The Process of Creating the First Draft of a Novel

How do you start a first draft? How do you finish it?

There are many different approaches, but generally these approaches are all lumped into three options: Pantsing, plantsing, and planning.


Pantsing is essentially going in without a clear plan. You just start writing and see what comes out. Planning means you have a bit more than a general idea of what you’re doing. You’ve got a clear beginning, middle and end, and likely you have summaries and outlines of the chapters. The hybrid of this is going in with a general idea of where you want to start, where you want to end, maybe a few ideas of the in-between, but you leave a lot of room for creative invention of the details.

There is no right or wrong way to do a first draft.

It really depends on your personality. Some people, like myself, feel their creativity is greatly hindered when everything is planned. It could be argued that if you can figure out at the outset what comes next, your reader might find it too predictable. While you can encounter some surprises along the way, it’s usually not as frequent as if you’d pantsed it.

The argument against pantsing is that it can often lead you on aimlessly, and you end up with no plot and no way to get to an end, and you may find you run out of story or feel blocked because you have no plan on how to continue. I chose to pants it. I did have a general idea of where I wanted to go, with a few questions in my mind that I wanted to ask along the way.

I just started writing. It was a sloppy start.

I ended up head-hopping to four different points of view in the first chapter before I decided which character I wanted to be my main character. It wasn’t who I had planned to be my main character, but then again, I didn’t even have names for my characters before I started my first chapter. I knew it was nothing that I couldn’t go back and fix later, so I kept writing.

As a guideline along the way, I used the book No Plot? No Problem! Revised and Expanded Edition: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month.

The book inspired me to keep moving forward, and plot seemed to emerge organically. While I didn’t have a plan, as a good reader I seemed to know how a plot might progress in the world I created. I started asking questions about my characters, about their motives and their desires. It was as if I was reading a novel and I was asking the questions I would have asked if it were someone else’s work. Does she get what she wants? How does she get there? Why did this happen?

As I wrote, I made discoveries about my story.

I made discoveries about my characters and plot that changed not only the course of the novel moving forward, but what had happened before. I made a note in capital letters inside brackets in the middle of the text so I could remember to return to it later, and fix the previous chapters to match with the new text. I kept a notebook close at hand to jot down any questions or new insights I had. You could do this with a text document as well, but I always prefer to work longhand when possible, as it seems to make my creativity more fluid.

I sat down every day, not necessarily knowing what was going to come next, but I always managed to come up with something. I finished my 50,000-word goal and completed the story. While you can end up with a lot of bad material when packing in a full 50,000 words into one month, I think you end up with more good material than if you took it slower.

When you write a first draft in one month, or even less, you are immersed in that work every day.

You dream about it. Your characters become your roommates. You live in the world of your novel. It becomes your lover, and all you can think about is the next time you get to sit down at your keyboard and be with your novel again. Sometimes you get sick of it, but you keep returning out of a deep love for the work. It is work. It’s hard work. But the reward is well worth it when you put your heart into it and give it all you’ve got.

You don’t have to write a novel in one month, but I do highly recommend giving it a try. You’ll likely end up with a mess, but it will be a raw and true.

In my next posts, I’ll explore how to come up with ideas to get your first draft started.

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