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Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #1: FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Originally posted as Top Ten Writing Tips: Tip #1 on May 10, 2010.

The members of Middle Tennessee Christian Writers asked if, for our May meeting last week, I could present “Kaye’s Top Ten Writing Tips” as the workshop topic. Having been forced by a blog interviewer to come up with five (thanks, Regina—I usually only have to do one, maybe two) tips, I agreed, thinking it would be easy to come up with an additional five. Well . . . it wasn’t as easy as I anticipated—especially since I wanted to make sure I had “experts” to back me up on all of them.

And since I went to that much work, I figured they’d make a nice blog series. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, you’ll be treated to Kaye’s Top Ten Writing Tips.

Kaye’s Writing Tip #1. FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.
As I just mentioned in a class on writing opening hooks, don’t stress out about perfecting your opening hook before you have your entire story written—until you get to the end, you don’t really know what your story is about, no matter how detailed your outline/synopsis is.

It’s all well and good if you can write great openings, three to five great chapters. It’s fantastic if you can win contests with them. But if you never actually finish a manuscript, winning contests is all you’re ever going to be able to do.

You’ll never know how to write the beginning of a novel until you write through to the ending of it. You don’t know what hints/clues/red herrings you need to incorporate. You don’t know what themes are going to be important to introduce early. And you don’t know what secondary characters or subplots are going to come into play that need to be worked into the beginning of the novel.

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell wrote:

Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other.

Some writers tinker over their words endlessly, perhaps fearing the end result. It might stink.

Yes, it might. But it’s the only way you’re going to get better.

Finish your novel.

(Bell, p. 65)

As an unpublished writer, how will you know if a story has enough plot, enough conflict, to sustain an entire 80–100,000-word novel unless you write the whole thing? The only way you learn how to write a novel is by writing a novel. You’ll never be a professional author if all you ever write are snippets and snatches and opening chapters.

Instead of getting so wrapped up in going back and trying to “perfect” what you’ve already written, when you sit down for your writing time, don’t do anything more than re-read and possibly do a light revision on what you wrote yesterday, but then move forward. Try to push yourself to write a few more words today than you wrote yesterday. In War, Bell encourages writers to “write hard, write fast” when you’re writing your first draft. By pounding out the story in a shorter amount of time, you stay in its slipstream much more easily—the story takes on a life of its own and compels you to write it.

Obviously, this requires writing every day. If you want to be a professional (i.e., published) author, you must treat writing as your profession (even if it’s a second, third, or fourth profession in addition to a full-time job, spouse, and kids). “A surgeon can’t refuse to operate because he’s upset over the Lakers game last night,” Bell writes. “A criminal defense lawyer can’t ask for a continuance so he can go to the beach and dream of someday getting a client who’s actually innocent. And a professional writer can’t sit at the computer playing Spider Solitaire, waiting for a visit from the Muse. A pro is someone who writes, whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing. . . .”

Madeleine L’Engle put it this way in Walking on Water:

We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.

(L’Engle, p. 24)

Bell gives quite a few examples of authors who put the “write hard, write fast” principle to work:

  • “William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word. (You’re not Faulkner by the way.)”
  • Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris in 1925.
  • From 1953–1954, John D. MacDonald produced SEVEN novels of high quality. Over the course of the decade, he wrote many more superb books, including The End of the Night and Cry Hard, Cry Fast. MacDonald quelled a critic (who said he should give up writing “paperback drivel” and write “real fiction”) by saying in thirty days, he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in magazines, selected by a book club, and turned into a movie. The critic laughed and bet him $50 he couldn’t. MacDonald went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, made into a film in 1962 that continues to garner acclaim (and remade in 1991): Cape Fear.
  • Ray Bradbury wrote Farenheit 451 in nine days on a rented typewriter. He had a newborn at home so he needed somewhere else to work. He had no money for an office. But UCLA had a room in the basement of the library with 12 typewriters for rent at ten cents per half hour. $9.80 later, Bradbury had written his famous “dime” novel.
  • Jack London would shut himself in a room and write, sometimes for up to eighteen hours a day. He filled a trunk with rejections. But he was learning. When he died at the age of forty, he was one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.
  • Stephen King says he used to write 1,500 words a day every day, except his birthday and the Fourth of July.
  • (Bell, pp. 77–83)


For discussion:
What is the shortest amount of time it’s ever taken you to complete a manuscript? How many manuscripts have you finished (written through to the ending)? How long did it take you to finish your first full-length manuscript? Why do you think it’s important to finish your first draft?

Works Cited:

Bell, James Scott. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980. Print.

  1. Marie Pinkham permalink
    Tuesday, September 2, 2014 4:45 pm

    Thanks, Kaye. This is very helpful. I’m pounding out my first draft, and it’s so hard not to want to go back and fix every little thing now.So, I’ll follow your advice, stymie the little critic, and keep pounding away! Blessings, Marie


    • Tuesday, September 2, 2014 8:38 pm

      Hi, Marie!

      When I first started writing what would become Stand-In Groom, I wrote ten chapters. Then I hooked up with my very first critique partners and, based on their feedback, scrapped those ten chapters and went back and wrote another beginning—of about ten chapters. And then I started graduate school and got new critique partners, and a faculty mentor. And I scrapped that second beginning and started again.

      And then, about fifteen chapters into this latest version, I came up with the secret-identity plot. It was so tempting to go back, scrap what I’d already written, and start all over again. But I knew if I did that, I’d never meet my deadline of completing my manuscript by the end of my first year of grad school.

      Instead of trying to “fix” what I’d already written (or completely rewriting it at that time), I sat down and made a bunch of notes of things I’d need to change after I finished writing the first draft. Every time something came up as I continued writing forward in the manuscript, I would add to that list.

      By the time I wrote “The End,” so much of what I though I was going to need to put into or change in those first chapters was either unnecessary, or, based on what happened in the story and with the characters as I wrote the last half of the manuscript, was completely different.

      And even after completing the “first draft,” I ended up changing the beginning a couple of times—a complete rewrite in the second draft and additional changes/tweaks the next several times through.

      So that was my object lesson in why it’s so important to just keep writing forward and resist the temptation to go back and “fix” what’s already written.



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