Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
July 26, 2013

7 Tips For Finishing The First Draft

Erika Marks

Erika Marks

by Erika Marks

First draft.

Talk about two words that manage to strike both excitement and fear in the hearts of all of us who write, yes?

After having published three books and now deep in the middle of my fourth, I’d like to think I’ve got this whole first draft thing sewed up.

Except, well, I don’t.

But while I’m no pro at this yet, friends, like all of us, I’ve amassed a decent catalog of tried-and-trues that work for me.

Since everyone has her or his own tip sheet, what works/what doesn’t when they sit down to write that often elusive, sometimes terrifying but always consuming first draft, I thought I’d share some of mine with you all today. And I’d sure love to hear some of YOURS in the comments section.

Okay. Here goes…

First off, don’t sweat the small stuff.

I have found that nothing derails my writing flow in a first draft more than stopping to find that perfect word or the perfect piece of accurate historical detail.

It may seem like a simple Google search, but beware. That simple Google search offers a rabbit hole that could easily steer you far from the source of your search, not to mention your manuscript. When I hit a spot like that in a manuscript, I use a placeholder, three x’s, and I forge ahead. I can always come back.

Just get to the The End.

I’m not suggesting you pull a Jack Torrance and fill 500 pages with a single, maniacal sentence just to reach the end of your first draft. But I am giving you permission to get rough and rude with your first draft. Manners are for second and third drafts.

First drafts are uncouth things, messy things, often filled with gaps and wrong words—even wrong scenes!—but you must let them be just that: rough and messy. Because here’s the thing, my dears: No one is looking!! So go for it!

See the Big Picture

For me, first drafts are about the big items. The emotional core of each character’s journey. First drafts are for getting into my character’s heads and understanding what makes them tick. I try not to get wrapped up in where they go to do what, but rather WHY they go where they go and does it propel them (and the reader) further toward that character’s reckoning?

Whatever you do, don’t stray.

Your first draft is a small child; don’t leave it unattended for any reason. When it comes to writing that first draft, distance does not make the heart grow fonder.

The passion you have for your first draft is very much like the beginnings of romantic love. It’s lustful and all-consuming. Don’t squander that unbridled passion for your story by thinking a few days away will clear your plot’s cluttered head. It won’t. If you can manage it, keep near to your first draft, keep in regular contact with it, let it know you can’t keep your hands off it, and that excitement will endure.

Make notes as you go.

Like I mentioned earlier, you want to avoid breaking the stride of your writing flow. But that said, unless you are truly gifted at keeping a zillion plot points in your head at once (and maybe you are—and more power to you! I, however, am not. It’s all I can do to not lose count of how many scoops of grinds I’ve put in the coffee maker!), then I suggest making a quick note of your inspiration.

Some notes I make in a notebook, others I will make directly in the manuscript, always in parenthesis and IN CAPS.

Sometimes they are character notes, sometimes they are plot notes. Plot notes can either refer to something I plan to write in a future scene, or something I will need to go back and insert into a previous scene for continuity or just to enhance a storyline. Again, this keeps me focused in the present scene without having to lose that light bulb moment.

I always have to remind myself that first drafts are sketches, not finished paintings. Make sure the bones are there and you can fill in the highlights and shading and all those lovely details later on.

When Stuck, Take off your Pants and Plot.

It happens without fail with every first draft: I pants and pants along…and then I hit a wall. It generally comes at page 100.

It used to be that I’d flail around stubbornly, determined to continue the flow of story I’d been enjoying (sans outline) from page one to page 99. Now I know better. When the flow stops, I take to the outline. I plot the chapter in full, maybe even the next two chapters.

Invariably, the flow returns and within a few more chapters, the pants are back on. Ahhh.

And lastly, accept that your process is never finished, and never final.

This summer, I’ll be on the road for a trip with my family, a trip that comes when I am nearing my fall deadline for book 4. On the road, I won’t be able to take my computer but since I can’t be away from my manuscript at this crucial time, I am going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to print a hard copy of my pages and read them with a pen, making edits/adds/comments/cuts in the margins.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait—what? This is the first time you’ve done this, woman??

Yes, friends. It is.

And you know what? I can’t wait!

Because something tells me, if I am lucky enough to get to come back and visit you lovelies here at Writers in the Storm after my next novel, I will have a sparkling new tip to add to our list.

# # #

Guest House Final CoverAbout Erika
A native New Englander, raised in Maine, Erika Marks has worked as an illustrator, an art director, a cake decorator, and a carpenter.

She now lives in North Carolina with her family and still rushes to the ocean every chance she gets. The author of Little Gale Gumbo and The Mermaid Collector, this is her third novel.

[You can order The Guest House on Amazon or B&N.]

Find Erika on Twitter or Facebook, or at her website: http://www.erikamarksauthor.com/



49 comments on “7 Tips For Finishing The First Draft”

  1. I hope every aspiring author reads this. All my clients, every single one, fails to realize how vital it is to get the story out while it's still a dream, still vital and ethereal -- because every time we stop to *think* instead of just recording what's pouring out, we lose our way just a little.

    You don't specifically mention this: every time an author uses formatting in their first draft (bold, italic, etc.) a kitten dies. Anyone who would pause the Muse so they can format their first draft as it's pouring out would correct a drowning man's grammar as he cried for help.

  2. Thanks for sharing! Good advice here. Now, if I could only get back to that first draft, since I'm now armed with great feedback, to polish it up. Health issues and kids home from school for the summer preclude my progress. But I will get there! Thanks for the "nudge." Be well!

    1. Maria, thanks so much for coming by, and believe me, my dear, when I say how much I can understand your challenges. I send you a big hug and have no doubt you will push through to meet that goal.

  3. As I finish my first novel and allow myself a moment to dream about the next project, I've wondered how I'll actually get going. Your tips and encouragement come at just the right time. Thanks, Erika!

    1. Carol, hello! One of the things I am most grateful to blogs and social networking for is the wonderful way we can support and keep each other motivated through the rougher passages. Thanks so much for reading my post!

  4. Yes, this is spot on, Erika. Before I even knew about pants and plots, that is how I wrote. I couldn't stop until I got to The End. Then I could pull out one hair at a time and start cleaning it up. And your suggestion about the hard copy is what my main BETA reader insists. She refuses to read any of my work on the computer or in her Kindle. And she encourages me to do the same.

    Thanks for another stellar post ... and I look forward to hearing more after you finish your next book 🙂

    1. Thank you for having me here! It really is a constant learning process and I find it changes (hopefully improves!) with each manuscript. And yes, so far, using the hard copy has been AWESOME!

  5. Thanks so much for blogging with us, Erika! I LOVE this post.

    Like you, I plow through the first draft with my pants pulled up as high as possible. Each time I finish a chapter, I print it out and put it in a binder. As I keep writing, I jot ideas on sticky notes. If it's something that needs to be fixed in earlier chapters because of a new development, I put that sticky note in the binder (I always edit on hard copy). If it's something for later chapters, I put the sticky on the wall next to my computer as a reminder.

    Now hurry up with book number 4! 🙂

    1. My dear, "with my pants pulled up as high as possible" has just made my morning, ha!

      Sticky notes is genius. I'm adding that to my roster immediately!

  6. Great advice here. I can't agree more with the rabbit hole that is googling "that one word" you need!! I tend to edit as I go, and read over my scenes before writing a new one and that usually works for me, but I need to follow the advice more of just getting words down on paper and worrying about the edits in the next drafts!

  7. Erika I feel like you were inside my head when you wrote this. I am almost (almost!) finished with the first draft of my second book . The first book is in for developmental edits and I'm sure will need major revision, but it just felt SO GOOD to reach the end. This one gave me angst-my third first draft after I chucked the first 94,000 word attempt. This blog is such a wonderful find for new writers. I look forward to it every single day.

  8. Fab tips! Sharing on twitter and Google+! The whole process of moving forward and not getting caught in the rabbit hole of perfecting everything in the first pages was epic learning for me. Before that, I re-started my WIP 10 times! Talk about slow learner. #HeadDesk

    I did much better after learning that tip in Candace Haven's Fast Draft class. Thank you for this great post!

    1. Hi Jess! Thanks so much. That was a biggie for me too. Now the second I lack the detail/word/etc I put in those placeholders and move on. Have a great weekend!

  9. Love this post. This is the only way I have been able to finish 4 rough drafts. At the end of each day I make notes on what I want to write about the next day. That helps me start off the days work with a bang. Finishing the rough ugly mess of a draft is the only way to learn how to write a book.

    1. Hi Page! You are so right--it is crucial to accept that the first draft will be a messy mess--and I love your tip about making notes as a way to start that fresh day of writing with that all-important energy. I often do the same when I leave my writing in the middle of a juicy scene--because then I'm sure to be excited about what I start the next day too!

  10. […] First draft. Talk about two words that manage to strike both excitement and fear in the hearts of all of us who write, yes? After having published three books and now deep in the middle of my fourth, I’d like to think I’ve got this whole first draft thing sewed up. Except, well, I don’t. But while I’m no pro at this yet, friends, like all of us, I’ve amassed a decent catalog of tried-and-trues that work for me.  […]

  11. OMG.. The "don't stray" advice is so true. Being away from the WIP for more than a day - for me - is akin to STARTING ALL OVER. I wish I could write the messy first draft, but I've tried. I can't do it. I'm a fix-as-you go writer, which means my first draft can take years. Ha ha. I guess, as you said, we each have our own styles - and what works for us works. I hope the paper-print out edits worked wonders during your trip. Can't wait to hear more about the family adventure ;-).

    1. Hey sweet lady! Having read your work myself and knowing what a gifted writer you are, I appreciate that you have your own process and the results are beautiful, so how you write is how you write. What I love most about this process of drafting is that we all have our own individual habits and no two are the same. I just feel very fortunate to know so many talented writers who are generous enough to share their experiences--and their work. As for the family adventures, prepare thyself for some pics and video footage, my dear! 😉

  12. Brilliant advice! I really liked the idea of xxx as a place-holder and I will use that from now on! I will re-blog this too. Thanks for writing 🙂

  13. I may need to print this out and tape it next to my laptop. DO NOT STRAY. Perhaps I should turn my wifi signal off (the horrors). And yet, what if I did and what I wrote more quickly?? Hmmm...

    1. Hey Lori! I've missed checking in with you! I have to say, the do not stray rule was put to the test these past 2 weeks while I was on the road. I checked in daily (even if it was to mull over some plot points scribbled on a notepad) but I'm glad I did. As for turning off the wifi, I wish I could claim to be THAT WRITER but I'm not!! I am hopeless!!!

  14. What great tips, Erika! I love the idea of using XXX's as a placeholder for information that needs to be researched. As a writer of historical fiction, it's easy to go down the rabbit hole of information gathering and lose momentum.

    How brave of you to take your notepad and write longhand. I do a lot of editing longhand. It just helps to read it on paper (I think I'm dating myself terribly here!) I can't wait to hear about your family vacation.

    I should say that Reggie helps tremendously on my first drafts. He sleeps by my feet and snores. 🙂

  15. Erika,

    I enjoyed your article. As a screenwriter who has written many scripts (BLUNT FORCE was filmed last December in Mississippi) I know about getting a first draft down. And I agree with you, just get it down, take a few days away from it, then go back and see what you have.

    Very seldom has my finished first draft closely resembled the outline I originally was supposed to follow - a river does not flow straight to the ocean or lake that it empties into. But this is the beauty of writing, in that I find it fascinating how the story turns and twists (like a river) on its way to the finish, gathering momentum, power and creativity. As we arrive at certain points in our story, new reflections and memories of our own lives arrive and collide with what we had intended on writing, which makes that river (our story) take another twist or turn. When that happens we learn more about ourselves, which makes us more innovative as our story continues. This imagination we're forced to manifest as we write our first draft is an inventiveness that builds our substances as creative artists. To know our characters well is the key as our characters will write the words for us if we have taken the time to know them well enough.

    Yes, that first draft, it is so rewarding and so much fun to write, especially as we review it and wonder how we twisted away from that original outline. But that was because we found a different path to follow, which was better than the initial map. And our story can and will twist and turn from here in future drafts and that is okay, for we’re the creators.

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved