First Things First
First drafts seem to be your favourite part of the process, or THE WORST. For me, I hate every minute of the first draft – I guess it’s the editor in me! But since it’s November, that means Nanowrimo … So I thought I would crack open my email address book and ask some experts their first draft tips. Enjoy!
1) ‘Call Draft 1 a plan’ – Sophie Hannah
Call it a really detailed plan, not a first draft – this takes the pressure right off!
BIO: Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling author of psychological crime fiction and poetry. Her most recent books are the Hercule Poirot continuation novel The Mystery of Three Quarters and a quirky self-help book, How to Hold a Grudge.
2) ‘Don’t wait until The Muse strikes’ – Sanjida Kay
Do some maths! Work out how many words you’re going to write, and how many days you’ve got in which to write them so that you know approximately how many words you’ll need to write in a day. Choose when you’re going to write and block out that time in your diary as if it’s a Very Important Meeting. At the appointed time, have a strong coffee or mint tea if you’re a mint-tea-kind-of-a person; stick a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door and switch off all social media and your email account. Put your phone on silent.
Don’t wait until The Muse strikes. Stay at your desk/laptop until you’ve banged out some words. Don’t worry if they’re not the best words. You just need some words. Do start with a plan – a rough outline of the story and the characters at the very least. Go for long walks at the weekend to think about what you’re going to write during the week.
BIO: Sanjida Kay is the author of three psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone (longlisted for a CWA Steel Dagger Award, nominated as one of the best crime and thriller books of the year by the Guardian and the Sunday Express and named as an Amazon Rising Star); The Stolen Child (optioned for film and TV rights by the company that made Homeland) and latest, My Mother’s Secret. Sanjida lives in Bristol, with her husband and daughter.
3) ‘Plot beforehand and create a road map’ – Paula Daly
I hate the first draft. It’s my least favourite part of the process. So I need a plan, a road map, or I can’t find my way to the end. I plot for around three months before I start writing (some of this is done during the editorial process of the previous novel) and by the time I write Chapter One, I have pretty much the whole book worked out.
BIO: Paula Daly is the acclaimed author of five novels. She has been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Crime Novel of the Year award, and her books have been developed for the new ITV television series, Deep Water, starring Anna Friel.
4) ‘Write, write, write!’ – James Carol
Write, write, then write some more. This might sound overly simplistic but It’s the only way you’re going to reach the finish line. If you’re thinking about writing you’re not writing … ditto if you’re talking about it. The only way to get the book finished is to get those words onto the page. I’m not going to bullshit you: the first draft is hard work. Basically you’re down in the word mine day after day. It’s dark and lonely down there and the only thing you’ve got for company are your doubts. The pay off comes when you finally get to the end of the first draft. That one never gets boring.
BIO: James Carol is the creator of the Jefferson Winter series, which includes the bestselling Broken Dolls. He also writes standalones under the name JS Carol. These include The Killing Game, which was shortlisted for a CWA steel dagger. His latest novel is Kiss Me, Kill Me.
5) ‘Don’t edit as you write’ – Zoe Lea
Resist the urge to go back and edit what you’ve already written, keep moving forward until you type out ‘the end’.
BIO: Zoe Lea is an author living in the Lake District, her first book, If He Wakes became an international kindle bestseller and her next book The Secretary is due out summer 2019.
6) ‘Get it written’ – Matt Johnson
First drafts don’t need to be perfect, they just have to be written. Don’t slow down the creative process by worrying about typing quality, spelling, grammar etc. That can and will get sorted out later. Let the story flow.
BIO: Matt Johnson, ex-cop, ex-soldier. Voted at No.22 in the 2018 WH Smith best ever crime writer poll. Author of the CWA John Creasey Dagger nominated Wicked Game trilogy. Final part – End Game – out now.
7) ‘Turn off the internet’ – Anna Mazzola
Turn off the internet (I use the Self Control app to limit access to social media) and set yourself a realistic word count for each day. I write in Scrivener, which allows you to set a target and then receive a satisfying ‘bing’ if and when you hit it. Oh, and coffee. A lot of coffee.
BIO: Anna Mazzola writes historical crime and Gothic fiction. Her debut novel, The Unseeing, which won an Edgar Allan Poe award, is based on the life of a real woman convicted of aiding a murder in London in 1836. Her critically acclaimed second novel, The Story Keeper, follows a folklorist’s assistant as she searches out dark fairytales and stolen girls on the Isle of Skye in 1857.
8) ‘Write every day’ – Rebecca Bradley
Write every day. Even if it’s just a handful of sentences on a difficult day, it keeps the story percolating in your head and makes it easy to go back to every day.
BIO: Rebecca Bradley is a retired police detective and author of Dead Blind as well as the DI Hannah Robbins series. She lives in the UK with her family and her two cockapoo’s Alfie and Lola, who keep her company while she writes. Rebecca needs to drink copious amounts of tea to function throughout the day and if she could, she would survive on a diet of tea and cake while committing murder on a regular basis.
9) ‘Focus on wordcount, over time’ – Claire McGowan
My absolute best tip for this is to always focus on wordcount not writing time. If you say ‘I’m going to sit down and write for four hours’, there’s a good chance you might still do nothing. I make myself do 1 or 2k words every day in the writing stage. I can’t do anything with the story until I have a good chunk of it down on paper. If you get on with it and don’t ever delete or stop to edit (my other tip!), you can do this in 15 minutes a day if you have to.
BIO: Claire McGowan is the author of the Paula Maguire crime series, and an upcoming standalone thriller (publishing July 2019). As Eva Woods she has also written several women’s fiction novels, and the latest, The Lives We Touch, is out now.
10) ‘Throw it down’ – Ruth Dugdall
Gag your inner critic! The first draft is about clay on the kiln. Don’t try to make it look pretty, just throw it down.
BIO: Ruth Dugdall is a British crime novelist whose award-winning novels delve into dark topics. Her latest novel The Things Your Didn’t See has a protagonist with synesthesia, who is investigating a crime, apparently committed whilst the suspect was sleepwalking.
11) ‘Do your prep first’ – Lucy Van Smit
Bum on chair. And be alert for your distractions, excuses and procrastination. Dio your prep first on story/character. Know what you want to say, then just say it. Switch the editor off and get it down on the page.
BIO: Hailed by The Irish Times as ‘a writer to watch’, former documentary maker Lucy Van Smit is the author of the award-winning novel The Hurting, ‘a Nordic Noir Wuthering Heights’.
12) ‘Write Every Day’ – Peter James
Write every day for 6 days a week at an amount that you are comfortable with, without fail.
BIO: Peter James’ books have sold 19 million copies with 13 number ones. His standalone Absolute Proof has recently been published and the paperback of his new Roy Grace Dead If You Don’t.
What Writers Can Learn
As with my previous ‘Ask the Experts’ post from TV writers, it’s interesting to note how many similar responses there are here. These writers are all accomplished and acclaimed, so let’s consider what they can teach us:
- Nothing matters except getting the first draft written. This might be obvious, but it’s non-negotiable. Without the first draft, there is no book (or film or TV show for that matter, either).
- Work out what will PREVENT you from getting the first draft written. If that’s the internet, turn it off – ie. use app blockers.
- Work out what will ENABLE to you get the first draft written. If that’s a plan, use a plan. If that’s focusing on wordcount and/or what time you have available, do that. Whatever it takes.
- Don’t edit as you go along. That comes later.
Don’t forget to check out the books by the writers listed here as a thanks for their guidance.
Good luck with your own first drafts!