Four Steps to a Fast First Draft

by Robison Wells

I am in the middle of a cowriting project, wherein I’m writing the first draft and my coauthor is doing the bulk of the revision. My manuscript is due to her on July 1st, and I have a way to go to hit that goal. But I’m going to do it. I’ve written fast before. My first national novel, Variant, was drafted in 11 days. While I don’t think that level of speed is necessary here, this is similar to a NaNoWriMo situation.

So how do you draft fast? How do you work your way through the exciting beginning, the marathon of the middle, and still have the steam for the fully-fleshed-out climax and resolution? Over the course of my career, there are a few tricks that I’ve picked up.

First, I outline. I know there’s a fundamental difference between plotters and pantsers, but I’ve found that at least a basic outline is necessary to writing fast. And a detailed outline can let you fly. While I was co-writing with James Patterson (The Warning, coming this August) he and I worked out a highly detailed, 50-paged, single-spaced outline for the book. We hashed out the details in the outlining stage so that when it came to drafting, we would both be on the same page, as it were. So it is with my current writing project. My coauthor and I spent a couple of weeks outlining the book, nailing down a relatively detailed outline (about a paragraph per chapter). I don’t have to wonder where I’m going or what needs to lead where—I already know. (And knowing’s half the battle!)

Second, I allow myself to write crummy first drafts. I used to say that I was freeing myself to fail, but a book I’ve recently read has changed my view of the “failure” process. Adam Savage’s Every Tool Is a Hammer talks about how Adam fails frequently, but he doesn’t call it failure. It’s iterations. He might create something and it doesn’t work, so he refines it, and it still doesn’t work, and he iterates and iterates until it finally works. He doesn’t expect perfection the first time—iteration is the essence of creation, not a flaw in the system.

Third, I set a schedule. It’s part of the outlining process for me: I know what chapters I’m going to write every day. For you it might be page count or word count. For me it’s chapters. I have a calendar. I have an excel spreadsheet. And I have a timer. At regular intervals throughout the day, my phone alarm goes off and I mark on my spreadsheet how much progress I’ve made. By keeping to a schedule, I have a constant reminder not to waste time on Twitter or Wikipedia or Reddit.

Finally, I use placeholders. I don’t edit or research as I go (or, at least, I try not to). If I need the name of a city, I use [CITY]. Right now there’s a pet rat in the book who is just called [RAT] because I don’t want to spend the time thinking up a good name for it. I have a cowriter whose whole job is to revise my first draft. I’ll let her come up with the name of a rat. I also have a Google Doc titled “Stuff to fix in revision”. When I feel the need to go back and revise chapter four to include more foreshadowing, or go back to chapter six and introduce an important character description, I just put that note in my “fix later” file. I can fix it later.

I still have 30,000 words to write between now and the end of July, but it’s only June 14th. I’ve got plenty of time.

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