5 Tips to Finish the First Draft of Your Novel

I finally did it. I wrote a novel.

Well, I wrote the first draft of a novel. I quit my job (after years of saving and thinking about it), I set a deadline, and I wrote 75,000 words in about six weeks.

I’m going to share a few things that really made this process different from my previous (failed) attempts at novel-writing.

Because I quit my job to write full time, I obviously had more freedom than most people, but these tips could be applied to whatever your schedule or process is.

1) Create a Detailed Outline

I used the twelve steps of the hero’s journey. Years ago, I never thought of myself as an outliner. Having such a detailed plan seemed antithetical to the creative process. That’s a lovely principle when you’re 19 years old, but I actually wanted to finish this project.

Compared to previous novel attempts, having an outline and scene list made a world of difference. When you have a road map to your destination, you can focus on being a good driver, not agonizing over what the next step will be.

Also, I found that using Scrivener to write my first draft was really helpful because I could create any number of scenes or chapters within the project. Then I could organize them however I liked. This made it easy to jump to whatever scene I wanted to work on without scrolling through a giant document for 20 minutes.

The Corkboard view in Scrivener.

2) Stick to a Routine

When you work for yourself, you have to have discipline and for me, discipline and routine go hand in hand. My goal was to get up at the same time and leave home at the same time every day.

I wasn’t always on time, but having my morning checklist made it much easier to get moving and get out the door. I usually went straight to a coffee shop and wrote my first 1,000 to 1,200 words before lunch. And getting a big chunk of my word goal done in the morning was vital.

3) Set a Non-negotiable Daily Goal

“They don’t have to be good words. They just have to be words.” — me to myself

That was my motto for the six or so weeks I was writing my first draft. Monday through Friday I had to write at least 2,600 words. It didn’t matter how I felt or what else I had going on that day — my word goal was set in stone. If nothing else, I was going to hit my word count goal.

Again, because I left my job to write full-time, I was able to prioritize such a big daily word count. Moving forward though, as I job hunt and figure out my new normal, that won’t be doable. But now that I know I can produce that kind of volume, I plan to incorporate a smaller word count goal into my next routine.

4) Keep a Log of Your Progress

I also tracked other things I was trying to incorporate into my routine, like working out, playing guitar, and meditation. But most importantly WORDS.

Each night, I would return to my planner and record exactly how many words I added to my manuscript that day. This was one of the highlights of my day. It was a moment where I got to acknowledge the progress I had made and feel a sense of accomplishment.

When you don’t have a boss and there’s really no one waiting to see your book, you have to give yourself those hits of dopamine. Every time I wrote down my word count for the day, I felt like a total boss. In the week or so after I finished my first draft, I really missed this little ritual.

5) Set a Meaningful Deadline

I would like to thank my friend JJ for being born. I should also thank her for planning her Dirty Thirty birthday weekend when she did, because it worked perfectly as a first draft deadline for me.

I rarely take vacations and I have trouble turning my brain off and forgetting about all the things I want to get done. So I was determined to finish my first draft before leaving on the trip.

When the going got tough, I could always remind myself that that weekend was going to be a thousand times better if I wasn’t feeling guilty about having an unfinished draft.

And the end result was this, my first draft.

It was a strange feeling to reach the end of this huge task. I was excited, but I also felt like there was another shoe waiting to drop.

When I got notes back from my very first readers, I found out I was right. More to come on that.

Writer, musician, improvisor, recovering pessimist.

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