7 Things I Learned From Writing My First Novel Draft

In 2016, I finished the first draft of my novel. Here’s a few nuggets of wisdom, for those embarking on their first drafts.

1. A novel is not a short story.
For about six months, I never got past the first chapter because I kept writing it over and over. Like most writers, all my college and post-college fiction training was in the art of the short story. And while it’s arguably more difficult to pull off a successful short story, the “short” part means that even in early drafts you can spend time shaping paragraphs and tweaking sentences if you want—steps that in a novel should really be reserved for the very last drafts. But still steeped in a short story mindset, I poured over the first chapter, thinking it had to be perfect before I could move on. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it shouldn’t be perfect, because in later drafts your novel will undergo such heavy revisions that the first chapter may change drastically. Why waste time crafting sentences that might later disappear? Which brings me to point 2.

2. Your sentences will suck.
As in, the words you literally put on the page and the order you put them in will suck. They will suck so bad. Passive voice will take over. A character will “hiss” four times in one paragraph. You’ll have sentences like, “Jenny walked to the window and then Jenny looked out of the window and outside the window she saw a dog.” But that’s okay. You can fix all that in later drafts. When you’re trying to keep track of various plot threads and character arcs and timelines and a million other things, it’s only natural that something has to give, and that’s usually the quality of writing. That being said . . .

3. You also won’t be able to keep track of all the plot threads.
No matter how many outlines you make and notes you take, a major plot point will die off without resolution. The dog will disappear three chapters in. Events that should take place over a whole summer will happen in a week and a half. But hey, even War and Peace has a wonky timeline. So if it can happen to Tolstoy, it will happen to you.

4. You’ll be too detailed.
My first draft has paragraphs upon paragraphs dedicated to the particular color of a character’s hair or the layout of a house. Not for the reader’s sake, but for mine. But I can delete most of that in subsequent drafts, and hopefully that deep understanding of character and scene will come through via less extensive but more potent details. (On the other end of the spectrum are those lucky writers whose first drafts contain skeletal traces of character and setting but a robust plot. Instead of experiencing the agony of cutting beloved paragraphs, they get the much more joyful task of filling in details later. Like icing a cake.)

5. Cats help.
Put a cat in your novel. Put four cats in your novel. Make them different colors and give them cool names. It will be for the best.

6. Names are fun.
The hands down best part about your first draft is getting to name all the characters. There’s nothing more delicious than landing on the perfect name for the right character. It’s like getting to name kids without having to, you know, actually birth or raise kids.

7. You will be proud.
When you finish your first draft, you will have 70,000 or so words of complete and utter crap, and you will be so proud of each and every one. Because those 70,000 crappy words are all yours. They represent imagination, commitment, resilience. A true accomplishment. And if you finish the first draft, you’ll know you can take on the (many) drafts ahead of you.

3 comments

  1. Anna! As someone who wrote nothing but short–stories, essays and articles–before drafting my first novel, I would have benefitted from all 7 of your lessons! Spot on! Congrats on finishing!!

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