5 Tips for Completing a First Draft

Well, I may be unpublished, but as of last Thursday, February 28, 2013, I have three full-length novels sitting on my hard drive. One of these I aim to self-publish by the end of April. The others are both in their infancy, each merely complete to their first draft (and as such unfit for human consumption).

So, enough bragging, right? Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call the above bragging, and that’s the reason for this post. Completing the first draft of a novel is an accomplishment, yes, but I believe any self-disciplined person willing to make the sacrifice and commitment can do it.

I’ve been through this three times, and I intend to be through it at least once more before year’s end. While my method for completing each of my first drafts has been different, five specific actions have remained consistent across all projects, and I thought I’d share.

1. Purpose in your heart to finish. 
I am taking a phrase from the King James Version of the Holy Bible, when it speaks of the prophet Daniel (from that famous “Lion’s Den” incident) who “purposed in his heart” not to feast on the buffet available to him because he knew it would dishonor God. Daniel looked at his life, decided what he would and would not do, then did it. I just love the phrasing, and this idea is the big one. In fact, this idea is the biggest one–purposing to write. I have found that if I do not commit to finishing a work before I begin it, I won’t. By my eightieth page or forty-thousandth word, I’ll doubt, get scared, get tired, get bored, get anxious, get frustrated, and quit. Believe me. I’ve done it. At certain points in a novel, a writer must climb over difficult pieces of story that do not feel like they are working, and stopping is much easier than fighting through it. Don’t let yourself stop; commit to finishing before you begin. If you start at that solid foundation, you are in good shape.

2. Commit yourself to a realistic completion date.
Projects are a funny thing. Many people intend to do them, and fewer actually finish them–even fewer finish them in a timely manner. I think what separates this last category from the rest is one simple thing: a deadline. I love deadlines. In a way, they are magical. Before you have one, everything is nebulous, but the introduction of a “must-be-completed by” date, gives you focus, enables you to prioritize, and provides something of a finish line that works wonders on your brain. The finish line or deadline allows the brain to say, “okay, I know I can relax after Date-X; therefore, until that time, I will hustle.” If you have never experienced the brain’s power to harness its capacities for a given timeframe when it knows the end is coming, you have to. It’s fabulous, and it works. Set a deadline.

3. Tell two or more people of your goal. 
Why two or more? Well, if you tell one, and that person either doesn’t care, forgets, or passes in the interim, then it’s just between you and God, and we all slight God with our weakness daily, so breaking this commitment you made to yourself before him (esp. when it’s hard) will likely happen. But when it comes to our friends and families, we tend to be a bit more on point with keeping our word. Also, sometimes we need them to ask us about progress, let us know they are excited, or remind us of our goal in order to get through a project of this magnitude. Besides, if you decide to quit, you are not only letting yourself down but them also, and we all hate doing that. So tell them, at least two but try more (and if you’re at a place with God where you can purpose in your heart before him and it sticks, good on you, keep that going).

4. Work daily. 
Accomplishing any major project in a single day is difficult–almost impossible. Spreading the tasks of that project into increments over a period of time is manageable, efficient, and immensely rewarding. So do. Break your book into chapters, word count, scenes or however you choose, but set a requirement daily (or at least 4 times a week) and complete it. Right now, I am putting Stronghold through it’s final revision before I publish. I will edit a chapter a day, more if the mood strikes, but never more than one in a single session. I missed yesterday due to an illness-induced, bed-ridden stupor and today because I needed to post, so tomorrow when I am feeling top notch (hopefully), I will complete an initial session for Tuesday’s chapter, a second for today’s, and a third for the one originally planned for Thursday. Note what I am doing. When I miss a day, I make up for it. Immediately. By Friday, my regular routine will continue and so on and so forth. Do this if you want to write a book. I think six days a week is best. Do a certain amount each day, and do not get too far behind your schedule. You will feel accomplished even before you finish; and it will give you a sense that your book is a forming reality not a vague idea.

5. Be a mythkiller!
Yeah, you didn’t see that one coming did you? Frankly, I didn’t either, but it came, and I am sticking to it. So, what’s a “mythkiller”? Well, one who kills myths, clearly (I thought we were all writers here). But what myths specifically am I telling you to kill? These:
a) I need ideal conditions to write: False. You need conditions in which writing is possible to write. That could be coffee shop, a kitchen table, a bed, or your restroom. It could be at any time of day, and it can be for any amount of time (I use a 20 minute-minimum to constitute a “session”). Just do it where you can, when you can.
b) I need to be inspired. No you don’t. Never. Never ever. If you want to complete a book, you need to tell inspiration, “thanks for coming; you’re welcome anytime, but I’m not stopping this freight train just cause you stepped off for a new pair of jeans.” Say it. Mean it. Write without it. What do you write without inspiration? The truth. Always. Regardless. Tell the truth. You know it, and you don’t need a muse to tell you. If the truth is an ogre fighting a cyclops on a bridge (and it often is), then write it. Inspiration will show up after its done shopping at the outlets, and it might even be wearing a new sundress that will give you an idea. Your needing it in the navigator seat is a myth.
c) It doesn’t matter if I don’t finish. Yes it does, because of points 1, 2, 3, and 4 it matters. You told yourself you would do this. You even set a date. You even welcomed others on the journey, and you have taken steps toward the destination already. If you don’t finish, that’s all for nothing, and that’s a good deal of energy and intention you will waste. So it matters. Finish.

So, there you have it. It wasn’t pretty (even though I threw in that undress at the end for good measure), but it works. If I did this three times, you can to. Truth. Thanks for reading,

PS – If you’re in the middle of that first draft, and you haven’t done this yet, it’s never too late to add tools to your toolbox. Assess where you are in that draft, take these tips to heart and then keep on trucking!