Saturday, May 16, 2009

How to Write a Great First Draft

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Many writers think a first draft of a novel has to crappy. Anne Lamott in her nonfiction book about writing, Bird by Bird, has a chapter called Shitty First Drafts. A recent Murderati blog post was titled, “Your first draft is always going to suck.”

I respectfully disagree. Of course, no first draft is publishable as is, but it doesn’t have to suck either. There’s no reason a novelist can’t craft a readable first draft that needs only minor revisions in the second round. Every writer has his/her own style, but my personal belief is that if you start your journey with a good road map and a tangible destination, you won’t get lost.

In other words, I believe I write decent first drafts. Which saves me a lot of time and trouble. How do I do it? With a lot of advance planning. These ideas may only be workable for crime fiction, but here’s how I craft a great first draft without any gaping holes or illogical twists:

1. Create an outline. Once I have a basic story idea (comprised of an exciting incident, major plot developments, and overview ending), I start filling in the details. I structure my outline by days (Tuesday, Wed., etc.), then outline the basic events/scenes that happen on each day, noting which POV the section will be told from. For police procedurals (and most mysteries), in which everything happens in a very short period of time, this seems essential. Some people (like Stephen King) say it's better not to outline, that it ruins creativity. Again, I disagree. So I fill in as much detail as I can at this point, especially for the first ten chapters and/or plot developments.

2. Write out the story logic. In a mystery/suspense novel, much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I worry that I won’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened. So I map it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

3. Beef up the outline. As I write the first 50 pages or so, new ideas come to me and I fill in the rest of outline as I go along. I continue adding to the outline, and by about the middle of the story, I have it completed.

4. Create a timeline. A lot happens in my stories, which usually take place in about six to ten days. I keep the timeline filled in as I write the story. This way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when an important event took place (Monday, 8 a.m.: Jackson interrogates Gorman in the jail). It’s much faster to check the timeline than scroll through a 350-page Word document. The timeline keeps also me from writing an impossible number of events into a 24-hour day.

5. Keep an idea/problem journal. I constantly get ideas for other parts of the story or realize things I need to change, so I enter these notes into a Word file as I think of them. (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?). I keep this file open as I write. Some ideas never get used, but some prove to be crucial. Eventually, all the problems get resolved as well. I use the Notebook layout feature in Word for this so I can keep the outline, timeline, notes, problems, and evidence all in the same file, using different tabs. I love this feature.

6. Keep an evidence file. This idea won’t apply to romance novels, but for crime stories, it’s useful. I make note of every piece of evidence that I introduce and every idea I get for evidence that I want to introduce. I refer to this file regularly as I write, so that I’m sure to process and/or explain all the evidence before the story ends. In my first novel, The Sex Club, a pair of orange panties didn’t make it into the file or the wrap up, and sure enough, a book club discussion leader asked me who they belonged to.

7. Update my character database. It took me a few stories to finally put all my character information into one database, but it was a worthwhile effort. Now, as I write, I enter each character name (even throwaway people who never come up again) into the database, including their function, any physical description, or any other information such as phone number, address, type of car, or favorite music. Now, when I need to know what I named someone earlier in the story or in a previous novel, it’s right there in my Excel database (Zeke Palmers; morgue assistant; short, with gray ponytail). For information about how to set up a file like this, see How to Create a Character Database.

As a general rule, I like to get the whole story down on the page before I do much rewriting, but I’ve learned to stop at 50 pages for two reasons. One, I like to go back and polish the first chunk of the story in case an agent or editor asks to see it. Two, I usually give this first chunk to a few beta readers to see if I’m on the right track. So far, I have been.

Do your first drafts suck? What’s the worst problem you’ve encountered in a first draft?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out in September. Her third Jackson story, Thrilled to Death, has just been completed, and she's writing a fourth. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling, hanging out with her family, and editing fiction manuscripts. Contact her at: Write First, Clean Later.


  1. Yay! I'm not the only one!

    My process is very similar to what you described here. The biggest problems I've found with my first drafts are the endings. I'll get to my ending only to realize I didn't specify how everything pans out beyond "They fight. Protagonist wins."

  2. Enjoyed this post -- Thanks! I, too, am a believer in quality first drafts, but it helps to know that if it's not quality, I can revise it later. The key here seems to be finding what works for you.

    Love the idea of a character database. Sometimes it's hard to keep track of which details I've already included in the story and which ones I still need to fit in.


  3. I printed out this post for reference. In the past, I have had very detailed outlines and used character sheets. I did book in a week and had notecards to enter into my scene/sequel skeleton. That gave me about 10,000 words to start. I wrote the book very quickly--so not as neat and tidy as other first drafts, but it was an excellent exercise and a great way to get the story down on paper. I'm going to follow your method for my book and for another book in a week class.

    I use Word and Scrivener now. They each have their bright spots. I use a hard copy notebook for my thoughts, notes, problems, and follow up critiques.

    LOVED THIS! Thanks!

  4. Adam, I always leave the ending a little vague in the outline and usually get some good ideas before I get there. Although I never know how it will work until I put my character into the scene and get specific.

  5. This is very useful - thank you. While I don't write crime, I've recently discovered that planning is critical to moving through that first draft.

    The character database is a great idea.

  6. I wrote my first mystery on a wing and a prayer. Then I went back and spent many, many hours fixing the things that are wrong. The story plan or outline, with a timeline and at least character sketches if not a full database -- all are essential to keep my story on track and minimize revisions. Excellent post.


  7. I agree with Adam Heine. Yay! I'm not the only one, either. All my friends write by the seat of their pants and think I'm weird for outlining.

  8. Very helpful and useful. I especially liked the idea of the evidence journal. I did that after the event, so to speak. I'm just now putting my story in my Blog and will need to dip into this knowledge base again and again. Thanks.
    Blessings, Star

  9. Lots of good information to absorb here. I may have to rethink the no outlining approach. :-)

  10. This is wonderful advice! One of the things I am already doing is keeping a timeline - not only does it help me keep track of events, but it also gives me a clear overall view of the plot, which I find very helpful.

    Elle Parker

  11. I, too, think it is possible to write a first draft that does not suck. I'm a historical romance writer, so I have a different method than you do, but essentially they are similar. I go through and determine all of the major plot elements that need to take place at the same time as I work through my character development. And then I do my best to fill in all of the smaller elements as I go. I've learned a lot through the problems I created in early manuscripts, and now know how to avoid them.

    Thanks for the idea on the character database. I have been thinking of ways to track the characters I've created, including the more minor ones. I will put this together tomorrow!

  12. LJ- what an excellent post! For my detective novellas I always use a system much like yours. Planning is very important so that you don't get yourself in a corner.

  13. Great post. But what do you do when, after planning everything, your villain refuses to show up for the final showdown? This just happened to me. Someone else showed up instead and surprised me.

    I actually liked this villain better, but now I have to go back and fix all the evidence to match.

  14. Great post. Just about all of those can be applied to any writing. I find keeping a time line is critical for me personally. And also tracking your plot as you write. Sometimes you veer off your original outline, and you need to add to that outline as you veer.

    Straight From Hel

  15. I couldn't agree more. As my writing career progresses I find myself plotting more and more.

  16. I'm entering into the writing world as a crazy person and started with ideas for a fantasy trilogy, and two historical romances.

    That then panned out to include two very dissimilar YA novels.

    Now, I've had the most brilliant idea for a crime novel. Most people settle with, "I'll write YA." and write YA. Or "Historical romances." or "Crime novels."

    Not everything at once.

    The idea of a character database appeals to me immensely, but I've never opened excel in my life, and am sitting here looking at it now, going, "What? What? How do you do this? What columns? Where should it go? I don't get it." and basically tugging on my hair in frustration. But I too have printed out the blog post for reference, and have it sitting next to my sign that reads "Don't get it right - Get it written" - two very different messages there. Ah well, I'll work it out somehow.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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