How to Write a Novel: Drafty Bastards



Finally getting back to my How To series, I am pleased to say that we have *finally* reached the fun part! You guessed it, the actual *writing* portion of our lesson: the First Draft. (Or second if you’re considering the outline your first draft, which isn’t a bad idea considering all the hard work you’ve already put in!)

Before we dive in, I wanted to say something: You will have many drafts. As in, many. There are some very gifted writers out there who turn out a novel on one, long, continuous stream of toilet paper, type that up and call it a novel – but most of us don’t. Why? Well, it has to do with catching plot holes, errors, and generally making the novel better. Which is why you have first drafts, second drafts, third drafts… well, you get the idea.

I’m not saying this to dishearten you. I just want you to understand that even if your *first* draft doesn’t turn out so well, it’s okay. There will be more – and they’ll get better. And I also want to be clear, writing a new draft doesn’t mean you completely get rid of the first one. So don’t worry. You’re not starting from scratch every time.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on to the good stuff!

Drafty Bastards

So we’ve got this super detailed outline, right? We’ve put all of this hard work into it, but maybe we’re not *quite* sure what to do with it – or maybe we are and just aren’t sure where to start.

And I’ll answer that question first: It doesn’t matter where you start.

That being said, starting at the beginning doesn’t hurt. When I first started writing, I tended to write by scene. I’d have these characters and they’d be goofing off or be overdramatic about their lives and I’d go ahead and put that down as a scene. It might be the first scene I’d written for the novel, but it actually took place about half way through and introduced a bunch of characters that when I had first started writing, I hadn’t even realized would be in the novel! And that’s okay. Keeping these scenes, collecting them, is a good thing. These will help you build settings, interpersonal relationships between your characters, plot points, and even just getting to know your character moments. All of which is really important.

That being said. When you start in the middle somewhere, writing can get confusing. You might forget that you have three things that need to happen for this scene to exist – and none of them happen before this scene. Which means you now have to do some real creative things to make this scene work. Or, the thing we all hate, you might end up having to cut it. No matter how brilliant it is.

That won’t necessarily happen, but it can and it does. If you start writing from the beginning of your novel, you’re less likely to encounter this problem – but you might encounter other problems. When writing from the beginning, I find that it’s sometimes really hard to get started. Everything I put on paper comes out boring or unimportant or completely off, because I don’t have anything else to go with the story yet. And sometimes, writing from the beginning just isn’t an option, because you’ve got all of this inspiration that happens to go to a completely different scene about fifteen chapters i and if you don’t get it down right now, you’ll lose it forever.

So, starting chronologically might be an issue for you – or it might be the best thing for you. I leave that to you to decide. I just wanted you to know that it’s okay to do either of these things. No one said you had to start from the beginning and no one said you had to start in the middle or the end.

Utilizing your outline.

The nice thing about the outline is that you can pretty much jump to wherever you want and start writing. Remember what I said about keeping your place and tracking your progress. If you highlight what you’ve already done, it’s pretty easy to keep track of where you’re at in the story, no matter where you’ve started. (Also, remember to keep separate documents – a full document that has all of your completed scenes and a document per scene.)

When I’m writing, I like to do a “split screen”. This computer is the first one that I’ve been able to easily do this with without fussing over sizing windows and such, but I highly recommend it. Have two documents open. One is your outline, the other is whatever scene you’re currently working on. (My “working on” scene is always on the right; the outline is always on the left. It helps me keep things straight.) This allows you to consistently check back over to your outline to see where your scene is supposed to be going, but also it helps if you can’t remember character names, place names, or what characters look like. This way, you don’t have to be constantly shifting between two different documents (or several) searching for the right information.

So we’ve got the outline open and we’re highlighting as we go. Great! But what about the actual *writing*?

Ah, well, that’s the tricky part isn’t it?

How to write – or at least, one opinion on it.

To some extent, writing is a talent. If you’ve got natural talent, you’re ahead of the game and you can wing a lot of stuff that other people just can’t. You can *feel* how sentences flow together. You can *sense* how characters should be talking in dialogue – and how the narration should be different. If you’ve got that, you’re one lucky duck! But it still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be practicing. In fact, if anything, a natural gift means you should be working harder than everyone else. If you’re not, how do you ever expect to reach your full potential?

But never mind all of that jibberish. Onward!

What do you do if you *don’t* have a natural sense for writing? Don’t give up. Seriously. Writing may be a talent, but it’s also a skill. One that you can train yourself to be good at. You just have to work hard at it.

First, practice, practice, practice. You should be doing this one regardless of whether or not you’re working on your novel. I expect you to be journaling, blogging, writing fanfiction and flash fiction and every other type of fiction out there! I expect you to be telling your own stories or making them up. I expect you to be constantly writing, because that’s the biggest step towards getting better. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter *what* you’re writing, so long as you’re doing it.

But while you’re practicing, there are some things that you should be thinking about. I’ll give you a quick list:

  • Word choice. This one isn’t so much about finding the biggest word or the most exotic one (you’re not playing scrabble). Instead, it’s about finding the word that fits the best. So you’re talking about the rapid beating of someone’s heart. You could say, “her heart beat like a jackrabbit” or you could say “her heart hammered against her rib cage” or “the staccato beat of her heart was the drum line of her life”. All of those are fine – so which do you use? Well, it depends on the story you’re telling and which character has the rapid fire heartbeat. If you’ve got a sort of younger, maybe funny character – go with the jackrabbit. It’s more youthful and potentially younger sounding. If you’ve got a dramatic character, or you’re telling a story that is about adrenaline or fear, then go with the hammered one. And finally, if you’ve telling a sort of poetic prose story (or something that tends to be longer winded), then maybe you go with the last one. It all depends on what sort of story you’re telling. Also, make sure you know the definitions of the words you’re using – because you’re readers damn sure will and they’ll call you on it if you get it wrong. Not sure? Look it up.


  • Sentence variation. This is basically about changing up your sentence structures and your sentence lengths. Have a lot of long sentences? Throw in a short one every third sentence or so. Have very abrupt, to the point ones? Throw in some long, almost rambling ones, or combine two sentences for a complex one. This is as much about aesthetic appeal as it is about the flow of the novel. We see the words on the page and changing it up makes things prettier to look at. But we read them, too. We need the commas and the becauses. We need the breaks and the stream of consciousness and the dramatic pauses. Why? Because if we don’t have them, we get bored.


  • Atmosphere. This one is all about how your writing feels. If you’re writing about my little pony, the reader wants to feel all sunshine and daisies. Rainbows better pour from your words. If you’re writing about a body in the basement coming back to life and trying to kill your mother, then you should probably scare the crap out of us. That comes from the mood, the atmosphere. And you create that with both of the things I mentioned above (word choice and sentence variation), but it’s more than that. Let’s go with the creepy example (because I’m all about that).

She shivered against the breeze that swept through her room. A breeze that shouldn’t have been there. She closed that window already, but the chill cut through her just the same. She didn’t dare turn to see, knowing that it would be there, waiting, watching. A shadow on the wall, a puddle on the floor. A moan that whispered her name, Haley.

There are a couple of things going on with this example. First, cold. We have “shivered” and “chill”. Both make the reader feel how cold our MC is and cold makes us think of winter, night, and generally dead things. So, check on that. Next, we’ve got “waiting” and “watching”. This is a combination one. The two w words one after another intensifies both words and makes them more important – and creepier given what’s already going on. Since there isn’t a specific “something” doing the watching and waiting yet, it’s all the eerier, because we don’t know what it is. But these do something else, too. They make *us* feel as though *we* are being watched. That something is waiting right behind our shoulders as we read. Creepy. Next we’ve got “shadow” which acts similarly to the cold theme. A shadow is dark and it is reminiscent of the movements we catch out of the corner of our eyes all of the time. Finally, we’ve got “moan” and “whispered”. Moan can be erotic, but in the context here it gives us the creeps. A moan is an almost sad, pathetic sound. It’s all about ghosts and chains and sadness. If we’d gone with groan, the sound would have been maybe less terrifying – but more menacing. Whispered is about silence, but not real silence, but it’s also about trying to be quiet. It’s about creeping and stalking and eerie sounds that shouldn’t really be there.

My point about all of this is that creating an atmosphere is all about being consistent with your theme and knowing which words fit into that theme. If you can work that out, then you’ve got a much more powerful story going on.

  • Interior monologue. This is basically about POV. While you can have a character who is actively thinking (often denoted by italics to distinguish thoughts as opposed to general narration), interior monologuing is usually more about the first person narration of a character. Some people hate it, some don’t. I think it’s a personal choice, though I encourage you not to overuse it. Here’s an example:

I knew it was too good to be true. What sort of gorgeous, sweet boy fell for a pain in the ass like me? Not one that was real, that was for sure. I just wasn’t that sort of girl. Not the popular type who fit into the world of prom dresses and football games. But I wasn’t the sort who delved into the volunteering clubs or the charities. I didn’t help old people; I didn’t volunteer at soup kitchens. Mostly, I just sat in my room and read – because reading was the only way I knew how to be me. What sort of guy was into a girl like that?

Basically, this shows us what our MC is thinking and feeling, how she’s reacting to a situation, but this doesn’t tell us anything else. There’s no setting. No action (she’s not moving anywhere or drinking coffee or anything). No dialogue. She’s just thinking, but not exactly thinking. This is part of the narration thinking and it can get old, so use it sparingly.

  • Descriptions. Okay, so descriptions are important, but damnit, I do *not* care if she’s got the perfect outfit which she purchased for a cool $300 on mommy’s credit card. I don’t need to know the exact number of sequins her top is, how many inches her fire engine red heels are, or get a rundown of how she did her makeup. Seriously. I don’t want to know about brands. I don’t want to know about super cute fun time style. I just want to know if she’s dressed or not, if she’s wearing jeans or a skirt, and whether or not she can run in whatever footwear she’s got. I want to know how long her hair is and what color it is – that’s about it. And the reason I’m ranting about this is because of this weird trend of name dropping. “OMG, I just LOVE American Eagle, don’t you? I’m wearing their Skinny Kick jeans with a Victoria’s Secret bra and a Juicy sweatshirt – isn’t that awesome?”

No, no it’s not. I don’t care. At all. The worst one at this is probably Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz who told us about a bajillion brands, none of which I knew, could afford, or cared about. And that middle one is always especially awful. Why do I want to read a book about a bunch of rich, spoiled kids? Unless my MC just blew a months worth of hard earned dough on some major dress for her wedding, I kind of don’t like hearing about kids just flaunting this endless supply of money. Be realistic. Be down to earth. And don’t be bratty.

Do Example:

Jill’s long hair was pulled back into a braid after she got frustrated with the curls falling into her eyes for the millionth time. She should have put it up-up since it was sweltering outside even in her tank top. “I should have worn shorts,” she mumbled aloud, glaring at her jeans.

Don’t Example:

Jill started with washing her face. Patting it dry, she then sat down at her vanity and began her routine. Maybeline foundation went on first, giving her a nice matte to work from. Next came an overlay of Maybeline powder. After that, she grabbed her N.Y.C. eyeshadow, the green to bring out her eyes, and spent almost ten minutes adding just the right shading to give her that smoky look with a hint of forest in there. Next, she used her Cover Girl eyeliner. It was True Black, which she loved. She did winged eyeliner perfectly and flapped her hands to dry it. Next, she grabbed her Revlon mascara and applied a coat. She let that dry, then added a second for good measure. Her eyelashes looked long and fabulous. Finally, she applied a base coat of red lipstick, then covered it with her favorite Revlon lip gloss. Staring at her reflection, she smiled and gave herself a kiss. She did look awesome. Now, moving on to the hair…

See the difference?

  • Dialogue. This is important: Write like you talk. Seriously. No one talks with perfect grammar. We mostly don’t speak formally – and if we do, you’re probably writing historical fiction or have created your own sort of dialect that is specific to your world. So if we don’t do that in real life, why would you do that in your novel? If your characters are speaking, go ahead and write them as though you were having a casual conversation with your friend. This means contractions and everything. That being said, please DO NOT USE TEXT SPEAK. If you do, I will disown you. The only time you can get away with this is if your characters are ACTUALLY TEXTING. Period. No exceptions. Not even for LOL. Don’t do it.


  • Action. While you’re writing, make sure that something is actually going on. I mean, is everyone out lounging by the lake working on their tan? Great. Say that. And then say that, “Jill grabbed the suntan bottle as she spoke, squirting still more into her hands. She burned way too easily.” Tell  us what people are doing, because talking and thinking and feeling isn’t enough. Something should be happening because very rarely in life are human beings completely still. If they are, they’re probably dead. Even while sleeping, you’re breathing. So be sure to tell us that. There doesn’t need to be a fight in every scene, but there should be something happening.

Okay, so that was a pretty long list after all, but these are things I point out in my reviews because I think they’re important. They can make or break a story, so work on them. Play with them. Try them out. And practice!

And a Jill example, using my outline.

I wanted to give you a quick example of my writing. Not everyone’s going to like it or do it like this, but I wanted to give you guys something that followed with the other examples. So, here it goes. I picked chapter one to work from, so if you’d like to follow along with my outline, you can do so. (Be gentle, this is off the top of my head, it’s late here, and I haven’t edited a thing.) Here we go!

Chapter One

I stomped through the woods angrily. Just who the hell did he think he was? We’d had this night planned for months and he just bailed on me like I was yesterdays mystery meat surprise? If he thought he was going to get off easily after this sort of rejection, he was sorely mistaken. The jerk. I’d make his life hell come tomorrow.

Ignoring the encroaching chill of fall, I defiantly pounded my boots into the moist earth, leaves mulching beneath me. The trees around me were thick. They caught the light and reflected it back at me in strange ways, reminding me that the full moon was hardly enough to see by in the woods surrounding Corn Grove. But I continued on, not worried. This little town was a speck of dust in the sunlight. It didn’t even warrant a thumbtack on a map. Nothing even close to crime happened here – unless you counted Marian Dempsey shoplifting from her mother’s store to make some whiny, rich girl point.

Not that I was friends with Marian.

I dodged a tree root, hoping over it and stumbling slightly as the ground sloped downhill suddenly. Just barely catching my footing before a bad fall, I moved around one of the bigger trees that marked the edge of the woods. I was still fuming at Adrian as I broke free of the forest and into the small, if pretty Corn Grove Park.

We’re two peas in a pod! I thought angrily. He’s just as friendless as I am – which begs the question. What the hell could be more important than me tonight?

I was lost in these thoughts as I headed towards the fountain, but I hadn’t gotten three steps before I saw them. Gorgeous. It was the first word that popped into my head. The second was odd. They were both male, but prettier than any boy I’d ever seen. Their hair was long and gleamed in the moonlight, but that shine was nothing compared to the one in their eyes. Almost… glowing.

And that was when I realized two very important things.

The first, they were floating. As in, feet off the ground, hovering in the air, walking on the wind, floating.

The second, they were floating over a very dead body…

And there you go! Our lovely Jill has finally gotten her start! I’d probably flesh this out a bit more if I was really writing this story, but for now it’s an okay start for an example. And for a first draft, it’ll do, too.

Don’t worry right now about things like plot holes and inconsistencies. You’re main goal with the first draft is to complete it. That being said, if you spot them as you’re going, try to fix them. And if you can’t, make a note of them to come back to later. That way you don’t forget they’re there, but you can still move on and actually complete your first draft. Later, we’ll clean everything up with second and third drafts. After that, we’ll push ahead to beta reading and editing and all that good stuff. These are to make sure that the little – and the big – mistakes get caught. Better to find them before you publish rather than getting a bad review after.

So what about you guys? How do you write? What do you focus on? Let me know below and as always, if you have any questions or tips of your own, feel free to share them below! This is only one writer’s take on it! And please, check out my next post in the series: The Next Step, focusing on what you do after you’ve finished your draft!

Thanks for checking this out!



E.C. Orr


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