filed under How To Write A Book.

Having sent my latest novel off to my agent a couple of weeks ago, I’ve enjoyed not writing anything. I’ve caught up on emails and admin but haven’t quite managed to do all my book-keeping—surely that can wait! But I have the urge to write again, to start the long and bumpy process of writing a first draft of a novel, based on an idea I’ve had in my head for months.

I’m still warming up though; I need a new notebook, I need to tidy my desk, I need to wait for one of the days when my 4 year old is at kindy because starting a first draft requires a whole day of concentration, as well as new stationery! But thinking about starting to write again made me reflect on the process of writing a first draft of a novel. It’s a very particular process, or at least it is for me.

So I’ve made an infographic which summarises the 8 stages I go through when I write a first draft.

Writing a First Draft of a Novel: The 8 Stages a Writer Goes Through | natashalester.com.au

Stage 1: Finding a Voice

I think this is the hardest part of a first draft. It can take weeks of writing little short scenes, trying out writing prompts and exercises, and reading other novels. This is the slowest part of the first draft and, for me, the least rewarding. It’s where I really have to push myself to sit down and write. Until, one day, I write a piece and I know it has the right voice. I know it’s the sound I want my novel to have. And then I’m off and writing.

Stage 2: Groping in the Dark

Having a voice is all very well but what about a story? I always begin my first drafts with the barest bones of an idea about a character, but with no real notion of what this character might do and certainly no clue as to what the plot might be. I’ve been getting better at trying to combine my pantsing approach to writing with a bit of plotting, using tools like Scapple and Scrivener, but there is still a very real period of groping blindly along, trying to find the one grain of sand on the shore that has a glint of magic about it.

Stage 3: The Surprise

This is literally like bumping my head while I’m lost in the dark of Stage 2. I will suddenly write a scene which begins to show me what my story could be. Or a new character appears, like the character of Selena in my first book, a character I had never planned to write, but who brings the book to life in an unexpected way. Surprises are exciting and to be cherished; I love it when I reach this stage of the first draft.

Stage 4: The Fireworks

Once I get to The Surprise, the story begins to unspool, to reveal itself to me. I go along for the ride, typing as fast as I can in the hopes that I can grab hold of the words before they disappear. There is a lot of joy in this stage of writing; in fact, there’s nothing I would rather be doing and interruptions like having to eat are most unwelcome!

Stage 5: The Doubt

Following hard on the heels of The Fireworks comes that inner voice of doom I’ve written about before, the one that tells me my plot is full of holes, my characters are boring and derivative, my writing is lifeless and dull. It’s really just a matter of pushing on past this stage, writing on regardless, knowing now, after having grappled with it in each of my books, that I can get the better of it if I just ignore it until …

Stage 6: A Glimpse of the End

In this stage, I know I am nearing the end. I know I can make it and it gives me a surge of fresh energy. It gets me over the doubt and my word count accelerates here because all I want to do is get to that very last page and be done with the stress of the first draft.

Stage 7: Typing THE END

This is cause for celebration. Finishing a first draft is a huge accomplishment and many people who want to write books never make it to the end of a first draft. I know that I now have a story; I have a plot and I have a set of characters. I’m walking on air, until I remember …

Stage 8: Now I Have to Redraft!

I actually like redrafting, although the thought of doing it immediately after finishing the first draft can be daunting. I feel more secure when I redraft as I have a story I can make better. But the redraft is a process unto itself and requires an entirely new infographic, which I will bring you in a couple of weeks, if you enjoy this one.

But what about you? Do you go through any of these stages when writing a first draft? Or do you have a different set of stages? For those who don’t write, is this what you imagined writers would do when they wrote the first draft of their book? Let me know in the comments below.

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27 Responses to “Writing a First Draft of a Novel: What it’s Really Like”

  1. annabelsmith

    ‘The beautiful surprise of banging into something in the dark’ – yes! That’s why we do it. For me stage 8 is the most painful. Although the doubt stage is of course horrible, I have learnt, mostly, not to listen to those voices. I try to skip that stage!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, stage 3 & 4 are my definite favourites. I would love to skip the doubt but I always feel it – I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of it!

      Reply
  2. Cass Auzins

    I manage to skip the doubt section while writing and seem to get it worse when the book is done; when I have to send it out to the world. Before then I’m too busy writing to care.
    That’s where I’m stuck now and reluctant to start the next book in the series because of it (actually, maybe I do get the doubt then). The book is done, and I’m terrified to let it go in case it gets rejected. Worst. Feeling. Ever. I know you went through it too Natasha. Currently it’s in the Vogel so I just have to wait and hold my breath.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Cass, it’s great that you skip the doubt when you’re writing; that must make the process much more satisfying. And yes, the doubt after the book is finished and ready to go out is the worst thing ever. That’s a whole infographic unto itself! I’ll have to work on that one too. And good luck with the Vogel, congrats for finishing and sending it out. That’s a huge achievement!

      Reply
  3. rashidamurphy

    I’m between 6 and 7 at the moment, almost wrote The End today, but held back because I know there’s a few more scenes/chapters to do yet. Re-draft? Surely not! When you spend 2 years writing the first section and polishing it to death (as I have done) who has the energy to re-write? Add another year on the second section and the third ought to be done in 6 months! Ah well, I’d better get on then, slow writer that I am … we’re talking less than 60,000 words here!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Rashida, my first book was also just over 60,000 words and it took me 5 years from the time I started writing to the time I was published. So I wasn’t exactly quick either!

      Sounds like you’re in a good place though, and if you’ve been polishing while you write, your redraft might not be as much hard work as mine are. My first drafts are so scrappy that redrafting is a big task for me.

      Bets of luck with it and don’t forget to celebrate when you do type THE END!

      Reply
  4. littleblackdressproductions

    I had been sitting stagnant at Stage One for eight months…until today! Today I did what you advised me to do eight months ago and joined a writers group. I read my first chapter out (albeit nervously, feeling insecure and amateur) and they loved it. I was waiting for the critique, constructive or otherwise and there was nothing but positive feedback and a few gasps of shock when I said I had not read this out before to anyone or edited it yet. So I have been strongly encouraged to bring Chapter 2 along to the next Tuesday’s group. I guess I have moved up to Stage Three, as in this single day I feel so driven to keep going. Perhaps I just needed affirmation that what I had written was good enough, intriguing enough, enough to leave the reader wanting more. Oh dear…now comes the fear of being able to bring something of the same standard to the next class. Thanks for the infographic, it confirms all my doubts are NORMAL!
    PS: I booked for your Getting Your Novel Written course today. As I said I’ll miss the first class but I’ll be there for the rest. Can’t wait. Perhaps it will help me to get through writing the middle part of my first draft.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      That’s fantastic Tabetha! There’s nothing quite like having a group of people respond to your work in a positive way to get you motivated. And yes, your doubts are very normal. Writing a first draft certainly isn’t, for me, a smooth process whereby the words just fall out onto the page.

      Enjoy Stage 3, it’s one of my favourites! Look forward to seeing you for the next class.

      Reply
  5. Nick Thomas

    lol Elan’Dth is stuck between 5 and “I have bills to pay, I must work myself to exhaustion”
    When ever I start writing again, I’ll have to re-write everything again anyway (last time I had a break I noticed my style had changed =S )

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      That happens to me too Nick. If I have a break away from a piece of writing it’s hard to recapture the voice, or sometimes the voice has moved on and become better in my absence and so all the previous pieces need to be rewritten.

      And you’re right, there should be a stage in the process that says, stop writing and go and earn some money. It happens to all of us!

      Reply
  6. nadineknight

    Thanks for your Infographic – although I am not writing a novel as such it has given me inspiration. I am still working my way through the bundle of letters home from the Northern Territory (1968-1972) and have come across some really interesting pieces that could make a good story. Doing what we discussed in class and putting it all down verbatim, making side notes to go back to extract bits later.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Nadine, I think this infographic probably still applies equally as well to memoir so I’m glad it helped. Fantastic that the letters are yielding potential story ideas; they sound like a gold mine!

      Reply
  7. belindawilliamsbooks

    Love your infographic, Natasha. I too find the first stages of the first draft the most difficult and I’m currently somewhere between groping in the dark and waiting for the surprise, then the fireworks to happen. It’s my fourth novel so I know I’ve just got to trust the process, however I seem to be becoming more of a pantser the more I write! Hence, I feel the groping in the dark stage more keenly. And what is it about the creative brain that tempts you away with lots of other ideas during this stage? It’s like it knows you’re not yet 100% committed and until you get to that surprise and fireworks stage, there’s a sense of uneasiness.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      You’ve put it so well, Belinda. The creative brain does tempt you away with lots of distractions at that stage, doesn’t it? I think that’s why I find it such slow going; I’m not quite committed to it until I hit the surprise and then the fireworks. Sounds as if we have much the same writing process! So nice to know that I’m not alone!

      Reply
  8. David Allen Kimmel

    While currently in stage 8, I experienced stages 3 & 4 numerous times throughout the first draft. Lots of surprises & lots of fireworks, which also equated to a lot of fun. There was some of stage 5, which I also found, in the long run, to be helpful and ultimately, essential. Without the doubt, which made me “gut check” myself, I’m not sure I would be as confident in my final product as I am (although I realize it won’t be final until stage 8 is complete, I don’t foresee the storyline changing dramatically during the rewrite.)

    Overall, the best piece of advice I received during the entire process was from my wife, and that was to start writing and don’t look back until the entire first draft is complete. Once I started going forward, things started clicking and the everything just “worked.” It was truly magical.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      That’s great David, and you’re absolutely right about the doubt. Viewing it as a positive thing is such a help for writers, rather than always thinking of it as a negative.

      And I completely agree with your wife – that is the way I write each book. Always pushing forwards through the story and never going backwards. Until the redraft!

      Reply
  9. seniorliz

    I have my voice, I have a setting, I have my characters. I just don’t have a plot. That’s the difficult part for me. I’m really raring to go now that my last novel is in the middle of publication.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      I used to find plotting incredibly difficult and, for me, it was just something that came with time, practice and experience. I still consider it one of my weaker areas but I know I am getting better at it and that’s all I can ask for. I hope you are writing some short scenes with your characters and really getting a feel for them as that might be a good way to get the plot to unfold for you. Good luck with it.

      Reply
  10. Rach H

    I am most definitely at that middle ‘Doubt’ phase. You described perfectly what I’m going through right now. Pushing forward, can’t wait for that glimpse of the end!

    Reply
  11. IndigoStar

    I find that I’m more of a planner than a pantser so the “writer’s block” frustrations only come whenever I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next and I’d rather have at least an idea before I go with it. Just an idea to launch off of rather than nothing at all. :) I do enjoy going back as I write, to edit and revise the previous part and get it to read nice and work well, and that motivates me to write more, and then edit what I’ve written to match the rest as I go lol. I think of it as “bringing up the new drafts to a certain standard to match with the prior pages” and also going back so much helps me be aware of where I’ve been so I don’t forget things as easily or have gaping plotholes peaking through (or as many anyways lol).

    I do enjoy things coming up unexpectedly as I write and I tend to roll with it as long as it stays loosely within the already set framework. If it can bring in more complications, JUST from setting those characters at each other (muahahaha!), then all the better! When I sit down to write an idea, I usually have a damn good idea who all the players are (or the most important anyways) so I don’t use as much pages to “get to know them” as someone else might (I save those “getting to know” pages separately and with the expressed purpose to get to know them, the plot, its complications, the character growth, etc. in their respective files and titled accordingly) and just get down to the action itself.

    Yeah I’ve had to rewrite some beginnings as I found things that worked or didn’t work for a novel I’m working on, but that was more finding the voice when I already had a good idea of the plot, what was important to the plot, the general theme, characters, worldbuilding pretty well developed, and journey route loosely mapped out. Of course I always enjoy finding more places to expand upon the MC (main character) and their relationships, world, and situation as I go along, and find true delight over thinking of how I can “seed” the future potentials as I craft this beginning of my novel.

    I find that building the foundation, one good brick at a time (having taken the time to make the bricks as well as I go with some prior planning and foundation made already), is very fun and I don’t hesitate to “kill my darlings” and off the sentences and even paragraphs that don’t work as I go back and edit (making sure to save them in another document for just the purpose in case, even though I usually never use them again), and find that reading what I have so far and editing and revising as needed usually helps gets my eagerness and enthusiasm again and then I can go back in and write more of a rough draft and edit as needed.

    IDK I’ve not read nor heard of anyone doing it quite like this, it seems strangely to be either people who rather finish the draft first THEN edit/rewrite, or people who’d rather plan it all or mostly out first before embarking on such a mission. Since I’m also a trained artist, and been an artist all my life, I tend to use the same approach to my art as I do with my writing (having gotten into the writing thing only a year, almost two years ago, after some half-hearted attempts during my teenagehood) which is to cycle smoothly through the different perspectives: creator, critic, and distant viewer. With my writing it cycles easily through: creator, critic, reader, editor, and most recently publisher.

    The “publisher” is one that I step back with and analyze it to see if it would work in today’s market trends, what I would need to do and prepare for when I’m finally done with the manuscript and all of its redrafts, just to build up that foundation so that I’m ready when the time comes.

    However, I see a lot of people get stuck on the “publisher” or “critic” stage and panic because they don’t seem to know how to switch back out, or take the criticisms rather seriously and thus it hurts very personally from what I’ve observed. At least all my years of art, art classes, and critiques from both teacher and fellow students helped me to get a bit of a thicker skin, and to develop a better idea of when to stick with an idea and when to modify it to help the viewer/reader to understand my idea better (more “viewer friendly” so to say). In my self critiques with my work, working on myself, as well as help and advice from others especially professionals, I’ve learned that nothing is “perfect” and that “good enough” can indeed be good enough a lot of times, which helped my previously horrific perfectionistic side get off my back a bit more lol. And you can ALWAYS change it if you’ve learned something more by that date, and don’t like whatever it is or its just not working. :) (As long as you’ve not published it yet that is LOL!)

    Anyways since this long (I have a tendency to do that eheh) I’ll cap it off here. :) I just wanted to let you know that I’ve read a lot of your posts on these subjects (including the bits about what to do and not to do in beginnings) and I think they’re very well said indeed! Keep up the good work. :)

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks so much for your lovely long comment! I’ve heard another writer, Michael Robotham, talk about a writing process that’s similar to yours and he calls it the settler process, where he writes a chapter and then settles into it, making changes and making it just right before he moves on. I think there are probably as many different writing processes as there are books and that breaking everyone up into either pantser or plotter isn’t right as some writers do a bit of both or do different things on different books. I thnk that’s why I love hearing writers talk about their processes because everyone is so different. Thanks again for visiting!

      Reply
  12. Kilaine

    Hi! I need help. I am working on my first draft and I’m stuck. I’ve worked on it for about a year now, and I’m 100% sure that I’m somewhere in the middle of the doubt phase. I don’t know what to write anymore. I see everything that could possibly be wrong with it, even if people tell me it’s good. The thing is, I’m not even CLOSE to the end. I wrote out of order, so technically I’ve already written the end scene, but I only have 10-20,000 words. I know, it’s not much. Please help me!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      The only thing to do is to push on to the end. The doubt will always be there but you have to write in spite of it. Even after publishing 2 books, I still have doubt, but I make myself keep writing anyway. Only by getting to the end of a draft can you even begin to know what you have, what the story is, how to make it better etc. Try reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic if you’re still unsure; it might help. Best of luck with it.

      Reply

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