August 24, 2018

The Shortest How-to Guide for Writing Your Novel’s First Draft

By Shawn Smucker, Author of The Edge of Over There

Breathe in. Breathe out. Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally – you are about to embark on a major undertaking, a creative endeavor that millions of people begin but never finish.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Set a daily or weekly word count target, and write every day, or every other day, but do not let too much time pass or the trail will grow cold and when you return to it you’ll have trouble picking up the scent. Come back to the work faithfully, and your imagination will become faithful to you.

And when you have the scent, keep moving forward – do not get caught in the trap of revising what you have already written. Have you ever seen a dog chase its own tail? If something must be changed, make a note, resolve to address it later, during the second draft, and then keep moving forward.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

There will come a day when you are ready to quit, or delete half of what you’ve written, or take up an entirely new idea, abandoning your current story. Do your best to ignore these urges, because the sole purpose of these voices is to keep you from finishing well. That should be your only concern right now: finishing well. Not what you will do in the second draft. Not how you will arrange the plot of your next project. Not what your mother will think of the character that resembles her. Only focus on finishing well.

Take comfort in the fact that this is not your best writing, or the best way to organize the story, or a perfect portrayal of your characters. No one will ever have to read what you are currently writing. Free yourself from the burden of writing something that will change the world. Simply get it down as best you can, following the trail where it leads you.

At the halfway mark, you might feel as though you’ll never finish. This is because the negative voices are starting to worry that you actually might finish, and they’re trying to discourage you. Rejoice when these voices flare up! Their presence means you’re nearly there! Laugh at them. Treat yourself to something nice and keep writing.

When you finish that first draft, sit with it for a while in silence, saying nothing, writing nothing. Sit and look at it where it resides, on your screen or on paper, and realize you have done something wonderful, something remarkable, something worthwhile. You have finished writing a novel.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Now, get ready to revise.
Shawn Smucker is the author of The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There. He lives with his wife and six children in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can find him online at, where you can also sign up for his newsletter in order to find out when and where the Tree of Life will turn up next.


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