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  • J. J. Hanna

Writing a First Draft

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Ah yes. The favorite part of the writing process for any writer. Actually sitting down and writing.

As we enter into NaNoWriMo, it is important to remember something vital to your success in this venture of writing an entire novel in one month: it's a first draft.

What does that mean? Well, and this will be hard for some of you to hear, first drafts are imperfect.

In talking with many writers about NaNoWriMo, the thing they say they struggle with most is how fast you have to write. These are the writers who agonize over every word, who stop and think for three-five minutes until they find the word they were looking for, move on, and then come back because it wasn't actually the right word.

I don't have that problem. In my editing stages I'm often going back and removing phrases eight to ten words long because I could say the same thing in two. While writing, I wasn't concerned with my word choice. I was just getting it on the page.

But, for those of you out there for whom writing fast is extremely difficult because you need the right words in order to move on, I want to introduce you to a few tips that may help as you enter the NaNoWriMo season.

1. Write "It doesn't need to be perfect yet" on a sticky note and put that sticky note on your computer where you'll see it when you write. You're not trying to make art at this stage. You're just trying to tell a story. No sculptor starts with a fully formed statue. They start with a blank floor and they order a marble block. Your blank page is your blank floor. As you write your first draft, you're ordering your marble block. After the marble is in the space, after the story exists, you can chisel away to perfection. But you need the marble in the room first.

2. Employ the [something exciting happens here] technique. In fiction writing, you will rarely (if ever) use brackets. When you go back through at the end of November, you can easily find and fill in those brackets with whatever perfect scene you need. Don't worry about it, though. If you want the character to do something epic, just put [Character does something cool] and continue on with the rest of the story. The last thing you want to do is lose your momentum. It's easier to connect dots over a wall than it is to ram a train into the same wall. Hop over the problem and come back to it later when time isn't an issue.

3. Give yourself breaks. Plan in breaks for yourself. My best advice for this, though, is to pause in the middle of a scene where you already know where it's going. Hemmingway suggested this, and he was absolutely right. If you step away, even just to go to the bathroom, do a few quick stretches, and refill your coffee cup, your mind will continue on the story. It's like a buffer on a YouTube video. You pause so the gray, prepared bar could get far enough ahead of the red, played bar in order to play with no pauses. This is the same concept. Don't let your red, written bar catch up with the gray, subconscious story bar. Take a pause, let that unconscious part of your brain keep moving while you do something unrelated to writing, and come back and keep going. You're less likely to hit writer's block, you'll have a better endurance to keep writing, and anyway, we all love snacks, right?

4. Stay hydrated and take care of your meat suit. Yes, "meat suit" is a reference to Supernatural, and yes, it is kind of a gruesome way to describe your body. But, as writers, we often get stuck in our heads. Especially when we're writing nonstop for NaNoWriMo. Don't slack on your physical care needs. Feed yourself. Drink water. Drink electrolytes. Your body will be tired after writing sessions. It is putting out a ton of energy and effort to create the story you're writing. Giving it what it needs (in both diet and exercise) will allow it to be producing it's best work. Which, ideally, means less editing later. Plus, it's really bad for your body to sit in one place all day. Get up. Walk around. Come back. Get an ergonomic keyboard for your computer so you fight off carpel tunnel. The more well-kept your body is, the faster you'll be able to get the words on the page. That's helpful when you're trying to get 50,000 words in a month.

5. If you can't get the words to come, daydream about little headcanons you want to put in your book. Play with the characters in your mind. That is still productive writing time. It helps you know your characters well enough to write them. Have one take the other out for ice cream. Will this happen in the book? Maybe. If so, you've already thought through the scene. If not, you know the characters better.

Remember: you're not making art. You don't need to be making art. You need to be making something that you can later turn into art using the magic of rewriting and editing. Things don't have to be perfect. Things don't even have to be good.

When it comes down to it, your first draft from NaNoWriMo will be utter trash. But the good news is that you will have something to edit. Because, as we all know, the only editing to be made to a blank page is to put something on the page.

Take the next few days to prepare. NaNoWriMo is coming.

You're going to do great.

One man's trash is another man's treasure. Go make some trash so we can treasure it together.


J. J. Hanna graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Professional Writing. She's currently working with literary agent Cyle Young, learning to be a literary agent, and working as a freelance writer and editor. To hire her for editing, writing, speaking, or consulting, see the services tab. In her free time, she can be found cuddling with a cat, reading the latest suspense novel, or filming YouTube videos about the publishing industry.

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