How to write a first draft of a book


Update March 2020: I wrote the book! It’s published and lovely! Check it out here.

I just learned how to write a first draft of a book. I’m fresh off of four months of nearly daily writing to wrangle 60,427 words into a first draft. Actually I topped out around 68,000 but chopped it down before handing it over to a developmental editor who will cut it down even more. My first draft is quite the beast.

Wrangling your ideas and thoughts into a coherent narrative isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally to most. The funny thing about writing a book is that you don’t need to be good at writing to write a book. Instead, you need to be good at discipline. You need to commit to writing until it’s all out of your head and fight the feeling of quitting because your words look so awkward outside of your head. You also have to slay the procrastination monster on the regular.

I’ve spent the last four months learning how to write a first draft. I learned how to manage the logistics of writing at volume. I learned how to build an outline, find a pace that worked for me, and manage my writing time. Most importantly, I learned how overcome doubt.

Writing a book is a BFD and it’s pretty overwhelming at the start. So I started the process by breaking it down into manageable parts. I’ve conquered the first part: writing a first draft.

Here’s what worked to get me there and what might work for you if you’re trying to write your first draft.

Build a writing parking lot

I started this blog a year and a half ago. I had two goals. The first was to get comfortable writing about subjects that interest me. The second was idea parking. As I’ve read and talked with people over the past two years, I’ve learned that there is so much more to the future of work than a singular narrative about robots taking our jobs. I’ve also learned that outdated Baby Boomer career advice doesn’t prepare us for the future of work. I used this blog as a parking lot for those ideas, testing my book’s narrative and argument along the way.

A writing parking lot builds momentum while keeping your ideas in a contained space.

Sliding my half baked ideas into this blog.

Get the basics

I’d be lost in first draft writing process if it weren’t for this glorious resource: The Author’s Blueprint from Publish Your Purpose. It’s a thoughtful resource filled with writing and mindset tips that help you make progress in your quest to write a book. Even better, the document includes links to YouTube videos on the subject if that’s more your learning style.

One of the best pieces of advice I took from this resource was to break up my book into stand alone chapters. From the blueprint:

“Thinking about writing a 60,000 word book can be terrifying and unmanageable. Writing one chapter for 6000 words seems do-able. Work on one chapter at a time.

That advice got me to a completed first draft.

Collect advice and inspo

Writing is a solitary adventure but it’s not a new one. Millions have done it before you. Take comfort in that. We’re living in the glory days of content. There is so much advice and inspiration to help you through the writing process. Find the advice and inspo that works for you.

I love podcasts, so I enjoyed listening to podcasts about writing. Two podcasts really fired me up. This podcast about Parijat Deshpande and her unexpected best seller really motivated me. I listened to it in the beginning of my writing process. And though I can’t find the link, I listened to a podcast with the best selling author, Jen Sincero. In it, she talk about how how she wrote her book. Given the success of her books, I was both impressed and motivated by her story and writing style.

I also found inspiration on Twitter. Twitter is the enemy of writing and I tried so hard to stay off of it while I wrote. Some days I won. Other days the procrastination monster won. But Twitter has moments of magic and it delivered on the inspiration. I loved these nuggets:

how to write a first draft

how to write a first draft

Twitter also helped me find inspiration from others announcing new books. I cheered seeing Dr. McMillan Cottoms announcement:

how to write a first draft

Grab a deadline

I officially started writing during National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo). NaNoWriMo is a month long challenge to write 50K words in the month of November. The exercise is geared towards people writing a first draft of a novel. I was writing a nonfiction book but I still participated. I loved the fierceness of the deadline. It was nuts. The deadline helped me establish a daily writing habit. There was no way I could write 50K words if I didn’t have a habit of writing. I made it to 38K.

NaNoWriMo taught me how to write without editing. I learned how to get into the flow of writing and not delete. A month of writing is an exercise in quantity over quality. It’s about giving up on perfection. And it works. I couldn’t write at volume if I edited myself each time I wrote something I didn’t like. Instead, I had to get comfortable seeing mediocre sentences on the page.

When NaNoWriMo was over, I set up a new deadline to finish the first draft. I told people close to me about the deadline to keep me accountable. Deadlines helped me slay the procrastination monster.

Actual photo of me.

Show up to Write

Show up to Write with a capital W. It’s mighty easy to think about writing a book. Or research how to write a book. Or talk about how you should write a book. Or say that someone else’s book sucks and you could write a better one.

But none of that gets you closer to actually writing a book. And none of it matters except showing up to write a first draft. This is writing with a capital W. Showing up to Write with a capital W is about making space in your day to put words to digital paper.

Claim your space. Find your flow. Write your words. Even if you only write 300 words and every sentence sucks, write anyway. Every day is a new day to try it again and show up to write. Keep going.

Showing up to write in all my fanciness

Get comfortable with sucking

Seeing your raw words masquerading as a future book is rough. There are plenty of times where you’ll read your words and think, “holy shit I suck.” Every day you’ll be forced to reckon with your writing weaknesses.

I’ve learned a lot about my writing in the past four months. I am a comma splicer. I’ve never met a sentence that I can’t splice. I’ve already done it in this article. I also can’t come up with analogies to save my life and I used the word fuck to emphasize points despite knowing it’s lazy writing and an editor will change it in the future. I’m hella wordy too. I really like to drive points home in the form of 15 sentence paragraphs.

But so what. Editors have jobs because first drafts (and second, third ones) suck. Their job is to help you fix it. You will pay them to fix what sucks. Take comfort in that.

So get used to sucking. Then move right along and keep writing.

Actual photo of me trying to write.

Punch doubt in the face

The process of writing a book is filled with doubt. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise. When doubt shows up, simply punch it in the face. Then move along and keep writing

how to write a first draft
My inner monologue

Get used to killing it

This is the part I loved about writing a first draft. In between rambley bits and repetition, I wrote advice that is really fucking good. It usually took a few long, winding paragraphs to get at it. But throughout my first draft there are things that I wrote and after I thought, Hot damn, you’re killing it here.

Mind you, those brilliant parts were wrapped in run on sentences and chopped up with commas. But that’s ok. A first draft isn’t about perfection. It’s about getting it out of your head and into existence, the good and the bad.

how to write a first draft
Me after 60,000 words.

Find a mantra (or three)

Short writing mantras motivate you to keep going are mighty helpful when you get stuck or doubt what you’ve written.

These two worked for me:

  • Finished not perfect
  • Let the editor sort this out

Find yours and use them to get you unstuck.

how to write a first draft
Actual photo of me talking to my partner about how much writing sucks

Talk about your writing experience

Writing is a lonely process. I’m a social butterfly. Writing sucked at times because I wasn’t talking much about the process.

Talking about your writing experience with friends feels weird. Nobody wants to be the guy at a party who brags about his big book idea. I was worried I’d be that guy if I talked about my writing experience. Eventually I started talking about it. Talking about the book took me to a new level of vulnerability.

Telling people what I was up to helped me claim my space. It helped me own my actions and gave me accountability. I didn’t want be the guy who brags but I really really really didn’t want to be the girl who talks about writing a first draft of a book and not do it.

Talking about writing a first draft also resulted in useful conversations that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t talked about what I was up to.

how to write a first draft
Actual photo of me trying to explain my book

Wrestle with the publishing question

Some writers want to have the publishing question figured out before they write a first draft. In some cases that’s valuable – after all if you go the traditional publishing route, you don’t need a full manuscript.

I am not that writer. I wanted to write a first draft because I had shit to say. I also have a wicked procrastination monster and knew I could put off writing a book forever because there is always something more fun to do than forcing myself to crank out a first draft. I also knew that no matter which publishing path I chose, I could always self publish if it didn’t work out.

Publishing is obviously a big question mark in the writing process. Traditionally publishing has been an opaque process. Thankfully there are plenty of resources now to sort you out.

You don’t need to know your publishing options before you write. But it does help. I found this overview of publishing super helpful, alongside all the resources on that page. This podcast with Sarra Cannon, helped me understand what it means to self publish. Another podcast featuring Jane Friedman, helped me understand the business of book writing.

how to write a first draft
When I am rich from speaking fees I will buy all the puppies.

Take it one step at a time

My first draft is in the hands of a talented developmental editor who will help me shape it into something better. Soon I’ll be rewriting my first draft. I’m taking a breather from it right now. I’m searching for a publisher. I’m building an author platform. I don’t know exactly what happens from here. I’m just taking it step by step and learning on the fly.

I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out. But I’ve already accomplished the first step: I got to a first draft. And I feel mighty fine with that.

If you’re curious about my book, sign up to get notified when it’s officially released into the wild.

how to write a first draft
Actual photo of me submitting my first draft to the editor.

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