What I Learned Writing the First Draft of a Novel


On February 28th, I typed the ending to my novel and clicked Ctrl+S (save). What I had in front of me was 56,763 words and 137 pages of a story that had a beginning, middle, and end. It was pretty damn cool. I began my PhD program in January of 2017, which you can read more about here.

Now that I've got a well-rounded first draft, here's what I've learned: 

Rewrites are inevitable and necessary 

I started writing January 2017 but I didn't start the draft that I've got in front of me until August 2017. From January to July, I was playing around with my ideas. I wrote 20,000 words then decided to change from third-person to first-person narration. 5,000 words in, I decided to change from past to present tense. It might sound like I wasted hours writing things I inevitably scrapped, but every single word I wrote was a learning process. Every re-write was my story getting stronger.

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screenshots of all my folders and documents of drafts


The internet kept track of my characters

It's tough to keep all these ideas and characters in your head. I started writing things down but my handwriting is messy and I don't always have my notebook with me, so I began to keep notes online. Pinterest was helpful for character inspiration but this old-school looking site called Family Echo really helped. It's a site where you make family trees. It helped me remember names, ages, death dates, and birth dates. I recommend it to anyone writing a story with an extensive character list.  

My location Pinterest board


The length you're away from your work is the length it takes to get back to it

I needed a break from time to time from my novel. On trips home, I thought about writing but I never felt like actually sitting down and doing it. But as I kept away from writing and went days on end without looking at my writing, I started to forget my characters. I lost the flow I had. When I came back to my writing, it took me days to get back into the flow. I had to re-read it, re-familiarize myself with the characters, and force myself to write. Once I got into the swing of things, I was good to go and my writing flowed out like normal.


It's healthy to take a break from your work

I need time away from my work every so often. I need to step back and breathe, and look at it with fresh eyes. It really helped me to have friends who knew my writing style read my work and give me feedback. They told me what was working and suggested things I didn't even think of. When you're an American writing about Scottish characters, it's definitely important to have a Scottish perspective. When you're writing anything outside of your own personal experience, it's always good to find someone who can understand what you're writing and help you with it. 

*Funny example: I said one of the bars in Edinburgh was having a "Happy Hour", only to find out that Happy Hour is banned in Scotland.


I can't write for more than 4 hours a day

I thought I needed to treat the PhD like a 9-5 job. It's just not possible. I used to beat myself up for doing 4 hours of work and not wanting to write any more. "I barely did anything today!" I would complain. After some consideration, I realized that creation is mentally exhausting. 3-4 hours in the morning is all I need and all I'm capable of. If I try to write any more than that, it's crap. 

I've mastered the art of writing 1,000-2,000 words from 9 am to 12 pm. It's what works for me and that's how I've managed to finish this first draft within a year.  


"What's it about?" is my most asked question of the year and my most hated question to get asked

If someone told me they were writing a novel, the first 3 words out of my mouth would be "What's it about?" It's just instinct to ask. I'm becoming more aware of it now that I'm on the other side. It's not rude to not ask and I hope it's not rude to not give an answer because trying to explain a world I've created in my mind in a few sentences is difficult—especially when you're watching someone react to that explanation right in front of you. And what are they going to say other than "Oh, sounds great! You'll have to let me read it!" or "Oh, okay... Cool... I think?" or "Hm, okay." *Shifty eyes*

I know it's inevitable that people will continue to ask me what my novel is about, or what genre it is. I've trimmed my answer down from *awkward faces and grunts and ums* to a one-sentence explanation that essentially explains nothing, but it gets the conversation moving and if I've done it right, it gets the conversation moving as far away from the topic of my novel as possible. 

I think art speaks for itself. My mumbled, awkward, 90-second explanation of something I've taken 13 months to create is not going to do it justice. 


Feats seem intimidating until you surpass them

I've wanted to be an author for a long time. When I learned that it takes years for an author to finish a book, that terrified me. It seemed impossible. It seemed like there was no way I could ever do that, until I started doing it. My book still has a ways to go, but I'm getting there. I don't look at the word count and think "Holy crap how did I write that?!" I think, "Yes. I wrote that. Of course I wrote that. I've been diligent all year and it's paid off. And... it's been really fucking fun!"

I know the term "baby steps" is super cliche but I'm telling you, it works. When you take little steps towards your goal, eventually, you'll step back and your jaw will drop because you've got a work of art in front of you and you did it all yourself.