Simple Guidelines for Drafting Your Novel

You want to write a book. You have set yourself to note it down.

But how do you begin?

On another article about writing a novel, I talk about the different stages in which the writing process is divided. Today I will focus on the first one: drafting.

Here you have some practical, down-on-earth advices on simple and everyday tasks. For me, they have proven to be the best ones.

1. Write Often

You need to write every day, or as often as you can, to keep in the habit.

Set yourself a realistic goal. Like, say, writing a hundred words every day. You can also set a timer for twenty minutes. It may seem like nothing, but these are the kind of strategies writers put into practice when they just don't feel like working on their books. If you stick to a task that is so small, it is likely you'll end up writing more. A lot of times this is just what you need to get started.

2. Tell the Page the Story

"Writing, got it. But what do I write about?"

Write like no one's watching.

No one's watching, actually.

In an inspiring, meaningful addressment to new writers, Margaret Atwood advises to tell the page the story: "The page is very discreet: it won't pass your story on until you allow it to, so you can tell it anything, without fear."

3. Edit Later

You need to separate these two stages of writing, the draft and the subsequent revision. "The first draft is a skeleton," to put it like Judy Blume, "just bare bones. The rest of the story comes later with revising."

In other words, you need to start somewhere.

Some tips to remember when drafting your novel:

  • You can't get blocked if you focus on writing words. Forget about the good words put in the right place in perfect order. This will come later.
  • You need that first draft; you need something to put your eyes on, something to edit later. As long as it exists, your draft will be O. K.
  • Writers don't usually sit down to write something that is already clear in their minds. "If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it," said C. S. Lewis.
  • You may feel blocked anyway, like there is no way out. Remember this: there is always a way out. You will find it with time.

First drafts are for getting to know the story, not writing brilliant prose. Just write and keep going. You will fix it later, when the whole thing makes some more sense.

4. Learn from the Masters

Perhaps what helps more is to learn from the experience of an established author and knowing from first hand about this craft. In the book Conversations with Raymond Carver, the author of Cathedral and Elephant tells about his everyday habits, and his take on first drafts (page 43):

There's not much that I like better than to take a story that I've had around the house for a while and work it over again.
I've done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts. It's instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I'm thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy (...) He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote 'War and Peace' eight times and was still making corrections in the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.
I write the first draft quickly (...). This is most often done in longhand. I simply fill up the pages as rapidly as I can. (...) With the first draft it's a question of getting down the outline, the scaffolding of the story. Then on subsequent revisions I'll see to the rest of it. When I've finished the longhand draft I'll type a version of the story and go from there. It always looks different to me, better, of course, after it's typed up. When I'm typing the first draft, I'll begin to rewrite and add and delete a little then. The real work comes later, after I've done three or four drafts of the story.

5. Know What Your Protagonist Wants

Know your protagonist, what he or she wants, which problem they can't avoid. This problem gives you the story.

Try to see the world from your main character's point of view. Do it, and you'll see the problem they are forced to deal with. And everything in the novel will affect this quest.

Think about this start: the protagonist wants to get something from another character, but he or she cannot get it.

Or see it this way: the story is what happens when your protagonist cannot get what she or he wants from another character.

6. Don't Worry

Some writers enjoy the editing process rather than the first stages. I like that first part, because drafting is not worrying about anything. Forget about the writing quality, the structure, the descriptions, and so.

There's always that inner voice that says you're not a good writer, or even a writer at all. For me, these tips have proven to be really useful to quiet that voice and just get the work done. If this article feels far from encouraging, please forget about it. And go writing that draft once and for all.

Don't wait another day to start writing. Let me share one thing that is likely to happen once you've done the work. I won't lie. Publishing, and facing the public reception of a book, can be like hell. But, believe it or not, there will be people who will thank you for having written the story.

You can read my related articles: Writing a novel using a free productivity app, and Virginia Woolf's reflections on writing in her essay A Sketch of the Past.

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