s always coming up with new things a mile a minute. And left to my own devices, a settling’s lore might drastically change for better or worse if I don’t pin it down and get it written. So because I have this problem, and because this problem is more of an issue in SFF writing, I came up with a simple rule that’s helped me ever since:
Your ideas aren’t real until you write them down.
Keeping this in mind has forced me to take notes when I come up with ideas I’ll need later. To make visual concept boards of locations, armor, settings, foods and cultures so I can reference them as needed. And in the end, it’s helped me stay organized and consistent with my work. Worldbuilding is hard stuff, and especially when you’re writing genres that nerds like to read, you really need to put in that extra effort to make sure the make-believe logic of your world is consistent. Because not doing that could mean you get Red Letter Media’d by some blogger or youtuber who picks apart all the little inconsistencies in your book, and I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy.
Again, depending on what genre you pick and how much of an “enthusiast” market it has, your level of outlining may vary. Would-be Tolkiens will need stacks and stacks of notes, while thriller writers may just need some characters, locations and a basic beat sheet/chapter outline written down. But either way, you need to write stuff down. As much stuff as you can stomach, and maybe more. It’s busywork and it can kind of suck at times (unless you’re a massive dork like me and you find that stuff fun) but in the end, your homework, outlines and notes will pay off.
Manage your Influences
So this one might just be me, but I’m throwing it out there in case anyone else is like this. Personally, I find that the media I consume while writing fiction ends up impacting what I write. This includes video games, TV, movies, and other books.
Now again, this may just be me, and you might be fine watching Winnie the Pooh before writing a groady crime thriller. I cannot however, and I mention all this because maybe the media you consume might be affecting you without you realizing it. This also goes back to the “use an outline and stick to it,” thing, because sticking to said outline is easier when you really get in the spirit of the thing. Now if you feel this doesn’t apply — then cool. By all means, ignore everything in this section. But in the off chance you think it might…just try to manage what you watch and read, it might end up making a huge difference in how you write.
Write (Almost) Every Day
If you’re just starting out writing, following through with it can be really difficult. And even as someone who’s written in just about every other medium, I found myself struggling to finish my draft. The soul-crushing, brain-through-six-miles-of-broken-glass process of writing a story that’s borderline unreadable and might be anywhere from 40%-80% scrapped is…well, a daunting one, to say the least.
As someone who’s also been through this process at least 2-3 times, I can also safely say that it does NOT get easier the further along you are. If you can actually make it past the 2nd and 3rd draft, then yes. Based on my past experience with other mediums, I think once you acquire a knack for it, it gets easier to do. As of now, I could probably bang out a comic book script in my sleep, for example. But it actually gets harder and harder as time goes on, and the closer you get to your novel’s end, the more tempted you’ll be to simply half-ass it so you can be done forever with this nightmare of a story.
The only way you can reasonably keep this process up is to make it a habit. To type at least 2000 words every day into the word processor and only ever stop for bloody, screaming emergencies and birthday parties. Notice I didn’t say holidays. Yes, I even write on Christmas, Halloween and the Fourth of July. I do so while working around the usual celebrations (I’m not a monster — I celebrate with my family, but also work either really early or late after said celebrations are over). If you fail to meet a deadline, you must punish yourself in a humane, but uncomfortable way. Maybe drink your morning coffee without sweetener, or do 200 push-ups, or sit through a full episode of Jerry Springer. Something to get you to think “oh yeah, writing that crappy first draft is at least better than this.”
Also, try to keep yourself accountable to someone other than yourself. I tend to post my progress on drafts on my Facebook, and seeing other, published authors like and comment on these posts has helped keep me invested in the process. It’s kind of a reminder that yeah, I’m not just doing this for me. You need to be like frickin’ Goku training constantly to improve your craft, or else you’ll end up like Gohan in Dragon Ball Super and stop being the Strongest Person in the Universe because you gave up like a frikkin’ nerd. Or in your case, stop being an active writer. Which would suck. Like Yamcha.
Don’t be Yamcha.
Go Get Some Pizza When Everything’s Done
Okay, so maybe it doesn’t have to be pizza. Or food at all. You know that Spider-Man game that came out on PS4? Congrats, go ahead and grab that now, and play it for a few days, or hit the movies if something good’s out. Congrats, you earned it.
Writing fiction can be legitimately stressful, nail-biting or worse — dull and boring at times. And most people who start writing never actually finish their projects. As of now, I’ve finished the first part — the first draft, but that’s just like, one third of climbing Everest. But helping yourself to little victories can make all the difference in wanting to continue. I heard once (I think in a podcast somewhere?) that Brandon Sanderson would open a MTG pack after completing an especially difficult chapter, as a sort of reward. And honestly, I can kinda see why. Anything that helps train your mind to associate writing with something good can help increase morale quite a bit. Granted, I wouldn’t go so far as to eat an entire candy bar after every chapter (please don’t), but doing something nice for yourself as a motivator can really help you move along, even through the bits that make you want to jump in the sea and die. It kind of ties in with the “punishments” in that this is the carrot and those are the “stick.” When you do good, treat yourself within reason. When you mess up, or get lazy, correct yourself (again within reason).
Eventually you will start making a habit of it, and it’ll come easier. At least it did for me. Which is not to say it still wasn’t difficult at times (towards the end I had to force myself to get through it because it was such a flaming trash fire), but hey. Pizza. And if you don’t pull your weight, no
soup pizza for you!
Again, I get that some of this stuff is pretty basic, but at the end of the day, it worked. Which is why I decided to write this piece shortly after the draft was finished. All this stuff is still very fresh in my mind, and in the off chance it helps someone, anyone, I’ll feel it was all worth it more so than it already is.
Anyway, that’s all for now. I have another draft to begin soon, and that one’s twice as long, I suspect.
On the one hand, I’m kinda excited. First Drafts are by nature, worse getting your teeth pulled by clowns. Clowns who use the laughing gas on themselves instead of on you. The second draft though, I hear is even worse than that, if you ask certain people. So