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How to write a first rough draft of your novel

I’m closing in on the end of my first ever rough draft. I’ve written LOTS of stuff, but never a whole, complete, full length novel with all the scenes and chapters and plot fitting together and making sense in a satisfactory way.

Plotting was a major challenge for me; but I’m getting to the point where things are pretty much in the right places. So far it’s mostly been poorly sketched notes, like “this has to happen here” and a few lines of bad dialogue.

But now that I can see the whole thing, I’m going through and cleaning things up. Here are some things I’ve learned that might help other writers.

1. Don’t make it pretty

Get some content. Write fast and throw ideas out there. Focus on the action that has to happen. Don’t dwell on scene or character descriptions. Just make sure the characters are properly motivated, things seem to happen for a reason, actions have believable consequences that further the plot, and there is lots of conflict. Focus on what happens in each scene that moves the plot forward. Build that scene but don’t polish it. Keep going and get to the end. You’ll have to keep going through and changing things as the plot evolves.

2. Build scaffolding

I’m finding myself having trouble with emotions, feelings, etc. I don’t want to “tell” (instead of showing) so I end up not writing anything. I don’t want crappy writing full of adverbs like “She crossed her arms defiantly and stormed off with a furious look on her face, stomping her feet.” Or even worse, “She said angrily, throwing the book on the floor.” But it’s easier for a beginner like me to start with some notes like that. Even really bad notes, like, “I was so angry and pissed off. I felt lied to, cheated and abused. My heart was breaking, and my lip trembled, as my eyebrows furled together.” My point being, write too much, explain what’s happening, record emotions and moods and feelings. Get it DOWN.

I was reading Ken Follett today and noticed a lot of emotion telling, like “I was frustrated and confused…. I felt excited and terrified.” Start by making it easy and just write down the feelings. Later you can try to edit them out with actions.

You’ve got to start somewhere. Perfect, beautiful writing and snappy dialogue doesn’t come naturally, on the first pass. You improve by stages, making it a little better, then again and again until you hit on something REALLY good.

3. Add conflict

The biggest problem in every story is that there isn’t enough conflict and the stakes don’t really matter. Make it matter. Every decision should feel like life or death to the character (if it doesn’t, you haven’t built up the internal conflict yet. Little things that should be easy for other people have to feel crippling to them, for some reason). If you have a scene where two people are walking and talking, something bad has to happen. Even a little bad, like a friend walking up who likes one of them and creates an uncomfortable emotional unspoken conflict.

4. Make your characters lovable

A mistake I see with a lot of books is that they start out in action and go too quickly. We never get to know or like the character. That’s OK if you’re writing exciting time-fillers. I want my novels to hit like a punch in the gut. I need readers invested. They’ve got to love my characters and really feel it when one of them is threatened or hurt. You do that by offering lots of little chances for characters to be heroic; defending a pet or little brother; standing up to a bully; taking care of a sickly parent or neighbor; having little fears that they are dealing with or insecurities. If readers don’t love your characters, they aren’t going to care what happens to them.