Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Roughing It – 5 things I’ve learned about first drafts


There’s nothing quite like the feeling of creating, writing, bringing characters in your mind to life on the page. When the energy propels you to get the words out, that story in your head takes shape. You can see the unfolding of the plot, the characters, the setting, every bit that is part of the whole. You can’t refine your work until it’s in front of you. Enter the first draft, better known as the rough draft.

I’m working on the first draft of my next novel, and hitting a stretch of frustration that my mental picture of the story wasn’t complete enough to make the draft a smoother ride. It’s not the characters; the book my agent is shopping introduces the characters. It’s not the setting, though I think I’ll have to do a road trip (twenty+ years since I’ve been there). It’s the plot. The timeline. The guideposts along the way.

I tried to outline, but I don’t think I had a clear vision of the story. With most of my other projects, by the time I got to the point of writing the first draft, I had a pretty good handle on them in my head. This one, not so much.

It occurred to me as I was trying to hit my word quota last night that I’ve learned some things over the course of thirteen novel first drafts. I figured I’d share them (don’t worry, there’s pictures at the end–but not of my cat πŸ˜‰ )

In no particular order, here are 5 things I’ve learned about first drafts:

  • I’m a novelist. Not that I can’t write short stories–my first publishing credits were short stories–but the stories in my head tend to be novel-length: 80,000 words or more. It took me over five or six years to write the first draft of my first novel (not counting the trunk novel I wrote in elementary–jr. high school). I knew I wanted to write a book–actually, rewrite that first book–after my kids were born, but I didn’t want it to drag on until they graduated.

When I learned about NaNoWriMo (50k words in 30 days), I knew that was my ticket to finishing a book in a reasonable amount of time. The key to “winning” at NaNo? Kicking the inner editor into a cage and locking it (that’s besides the 1,667 words a day). I learned I need to treat a new project like I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, no matter what time of the year. It’s only with that 30-day deadline and a restrained inner editor that I’m able to put myself into the frame of mind to just write. It also seems to be the only way I can get back into the habit of writing every day.

  • I outline, in a loose-ish sense of the word. The outline is not the only route from beginning to end for me, but it gives me an idea of the journey. With my current project, I struggled with the outline. I came up with characters, conflict, and setting, but the path through from beginning to end was fuzzy, and it shows during my writing sessions. I’ve learned my draft goes much better when I have a good idea of the story (outline), BUT
  • I’ve learned the process of writing the first draft actually helps bring the story into focus. As I’m writing, I make both inline notes and off-line notes. This particular draft looks less like an actual book and more like a scriptwriter’s attempt to put a director’s vision into some sort of storyboard-in-words. The story is more clear to me now than it was when I started. Maybe that’s because my NaNo-style first draft method is a lot like free-writing. No takebacks, no revising, no editing, just inline notes and writing forward.
  • I’ve learned first drafts are called “rough” for a reason. It’s less like a rock you can polish into something to put in a ring and more like deadwood turned into a functional piece of furniture with class. Rough drafts are UGLY. At least this one is. I mentioned it to some online friends as “sucking like a lemon soaked in turpentine”. Yep. Pretty much. I will never be like George R. R. Martin, with a first draft that’s ready to publish right off the finish line. Then again, my draft takes 30 days to finish, not five or six or more years.
  • I’ve learned to trust my method (your mileage may vary). This project taught me that skipping steps in the beginning (I didn’t lay out a timeline, or figure out the major plot points (just thought about the general direction), or fill out my storyline worksheets from Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days) results in uncertainty and missing my word quota.

When I work through my process, I can often exceed my word count because I can just write. I don’t have to think about where I’m going next. I know I’m headed in the right direction because I plotted my course (heh, see what I did there) ahead of time. It’s like planning a route when you drive to a writers’ conference or retreat. You know pretty much how to get there, even if there are detours along the way. My process has changed over the years (more free-writing, less fill-in-every-entry-in-the-worksheets), but it works for me. This is the first time I got lazy (or uninspired) about planning/outlining, and boy, do I know it.

I’m on the home stretch. One more week (and I get an extra day this month because March has 31 days–heh), and I’ll have 50k words and a complete or almost-complete first draft for my next book. Then the scramble to prep for hosting the fam for Easter in — OMG — two weeks?! I’ve gotta get moving on that.

SO, I might miss my mark in the interest of not embarrassing myself with my in-laws. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a peek into my garden this summer.


onion seedlings


tomatoes and a few peppers

Have a great weekend!

Author: Julie Holmes, author

A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for over a decade, I have been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. My debut novel, "Murder in Plane Sight", has been released by Camel Press (an imprint of Coffeetown Press/Epicenter Press). In real life, I am a technical writer and empty-nester with a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, four chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

19 thoughts on “Roughing It – 5 things I’ve learned about first drafts

  1. Nice plants. I had to skip the veggie garden this year…spread to thin. I’ve learned I have to have a rough out at the beginning and get serious with it about midway, else I can’t recall details. Don’t want to leave loose ends in a crime novel. Readers don’t like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m learning if I want to write a full length novel I need to have more of a plan at the beginning. Fighting against my urge to chafe at boundaries!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All your points align with my process too, Julie. When I start a first draft, I do a self-imposed NaNo until it’s done. And the outline is a must. You’re doing great, really! And your sprouts look wonderful! I wish it felt like spring out here. Happy writing and gardening πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Diana! I did try to outline this one, but for some reason I had a tough time with it. Now that I’m almost through 50k words, I have a better sense of the story. I might redo the outline after I finish the draft–it’ll help during the revision.

      Spring keeps peeking around the corner for us, but then it disappears. Today was cloudy and windy, even if it was above freezing. Hoping spring warmth comes back soon πŸ˜€ Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sorry. I quit reading after you said no cat pics. πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Congrats on nearing the finish line. You stuck to your goal and it sounds like you’re going to kick butt when the 31st rolls around.

    I’m one of those people who take months to finish a draft, but it’s pretty much done when I do. I’ve experimented with NaNo a time or two and I wish I could write that way more often. I’m trying to do it with my current WIP but my dang internal editor keeps getting in the way and forcing me to polish as I go. I’ve got a long vacation the end of April and when I come back I’m going to give it another go.

    Love the veggie pics…although you know how I feel about cats. Nothing tops a feline πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mae! I might kick the draft goal, but I’m going to have to scramble to get the house ready for guests. I was going to just hang it up and work on cleaning, etc, but my husband told me to just get the writing done. Apparently I’m easier to be around when I’m writing!

      And hey, I haven’t seen any recent pics of Raven on your blog lately. What’s up with that?? πŸ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yeah, Congratulations, Julie on achieving your target this month and having the first draft completed with 31 days!πŸŽ‰ Very impressive and I’m so pleased for you – you’ve worked so hard! πŸ˜€Also happy to see your seedlings doing so well. Have a great time with your family over Easter – this time next week I’ll be in Sweden, settling down for a couple of weeks holiday. Yippee!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Finding what works for you when it comes to the writing process is another process all of its own, and a real learning curve at that. Sounds like you’re getting there, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Just wanted to let you know this will be shared on the OWS fanpage, tomorrow morning, at 9 AM. Great column!


  9. Pingback: Now for something different | Facets of a Muse

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