How to Write a High-Quality Novel in One Draft with No Outline
Forget second and third drafts. Write your book once and start the next one
As writers we’re supposed to struggle. Our readers want us to put blood, sweat, and tears into each book, so it’s guaranteed to be worth reading. We like to equate effort with quality, but it’s not always the case.
What if there was a way to write your next novel with no outline and no second draft?
Would you do it? Would you fight it with every inch of your being? Does this idea push against all you’ve learned in school (or in lectures)? Well, there’s a method that works. I learned it from an author who can write 17 books a year (yep, 17).
If you hate editing and re-writes as much as I do, there’s some reprieve in the following paragraphs. This method may not work for everyone (for those looking for a reason why it won’t work), but it might work for you.
We’ll focus on this method for fiction, but I have modified it slightly to work for non-fiction too.
Can you imagine how good it would feel to finish your novel in one-third (or one-eighth) the time it takes the typical author? I know, your’re probably thinking about quality, of both story and writing. But the myth that fast writing is bad writing is just that.
The one-draft process is a mind-shift.
Just as I learned to shift my thinking when I taught myself to write novels on my phone (inside the story below). At first the process was frustrating and slow. Now I write everyday and I don’t miss time from my family. The shift was hard.
I challenged the status quo.
My brain fought me until I broke the pattern. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is never a reason to keep doing something that way. We’ve got to blaze our own trail, break some plates, and be prepared for judgement.
The end results are worth it. Let’s go!
The theory of the one-draft novel
I learned this method from Dean Wesley Smith. He’s written over 200 books since the 70s and probably thousands of short stories. Dean wrote genre fan-fiction for Star Trek and other series, using multiple pen names to suit his publishers.
Smith calls this method ‘writing into the dark’ and has written books and courses by the same name.
Dean didn’t have room in the schedule to go after a book through multiple revisions and re-writes. He was so motivated to write the next book, he devised a way to write his book in one pass.
Once Dean types ‘the end’ he sends the book to a proof-reader for copy edits. That’s it. One-shot, done. On to the next book. And I’ll show you an abbreviated version of this method below.
Smith isn’t the only writer to use this method. Stephen King, Lee Child, and many more of the popular fiction authors today, all use a version of this method. But they don’t like to talk about it, because it won’t sound sexy to readers.
Writing a one-draft novel is a mind-shift.
We’ll push the creative side of our brain harder and rein-in the analytical side, preventing it from judging our work before the reader does.
Dean’s method is the most-optimist form of writing I’ve ever seen. He believes writers should NEVER say a negative word about their work. We write. We publish. We write the next one. Every book is a learning opportunity. The more we write the more we learn.
Not everything we write will work, but we’ll write so much the flops won’t matter.
How to write a one-draft novel with no outline
First, we’ve got to start thinking more like a reader and less like a writer. Huh? Yep. When we think like a writer we ponder what comes next while we’re NOT writing (outlining, walking, journaling).
The analytical, writing mind ruins the one-draft process, because we think with our conscious mind — the tiny part of the brain that does only twenty percent of the work.
When we shift our mindset and think as a reader, we read the story into existence as it’s written.
Stay with me. Think of the process as driving at night. We can only see as far as the headlights show us. We can drive from New York to California this way. We can’t see across the United States, but we can make it watching the small piece of road before us.
Dean starts with an idea and usually a title. He’s got a great title method too. He collects old periodicals and hand-writes half the article titles on a piece of paper. He’ll combine two half-titles and build the title of his next book.
He starts writing. The keyboard is the steering wheel. He opens the book and reads as he writes. He’s not thinking what happens next? He thinks and then…
Dean writes as a reader, anticipating the story — getting excited about what will happen to the characters.
Here’s where the one-draft method kicks-in.
Smith writes about 500 words and the energy starts to wane. Then, he starts looping. He goes back and re-reads what he just wrote, tweaking the story as he goes. Yes, he does re-write and edit as he works through the novel, but there’s never a second draft.
Once he reaches the place he stopped, Dean continues through the story with new momentum. He writes another 500 words, loops back around, and writes through the story again until he hits about 2,000 words for the day.
The following day, before he starts he loops back into the pages from the day prior, tweaks the story as he goes, and writes through again. If he gets to a new twist in the story that needs a set-up, Dean scrolls into the story and sets up the twist earlier in the novel. No outline required.
He also outlines as he writes.
Instead of outlining ahead of time, Dean outlines after he writes. He keeps a legal pad on his desk and writes a few sentences about each chapter, maybe what the characters wore (so he doesn’t make mistakes later) and what happened in the chapter, so he won’t forget.
This post-hoc outline is a quick reference document he can flip-to if he’s got a question about early parts of the story. These pages make it much faster than re-reading the actual book.
Dean only reads his books once.
Once they’re finished he never reads them again. he moves on to the next book. And the next. Forever the optimist. Dean believes if we slow down and ask what comes next? our analytical mind will take over and start doubting our writing.
To keep from writing bad endings, Dean finishes the novel and does a final loop back to the previous pages, then reading all the way through to the end for final changes.
This method works. Smith can write more than one novel in a month!
Once he’s finished, Dean hands his manuscript to a proofreader, and off to his book-formatter for publication. He never touches the book again. This method works well for stand-alone novels and series. Dean has multiple series going at once.
What does the single-draft novel mean for you?
This method was a game-changer for me. The editing process is the bane of my existence. I’m impatient and I want to start the next project once I’m done with my first manuscript.
Multiple drafts are my Kryptonite. It’s so painful to go back and re-work them I’d prefer they sit and collect dust.
With the single-draft process I don’t have to worry about re-writing. And without an outline holding me to a desk I can write mobile much-easier. Once the book is done it’s done, save for a couple commas and some spelling.
The mindset shift is hard.
Yes, you’ve got to educate yourself on the elements of character, dialogue, and story. There’s no way around the craft. And you’ve got to know those elements in your bones, so they come naturally as you write.
All those elements take practice.
We get better by writing. And we get a lot better by writing a lot.
I challenge you to try this method. Start with a 500-word short. Don’t go nuts and attempt a novel on your first go. Dean writes a lot more short stories than he writes novels.
Be your own guinea pig.
The old way isn’t the only way.
Now, go toss that long, useless outline in the trash and start yourself a one-draft story. Your subconscious mind will come up with some of the best ideas you’ve ever written. This is your brain’s powerhouse. Let her get to work!
We’re waiting for you.