5 Ways To Get Your First Draft Material Out Of Your Head And Onto The Page

It’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I’m working on a new book in a new series which is all very exciting!

Shakespeares handwritingThis month, thousands of people will write 50,000 words, but these will not be fully formed books, for this is an outpouring of first draft creative material and that is a hugely important distinction.

First draft material is allowed to be crap, and often is and it’s meant to be so.

So don’t worry! A perfect sentence does not appear fully formed on the page, and it is not followed by another one, and another, to create a perfect story in one go. That’s not how writing works – but it is the myth of writing which we must dispel.

“Writing is rewriting,” as the great Michael Crichton said. Remember that, and then go write 50,000 words of first draft material that you can shape into something marvelous later.

So how do you get your first draft material from your head onto the page? Here are some of my tips.

(1) Set a word count goal

This is why NaNoWriMo works so well for people, as you have to write around 1700 words per day in order to ‘win’. Many pro-authors, like Stephen King, have a goal of 2000 per day, even birthdays and Christmas.

If you don’t have some kind of goal, you won’t achieve anything. I really believe that. It also breaks the work down into manageable chunks.

For a full length novel, say 80,000 words @2000 words per day = 40 days of consistent writing

For a novella, say 30,000 words @2000 words per day = 15 days of consistent writing

Of course, you have the editing process after that, but you can’t edit a blank page. So set your word count goal, and get writing.

[Personally, I always use word count goals in the first draft writing phase, but I don’t do that many fiction words every day of the year.]

(2) Write Or Die

write or die This awesome software at WriteOrDie.com is a way to burst through the internal editor that snipes at you as you write a load of crap in your first draft phase.

The software allows you to set a goal in time or word count. I started with 20 minutes, and then you have to keep typing or it will play some psycho violin music, or the screen will start turning red, or in kamikaze mode, your words start disappearing. At the end of the session when you reach your goal, trumpets sound and you can save the text.

I highly recommend this if you are struggling. This is how I wrote 20,000 words in my first NaNoWriMo and created the core of Pentecost. Maybe 2000 words survived the culling/editing but you have to write a lot of crap to shape it into something good (at least when you’re starting out anyway!)

(3) Scrivener

project targets

Scrivener Project Targets

I wax lyrical about Scrivener all the time, but it has some cool productivity tools. You can set Project Targets, so 50,000 words for example, and you can also set Session Targets, so mine is set at 2000 words. Every time you sit down to write, you can have those targets floating by your work and the progress bar moves so you can see how its going. Very motivating.

I also like to put as many scenes in as possible before I start writing, so I have somewhere to start each day. So right now, I have 11 one-line scene descriptions that I can fill in as I go along. I will change them, add to them etc but it means that whenever I sit down for a writing session, I can start filling in the blanks if I don’t know what else to do.

There’s also a Compose mode so you can fill the whole screen with a blank piece of paper. Keeps you focused :)

(4) Set a timer for focus sessions, and use Freedom or other software to turn the internet off

As part of my daily productivity tools, I set my (iphone) timer for 90 minutes and then I write, or edit, or work on a specific project for that long. But you can start with 10 mins or 15 or whatever you can manage.

The important thing is not to get distracted in that time, and DO NOT check the internet or twitter or your email or make a cup of tea or anything. You can use software like Freedom to stop you accessing the ‘net if you really can’t resist without help.

(5) Get up really early and work while your brain is still half asleep

sunriseWhen I wrote my first novel, Pentecost, while working full time, I used to get up at 5am and write for an hour before work.

Johnny B. Truant recently did this to write 2 novellas in 2 months (although he started at 4am some days – ouch.)

I think the early morning helps because your brain isn’t polluted by everything that has happened in the day, and your internal editor is still asleep. However, this totally depends on whether you’re a night-owl and your family situation etc etc … so find your own groove, but the point is, you need to schedule some time that you don’t have normally to get stuff done.

[Here’s another productivity tip. I got rid of the TV nearly 5 years ago, about the time that I started writing, blogging and changing my life – there’s some correlation there!]

Trust the process of emergence

I heard this in an interview with Brene Brown on Jonathan Fields’ Goodlife Project, and it is totally true.

Even if you plot your books, sometimes you won’t know what is coming until the words appear on the page. Something happens when you commit to the page, to the word count goal and you write through the frustration and the annoyance and the self-criticism.

Creativity emerges. Ideas emerge. Original thought emerges.

Something happens – but only if you trust emergence.

You can see the process work itself through by checking out the journey of my first novel. It starts in NaNoWriMo 2009 with my first draft material and ends with 40,000 books sold nearly 2 years later. The core idea completely changed :)  but I hope it will encourage you to see that first drafts are just the beginning.

If you don’t force yourself to get the first draft material down, you will never have anything to work with. So fight resistance and get it done.

How do you get your first draft material written? Please leave a comment below.

Image top: Bigstock Shakespeare, Flickr CC Sunrise by Pilottage

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  1. Allison says

    Hi Joanna
    I cannot understand where my thoughts for writing has gone. For the first half of this year after many years of writing nothing I had some fantastic ideas and dreams for stories but in the last few months my thoughts and ideas seem to have disappeared. I am trying to finish a book that I started writing last year and seem to have lost all hope. I work part-time and see my granddaughter three times a week. My partner works away two weeks at a time and I should have thought I would be able to get down to even scribbling notes for future but alas nothing. I have a story in my head and notes in my book for young teenagers but seem to be blocked from even doodling. I have read your piece on getting it down on paper but some how I feel not complete, hard to explain sorry. Please can you or any others help me to get a wriggle on and get going I used to love writing with a passion but the passion seems to have disappeared somewhat. Thanks for listening to an old bat dribbling on.. By the way just joined this site and very interesting it is…. I’m not a celebrity so no one can get me out of here.

    • says

      Oh, Allison. I feel your pain. I’ve definitely been there. If you need a fellow writer to vent to, email me at RebeccaJClark (dot) author AT gmail (dot) com

      Joanna, thanks for a great post. I finally *won* NaNo for the first time after several attempts, and I did it by following the suggestions you just mentioned. I allowed myself to write crap (I followed this advice particularly well LOL); I used Write or Die to crank out the last 500 words that just didn’t want to come each day; I used Freedom to keep me from checking my email or FB for just a sec; I set a wordcount of 2k a day.

      • Allison says

        Hi Rebecca
        Sorry so long since replying but been very busy with family commitments you know what its like. I am writing again a little each day. Well done by the way winning the nano I failed still will try again this year. I will email you soon but still sorting my mum as she has been very ill.

    • Crystal says

      Hi Allison, I understand exactly what you mean. Over the last few years, my health has seriously declined and all my mental, physical, and emotional energy and creativity has been sapped. For a long time I was living in a fog and confused state with poor attention, memory, and focus. I didn’t have words or ideas, only chaos and frustration, or worse, pure silence/blankness. It has been an ugly and terrible time, with many more symptoms than I mentioned, but in recent months, I have begun recovery and slowly but surely, I feel my old self returning.
      My advice:
      1) Love yourself and treat yourself well. Give yourself what you need and enjoy as much as possible, whether it’s rest, stress relief, excitement, pleasure, socializing, etc.
      2) Improve your diet: try reducing dairy, meat, gluten, and sugar. Incorporate lots of water, fresh organic fruits & veggies into every meal. Get 8 hours + of sleep, etc. Of course, eliminate any additional toxins like smoking or alcohol, etc. if you do any of that.
      3) Connect with friends, loved ones, meet new people, go to new places. Stimulate your brain cells, expose yourself to novelty and different experiences. Begin a new hobby or continue an old one that you enjoy.
      4) Limit distractions like tv, internet, whatever it is you do that takes you farther away from your goals or simply does not propel you towards your goal and keeps you stagnant.
      5) Find your happy peaceful space. Spend more time in nature or having silence/reflection time. The beach can be so healing and inspirational.

      I’m pretty sure that before you know it, you’ll be feeling better, and everything will work better, including your brain. For me, it’s been very difficult and taken a long time to get myself accustomed to new habits that my body resisted, and I still struggle with willpower (my disorder definitely continues to present challenges) but small progress is still progress and fortunately I have seen lots of it and have recently begun writing again after not having done so since 2008! If you keep at it and forgive yourself for lapses, you will reap the benefits. Reaching out for support is very helpful!
      Good luck!

      • Allison says

        Hi Crystal thanks. I have just begun a good eating regime . Family commitments have held me back from writing but am now using my phone to record any ideas that pop into my head whilst helping my mum with her housework, I find this is great and at night I can then get into that zone.

        I am trying to write at least 200 words a day, still can’t shake the guilt of missing a daybashing the keyboard though.

  2. says

    I like the idea of setting a timer and working for that set time without distractions. I use that method for many things in addition to writing — it works for any task you want to get done, when you’re having a hard time getting started.

  3. Brian says

    @Allison: I have run into similar troubles and it has frustrated me greatly. The only thing I can so far trace it to is that I’ve not been able to decide on what project to work on next. I have so many and what seems like so little time that I do nothing instead.

    I have narrowed it down and next I need to set some realistic goals and just get started. I hope this helps. Good luck.

    • Allison says

      Thanks Brian. The problem with me like trying to get to the gym I never seem to have a lot of time. I work part-time at my local library where I seem to get roped into doing arts and crafts for all kinds of things. You would think that I could come up with some ideas from this but to no avail. I have tried walking, singing driving for miles in the car through beautiful country roads but nothing. Do you think now that I am a granny, first time), I may have lost that youngster kind of spark??? I also think since moving back to the UK from a hot destination I have lost my writing mojo, oh woe is me.

      Anyway, will sit here in my local cafe and try to listen to some gossip and see what happens. Would love to know what you like to read and write about. What is your genre?

      Have a good day now
      All the best.

  4. Brian says

    There is an interesting TED talk I just watched on the Paradox of Choice. http://goo.gl/B0or

    In a nutshell, when we have so many choices, we often choose nothing or are unhappy with the choices we do end up making. I think that is currently a big part of my problem.

    I’m across the board in my reading and writing interests and genres. Again, too many choices ;-)

  5. says

    Joanna–I just recently discovered this blog, and I’m thrilled with it. You have some great info here.

    Allison–(If you’re reading this…) You said you used to be in a hot climate, and now you’ve lost your writing mojo… Boy, I can relate. I moved from a sunny (not necessarily hot) climate to a gray and overcast one about 10 years ago, and I’m STILL trying to get my mojo back. I think the gray skies really affect me. I recently got a light box (I call it my happy light) and try to sit in front of it every morning for at least 30 minutes. It’s really helping. You might give it a shot. Good luck!

  6. Ester Benjamin Shifren says

    Just came across this link, even though I am an avid fan of yours—thank you. My first book, Hiding in a Cave of Trunks, is doing phenomenally well. Because of calls for a sequel I started writing again, without too much initial enthusiasm. I discovered a site, 750 Words, (reminiscent of The Artist’s Way) and started using it in conjunction with Dragon Dictation. What a win! After chuckling over the funny mistakes I discovered it improved when sentences were short and playback was done more frequently. It was also easier to repair mistakes in real time. I had 782+ words done in just 27 minutes, for three straight days! Top of the charts, without any real effort. I will try other word counting sites, and will shortly purchase Scrivener—all the good reports are hard to ignore.
    Keep up the good work and wonderful tips. Best wishes.

  7. Nina says

    I have recently begun a second book. I was going gung-ho and reached 40 pages or so (around 19,000 words). I am using a laptop which I am not completely comfortable yet and all of sudden, although I save every half hour or so, and the computer saves also, I lost the last ten pages which I had written. I was completely bummed out and still am. I have written some of those ten lost pages again, but now I am stuck and can’t seem to get past the hump. It’s like spinning my wheels. OH>>>>> It is very frustrating and so I step away from the writing for a day or so, trying to recoup my memory. This strategy is not helping much. But having said all of the above, I really do enjoy the process of writing which I started almost three years ago with my mother’s memoirs.

  8. says

    Hi Joanna,
    Thank you so much for this very useful post. I have just bought Scrivener after doing Camp NaNoWriMo for the first time this July and your tip about setting a session Project Target has been particularly useful for me. The whole article is very helpful though for those of us struggling to finish our first drafts. Thank you :)

  9. Julia Oldham says

    Thanks Joanna – great ideas. I set a word goal and a time goal, and just write, as you say rubbish and all. Try not to spend too much time each day rewriting. Then set associated reading time goals (my writing is non fiction) and go back adding things the reading has stimulated in my mind and/or references. I put off getting started so have to apply discipline! Fortunately my study is in the garden so fewer domestic distractions. Thank you again for inviting me to focus on these things. Julia

  10. says

    I have always wanted to write and have ppublished, a book of poetry. Another interest is writing children’s books. I’ve just never known how or, where to start. I would love to learn from you!

  11. says

    I recently discovered your blog and found it helpful to a newbie like me. :)

    I started writing my first novel last September. So har, I have written 50k words but now struggling to continue. I still don’t know which time of day really works me. lol! Great tip about having a goal for each day.

  12. Nadia says

    I am an 18 year old college freshman. In July, I got the idea of writing my friend’s life’s story as a disabled girl. I may modify some parts of reality to avoid getting recognized. I am starting the story with past and coming into present. I don’t want to present the entire true story. If I make it a memoir, is it okay? or do i need to write it as a novel? I’m confused.

  13. says

    Joanna, you have some great advice here. I already use scrivener and its word count ability. I believe it is an amazing tool that had really helped me to be more productive and efficient in my writing. I also laud its compiling ability. Great post!

  14. Lynn Miner Flynn says

    I have hundreds (literally) of pages of research, notes, back story, etc. Yet every time I start to write my first draft I stop because I don’t feel I know yet what the whole story is. I am positive I have a great story…so why can’t I jump into the first draft? (Though I suspect it is fear of failure!)
    (p.s. I purchased Scrivner but am ashamed to admit that I can’t figure out how to use it.)

  15. says

    I write a scene, then go back and revise to add the setting, which I’ve entirely left out. I have to do this as I do the first draft; if I don’t, the story gets locked in, and I end up with painful and major revision because I have to pull apart the entire book to add the setting in.

    Seems like it would be simple to just add the setting as I write, and even knowing that I should add it, I leave it all out every single time. Unfortunately, it’s also become a battle with the setting, and I’m trying to figure out what I can do to make it less difficult for me.

  16. ahmad a. sbaiti says

    My first draft emerges in my mind first, almost all at once. The story from beginning to end forms in contour form in my mind. Then I begin writing. The writing is to fill in the blanks in the story: create/kill characters, create/describe scenes of conflict, love, family, harmony, treason..etc ,whatever the situation requires. I do not pre-plan those, rather characters, scenes and events emerge and flow from my mind from the first line I start writing. I also do not set a goal of word or page number number. Then when I think I am finished, I read and reread the rough manuscript to improve and polish it, and make it into a diamond.
    That was how my first novel, NORA was born. The two main characters, Nora and Neal are fashioned after real people, and their life stories detailed in the novel are true, but were embellished to protect their privacy. They were two diametrically opposite people born on opposite sides of the world, then they meet at Princeton and slug it out for two years about their different religions-she Muslim, he Jewish- ethnicity-she Arab, he Jew– and politics-she hates, Jews, Israelis and Zionists, he hates, Arabs and Muslims. Yet, in the end they bend their differences in concordance with their hearts for feelings they denied for two years they had for each other. The novel, from beginning to end formed in my mind the moment I decided to write Nora’s and Neal’s stories. I thought, what would be better to have them meet and finally end up together to show the ridiculousness of the so-called hatred between Arabs and /Jews and Muslims and Jews.

  17. says

    Interesting discussion. I have authored 17 full-length books, ten of those novels.
    I do creative writing in the mornings and spade work (editing/revision/research in the afternoons). I believe in getting the basic tale down and not worrying about too much technical detail or sloppy writing. I believe it is essential to capture the essence of the story as quickly as possible while it is fresh in my mind. In doing so I use a broad brush approach. Once the first draft is down I do my in-depth research (what gun, what vehicle, location work-up etc). I then generally go back and re-write the first third to fifty percent of the initial draft adding in the characteristics the protagonists have developed by story’s end. I insert the technical data at this point. Once this phase is over I print off the mss and start work on it with pen in hand. I believe editing on paper at this stage is much better than on-screen. Currently I am editing a 140k novel.

  18. Crystal says

    Hello everyone! I just discovered this website thanks to my friend who knows I just finally turned to writing full-time after a lifetime of wanting to publish my writing. I hope to reach that goal by the end of 2014 though I do not yet know how to do that. I am right now just trying to complete my manuscript. I have several projects that are works in progress including a children’s story, collection of poetry, and a fantasy novel, though right now my attention is on writing about my experience with a debilitating illness Narcolepsy, though I am only 26 and for many years had no idea what was wrong with me.
    It is extremely helpful to hear from those who have already successfully published, have found their “niche”, and seem to know what works for them. They discovered their own process. That is beautiful and I applaud you! Thank you Joanna, Ahmad, and Andrew for sharing. Also, Ahmad, that is a wonderful storyline and sounds great! I have a specific question for Andrew, and others who really are nailing their writing goals in terms of productivity and meeting goals. I struggle with mental stamina, endurance, and concentration. Is this “easy” (not an issue) for you, or do you have tricks or aids that you use to help you to keep going. Also, how do you handle life’s other responsibilities?(Sorry if this is personal but it is something else I struggle with and am very curious). What I mean by that is, by dedicating so much time to the writing (that is inspirational and I applaud you), how to you maintain your other obligations. . . paying bills, cleaning up, groceries, cooking, family, etc. Sometimes, I feel like “life” gets in the way because these other things need to be done and take up time, energy, and attention. In other words, they are huge distractions. Do you have lots of support, or are the other responsibilities just not that urgent for you, or are you great at time management/efficiency (I am hugely lacking in this area)? Any and all tips would be very helpful. Thanks! Also, since I’m new to this website, and this is the first article I’ve read, so forgive me if these answers are in another article. I haven’t looked at it all yet. Thank you!

  19. says

    I just started to get serious on writing at the beginning of this year. And sadly am still stuck in a rut, with nowhere to go. I think I will just write like crazy as you have suggested once, then after finishing a jargon (novel) I will see what I can do from this point on.
    I guess I am stressing myself too much for a beginner.


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