Messy, Hard, and Bad: What I’ve Learned about Writing a Novel’s First Draft

Chelsey Engel
Nov 28, 2018 · 4 min read

Even though I’d always wanted to write a book since I was a stubborn kid locking myself in my room for hours on end daydreaming about the idea, I never truly understood what the process involved. And how could I have? Like most strenuous endeavors, it’s something you’ll never wrap your head around until you’re in the thick of it. And even then you can’t really grasp what the hell it is you’re doing.

And that is one of the things I’ve learned after writing my first book (which I’ve posted on Wattpad while I move onto my second).

Crawling through the hell that is the first draft can feel daunting for many people, and I wanted to share a few bits of what I learned about that early process for anyone out there struggling just like I did. I want you to know you are not alone in wanting to hide inside a hole forever, never again to see the light of day, believing you’ve done everything wrong and no writer has ever suffered like you have.

Trust me. They have.

1. It’s a messy process.

Even for those who are strict outliners and planners, getting that first draft down can be chaotic. Compiling research, weaving your characters through the plot, figuring out exactly what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it, deciding on the right ending — it’s a lot to handle, and it’s only natural that when that first draft is complete, you will feel like it is completely tangled.

Maybe it is.

It very likely is, actually.

And that’s okay. It is the FIRST draft. You’ve just vomited onto the page, and you’ll get the time later in editing to mop it up.

2. If you’re getting bored, it’s probably just getting hard.

I found myself getting bored at various times throughout the drafting process, especially during the infamous middle, that belly of the beast. This is common, so don’t freak out when and if it happens to you. Even on the draft I’m working on now, one I’m far more excited about than my first book, I find myself stopping at the same point — around 25,000 words — and feeling stuck. Bored. Uninspired.

What I’ve realized is that I’m not necessarily losing interest — it’s just getting hard. This is the point of a novel (about one third or half of the way through) when you really need to have your ducks in a row. The story has to be well underway, the characters have to be developed, and you have to keep your readers engaged.

It’s easy to walk away when you reach this milestone. Many writers do. If you find yourself stepping away, don’t feel bad. Just know it happens to nearly everyone, and remind yourself why you’re writing this book in the first place. What is the nut of your story? What is your character’s (s’) goal? Chuck something at them to make them shift, make them stand back, make them question themselves. Throw a fucking wrench in their machine and watch it spin and attack. Do something to grab their attention, and ultimately the reader’s.

Once you get over this hump, you will likely be right back into the exciting bits of the story and be well on your way to reaching the crisis or climax moment when you can start to round things out.

3. It will likely be bad.

Ernest Hemingway once famously said, “All first drafts are shit.”

Hearing this quote before I began the first draft of my first book was incredibly helpful. It reminded me that there are literally no stakes in this race. No one has to see your first draft. In fact, I recommend nobody does. This is for your eyes only.

I also recently attended an amazing workshop with Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed. (I will be writing another post about this experience when I’m ready to dissect it all, but it’s been two months since the workshop and I’m still processing it.) Gilbert shared a story about when she first wanted to write a book while in her 20's. She asked her boyfriend at the time if he thought he could write a book. His response? “Well, I’m sure I could write a bad one.”

This answer set Gilbert free. She realized how it didn’t matter if her first book or first draft was bad. What did she have to lose? Her advice then became, “Write bad and write fast.”

You can edit a bad book. You can’t edit a nonexistent one.

4. There is no one right way to do it.

If you follow writer podcasts or blogs, you will likely see lots of advice about just how exactly you should write your book. You must do an outline. You must write in third-person limited. You must write every single day even if you’re tired or sick or depressed or busy. You must have an ending figured out before you start. You must have a theme.

Take all advice offered, including mine, with a huge grain of salt. What works for one writer maybe won’t work for you, just like with all other things in life. Wanna get married? Get married. Don’t want to get married? Don’t get married. It’s no one else’s business.

Write the way you want to write. Get it done. That’s all that matters.


At the end of the day, writing your first draft is a low-stake situation. Don’t let the bigness of it keep you from pursuing it and finishing it. It will happen as it happens, and you will eventually have the bones of your novel ready when it’s time to add the meat and muscle.

Onward!

Chelsey Engel

Written by

Chelsey is a writer and activist living and working in Pittsburgh. Her debut novel, A Summer of Fever and Freedom, is out everywhere now. www.chelseyengel.com

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