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The Online Journal of Writer Kate Sykes

Novel Concepts: 3 Techniques for a Faster First Draft

Let’s face it. Writing a novel is hard work. For one thing, it’s a lot of words. About 100,000 of them, on average.

If you’re Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin, it’s more—much more! And if you’ve never written a novel before, it can be infinity plus one.

At least it can feel that way.

FACT: Most first-time novelists write three times more words than what ends up in the final book.

Writing one novel is hard enough, you say. How do I avoid writing three?

The reality is you can’t avoid it altogether. But you can curtail it.

Here are three techniques to minimize wheel-spinning in the first draft, and reduce the heavy lifting in the second.

1. Use Clichés.

Yes, I know. This advice contradicts everything you’ve been taught about “good” writing.

But here’s the thing: fretting about the quality of the prose before the story is written is like picking out the powder room wallpaper before the house is framed.

What if your powder room ends up being a man cave?

What if you need three powder rooms? (That purple flowered stuff will get old fast.)

Clichés can be a writer’s best friend. Let these weasels loose in your first draft and they’ll keep your internal editor running around the mulberry bush while your creative self—the one that actually wants to finish this book—moves forward.

To the experienced writer, clichés are nothing more than placeholders.

When you’re stuck for a description, a reaction, a line of dialog, throw a placeholder down to mark your spot, to remind you of what you want to say when you have more coffee in your system:

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

His stomach clenched in fear.

“Golly, Sherriff Jones! You’re as tough as nails!”

Wee! Look at those weasels go!

2. Write scenes, not chapters.

Your editor will decide where the chapter breaks go in your novel. Don’t waste time and mental effort worrying about something that will almost certainly change in the final proof.

Envision your novel as a series of events that happen to your character. (Er, you know, like in the world, not in the mind?) Then go to work writing those events as stand-alone scenes. Make them short: 1200 words. Maybe less. (Mostly less!)

Now write 100 of them. Hey now! Would you look at that? You have a first draft.

Chapters have a weight problem. They’re flabby and unwieldy things in revision. Knowing you have to carry them up and down stairs a few times, why would you do that to yourself?

Scenes are modular miracles. They can be flipped around, removed and replaced with very little pain and effort.

Writing your first draft in scenes makes putting the final puzzle together a snap.

3. Write out of order.

Whether you’re an outliner or a seat-of-your-pantser, jumping forward and backward in the book lets you see into the future and gives you the benefit of hindsight at the same time.

Sure, you know the main thrust of your plot. You have a pretty good sense of the character arcs. But stuff comes up in scenes. Cool stuff. Characters speak to you. They argue. They reveal their skeletons. And writing scenes that occur late in the novel always yields small details about plot and character that you overlooked in the outline.

Leaping ahead in the story gives you a target to write towards. It also helps bring the road into better focus. It may be a primitive road. But you’re on a dirt bike now, my friend. Crank the throttle! Catch some air!

By the same token, going backward to earlier scenes lets you set up and foreshadow events to come. Who’s to say you can’t start your story at the end and backtrack? Or in the middle and work the flanks?

There’s no one “right” way to write a novel. But novels are never written from front to back, with every word in place in draft one, and every chapter pulling its weight.

That’s how we read them. Don’t confuse the two.

By letting go (temporarily) of your attachment to quality prose, by dumping weighty chapters in favor of scenes, and by taking an agile approach to getting them on paper, you’ll stay light on your feet and keep up your momentum.

Don’t worry. The weasels will be waiting.

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3 comments on “Novel Concepts: 3 Techniques for a Faster First Draft

  1. Nathan Payne
    January 10, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Archivist's Vault and commented:
    Ran across this last night, finished reading it this morning, and–wanting to tag it for prosperity–I am reblogging it here. Have a quick read, I think there’s some great advice in this one because I have tried each of these, and they’ve accelerated my writing by a great deal. I do struggle with the quality prose the most though. That one is hard to let go of.

  2. Mark
    January 12, 2014

    As both a prose and a screenwriter I can see the great value in these helpful hints. Scenes in screenwriting are supposed to be short (get in, get out). And we are supposed to write our last two scenes early on in the process, so we know where we are going.

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