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Writing a First Draft - Breaking it Down into Doable Chunks

Writing a book is hard work – don’t let anyone tell you any different – but it can be easier than you think if you follow a well set-out plan of writing and revising at regular intervals.

Pick a number of pages that you feel is significant to you. The number must communicate to you that you’re not writing an article, an essay, a short story or a novella. It must be a number of pages that makes you feel as though you are writing a book. Breaking down the daunting task of writing a whole book into 30, 40 or 50 pages can make the process easier and more enjoyable. The number you have chosen is the goal you’ll be working towards at regular intervals in order to finish your first draft.

What happens when I get to the number I’ve chosen?

Once you get to your set goal, this is the moment you must stop and assess what you’ve written. If it’s possible, print out a copy of your draft so that you’re seeing it from a fresh perspective. Go somewhere different from where you normally write – to a park or your garden. Take it to the library or to the café at the end of the street. Your job now is to forget that you’re the writer and to read your draft as a reader would. Ask yourself the following big-picture questions as you read:

- Is it easy for readers to understand the big ideas your book is dealing with? Remember that readers must have a clear path to follow through your book. If something is confusing, it’s because you haven’t been very clear about it.

- Is the story logical? Does it make sense that your characters behave the way they do and that their world functions the way it does?

- Are you showing, or are you telling? Let your reader experience your story. Don’t tell them what’s happening, let them live it!

- Is this the book you intended to write, or has it taken on a life of its own? If so, do you like where your story is going? It’s actually very common for stories to reveal themselves to their writers, and there’s no shame in it.

If you’ve answered no to any of these questions, you will have to work on strengthening these elements before proceeding to the next step. Delete what isn’t working. Don’t forget that you must fashion your first draft so that it hooks readers later on. You’ve written this book for them, not for you! If you’ve answered yes to these questions, now is the time to check smaller-scale elements before writing more. This step isn’t about grammar and punctuation, it’s about the foundational elements of your writing. Ask yourself the following questions:

- Are you using tense consistently? Don’t jump from the past to the present unless it’s intentional and you have a valid reason for doing so.

- Are you using point of view consistently? Readers often criticize writers scathingly for head-hopping. Don’t do it unless you have an excellent reason for your choice.

- Are flashbacks and backstory handled properly? Flashbacks are triggered by a moment in the present and take us into the past. Don’t forget to let your reader know when we return to the present, and make sure they know what the point of the flashback was. Backstory must also be scattered throughout the entire book and only given to readers if it will help them to understand the plot or connect with the main character.

- Is your dialogue natural and does it have a raison d’être? It must always be clear who is speaking, and speakers should only say things they would naturally say to each other. This means that characters must only say things that other characters need to know, not what you need them to say because you don’t know how else to move the story along.

As with above, if you’ve answered no to any of these questions, then you must sit down and work on these elements until you can answer yes to them. If you’ve answered yes, then you can crack on with your next writing goal – be it 20, 30, 40, 50 or 100 pages. Working steadily at this pace and through these stages will get you from your first sentence to your first draft.

Write, stop, assess, repeat. And don’t forget to have fun with it!

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Louanne Piccolo