Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter will know that I’ve just finished a first draft of my fourth book, tentatively titled The Painted Face. But what does that mean? What does a first draft of a novel really look like? How polished is it? I’m often asked questions like this and of course all writers are different but I thought I’d show you what a first draft means for me.

Step 1 of a First Draft – Thinking Time

As I learn more about writing, I’ve started to do a bit more planning. Not a lot, but a little. Maybe by book 10 I’ll have the planning thing all worked out! This book started in my head about a year ago. I had an idea of 2 key plot points and a character, but that was about all. I didn’t know how those plot points would eventuate, just that they would be part of the story.

I never start writing when I first get an idea because I know the idea is likely to change as I think about it. And boy did it change! It’s now not about the character I originally envisaged. A completely different set of characters took over. The two plot points are still there though.

So a key part of the first draft for me is to let an idea sit in my head for months before I begin to write anything. For instance, I already have a VERY vague idea for book 5, but I won’t start writing that until early next year, so the idea will shift and change a lot with more than 6 months of thinking time.

Step 2 – A Rough List of Story Events

When I’m ready to sit down and write, I jot down a very rough list of story events. Generally, I have a reasonable idea of the key story events for the first few chapters, a very loose idea of the story events for the middle chapters and these ideas will dwindle away towards the end of the book. For this book, I knew roughly how I wanted it to end, but I had no idea how I would actually force the story to get to that ending.

Step 3 – Start Writing

Then I get onto the writing. I write a scene or two at a time. I take one of those story events from the list and break it down into scenes. I’m not worried about the order of things at this stage.

I always remember that no one can sit down and write a novel. That’s too hard. But anyone can sit down and write a scene or two. At this stage, I might set myself a word target of 1,000 words a day. Nothing too onerous, but enough to feel like I’m making headway. And the more I write, the more I begin to know my story and the more ideas I have for scenes.

Step 4 – A Synopsis

With this book, for the first time, I had to write a synopsis when I was only in the very early stages of the first draft. My agent was pitching book 3 out to publishers and they wanted to know what else I was working on. So, I had to take my list of story events, plus the 18,000 words I’d written, and pull that together into some kind of synopsis.

This was actually really useful. My agent immediately gave me feedback as to which parts of the synopsis were the most evocative and interesting. This made me focus more on those areas in the story, made me think how I could flesh those out and pare back on anything else that seemed peripheral. I would definitely do this again the next time I write a first draft. Having a synopsis gave the whole thing a bit more shape.

Step 5 – Keep Writing

The thing with a first draft is that you just have to keep on writing the damn thing. The more you write, the more ideas you have about where your story is going. The more you write, the more everything begins to make sense.

But you also have to block out the ending to a certain degree. As I said above, I knew how I wanted the book to end. But I had no idea how to make it end like that. How would the story events lead me to that final point? I was clueless. And I did fret a bit about this. But one thing I’ve learned is that no amount of fretting will solve the problem. For me, usually when I’m around seven-eighths of the way through the book, I will suddenly work it out. I don’t know how it happens. I wish I did because then I would bottle it! All I know is that it’s the best thing in the world when it does work itself out.

Through the middle section of the book, I will usually up my word target to 2500 words a day, for three days a week. On the other days, I have other commitments and might only write 1000. But I know I have three solid days of high word count to keep me going.

Step 5 – Push Through to the End

The part of the first draft I like the least is about the three-quarter mark. At this point, I know the end is near, but it’s still further away than I want it to be. I’m on a real roll and I will usually have a couple of 4,000 word days a week by now.

But the frustrating thing is that I just want the book to be finished. Of course I can’t just drop family, teaching, and all my other commitments to do nothing but write. That’s why I find this point to be the hardest.

Step 6 – The End!

The best thing ever is when the first draft is done. First drafts are my least favourite part of the writing process. I much prefer redrafting because now I have something to work with and to make better. The uncertainty of the first draft is terrifying at times and so I’m glad I’m through that.

But the end is, of course, just another beginning. Because my first drafts are very rough. I don’t spell check. I don’t fix typos. I put XXXX in for things that I need to go and find out later in the research. There are scenes missing. It’s an unreadable dog’s breakfast. It is a truly shitty first draft.

But that’s okay. I don’t normally show first drafts to anyone. They’re for me alone. They’re my plan really, although at 93,000 words, that’s a pretty long plan!