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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

Books Are Like Onions Podcast

Episode 2: The Dos and Don'ts of Writing a First Draft

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Episode Summary

This episode covers the challenges of writing a first draft and techniques for tackling them, including a revised approach to the SMART goal method.

The Dos, Part 1 (1:28)

1. Plan out your book. If you’re not a plotter, no worries. This tip can still be useful to you. By having a skeleton of an outline, even if it’s sparse, you’ll prevent yourself from getting derailed by a side character or subplot. You’ll also be less intimidated by the blank screen at the start of a project.

2. Consider preliminary research. It will make internal consistency easier, and it will likely spark loads of ideas for incorporating subplots.

Internal consistency deals with how the details in your story line up, including:

  • Timeline of events

  • Rules of the universe

  • Character facts

  • Clothing or objects as they relate to the era in your book

Example in the podcast: blog post on internal consistency

A story without facts blended in, no matter the genre, won’t resonate well with readers. To make a fictional world believable, it must be grounded in concepts readers are already familiar with and can relate to.

Example in the podcast: The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

3. Get the first draft out before you make corrections. If you’re so stuck in the present scene that you can’t move on until it’s perfected, it’s probably time to change your approach. Bottom line: if there aren’t any words on the page, there’s nothing to build upon.

4. Set goals for yourself. Just make sure they’re achievable and realistic.

SMART goals . . . with a twist! (5:15)

Example in the podcast: adaringadventure.com’s take on SMARTER goals

  • S – Specific: For instance, I will write x amount of words per day.

  • M – Measurable: With measurable goals, you have an allotted amount of time to complete a specific task.

  • A – Achievable: Achievable goals will boost your confidence, and before you know it, you’ll have completed a seemingly impossible task.

  • R – Realistic: Are you setting too big of a goal for yourself? How will you accomplish it? Can breaking it down into smaller steps work better? What approach will work best for you?

Example in the podcast: use of NaNoWriMo to illustrate how setting goals with factors out of your control will lead to inevitable failure

  • T – Time bound: When can you complete your goal? If you need to, break that goal into smaller, more manageable chunks.

  • E – Ecological: Ecological goals need to be relevant to a bigger picture. If tackling these goals is going to hurt your relationships, your health, or are so time-consuming that it’s causing added stress, you might want to rethink your approach.

  • R – Rewarding: What value do these goals have for you? Are they fulfilling and worthwhile? If they’re not, you’ll have a hard time staying motivated.

The Dos, Part 2 (11:10)

5. Use a placeholder for things like facts, names, descriptions, and items you’ll need to add to later. This allows you to focus on the piece as a whole and move forward with the draft.

6. Turn off anything distracting. That means electronics, Wi-Fi, or anything else you might be tempted by. And if you have a hard time focusing, set a timer and write in smaller increments, being sure to reward yourself when you meet that goal.

7. Concentrate on why things are happening in each scene when you write them. It’s easy to get bogged down in mundane descriptions; knowing what’s driving a scene as you hammer out the words can keep you going.

*Bonus pro tip from author April White

8. Know your basic theme. Doing so will allow you to fall into your natural voice as a writer while catering the content to your audience.

9. Prioritize your projects and goals. Staring at a pile of things to do can be overwhelming, so organizing your notes and goals into a single, more manageable list will keep you on target.

The Don’ts (13:24)

1. Don’t be overly critical of the words on the page. The first draft doesn’t need to be perfect; it simply needs to be finished.

2. Don’t blame your lack of progress on writer’s block. We’re our own worst enemies when it comes to sabotaging our goals.

3. Don’t get hung up on the details. It's hard to move past typos, and it's even tougher to set aside a scene and move forward when you know there's some tweaks to be had. But first drafts are the key to unlocking a great writing habit and a great book. Without them, you can't move forward.

4. Don’t wait for the ending to pop into your head. If it’s preplanned, there’s less of a risk of getting lost along the way. Knowing where your story’s going can keep you moving forward.

5. Don’t be afraid to overwrite. For many writers, it’s much easier to take things out than it is to squeeze them in later.

Becoming a “Good” Writer (14:55)

Being a good writer isn't about writing a perfect draft or even pleasing every reader who picks up your book. (Both of which are impossible, by the way.) Good writers simply persevere and push forward, continually improving their craft even when they don't feel like it.

Quote from John Wooden: "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes."

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

From Mind to Paper blog post “Why Good Writing Matters: Internal Consistency” – https://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2013/02/why-good-writing-matters-internal-consistency

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins – https://www.goodreads.com/series/73758-the-hunger-games

Adaringadventure.com’s take on SMARTER goals – https://www.adaringadventure.com/why-smart-goals-suck/

Pro tip from April White as given in the FMTP blog interview – https://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2016/3/25/supernatural-introduction-fmtps-interview-with-april-white

Quote from John Wooden – https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/john_wooden_386958