First Drafts: Fantastic or Just Fast?

Don’t expect me to stay this organized, but I thought, for today, I’d start at the beginning. The first draft. A stage that some of us love, and some of us, well…let’s just say we struggle with it.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts in ten days. Martha Alderson blogged about it this week at The Plot Whisperer— talking about “pantsers” and “plotters” and how both types of writers can make NaNoWriMo work for them.  Debbie Ridpath Ohi also put up a post about the month at Will Write for Chocolate–she’s going to do cartoons for NaNoWriMo this year. (Once again, I wish I could draw!) And if you want a serious peptalk about joining in, go over to GottaWriteGirl and scroll down to her Git Her Done! post.

What I like about these posts is that they go at this novel-in-a-month thing with some flexibility. I know lots of writers welcome NaNoWriMo with wide-open arms, but I’m also guessing there are plenty out there who would rather eat massive amounts of eggplant than try to pour out 50,000 words in 30 days.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo myself–the timing was never right. I did, however write a Book in a Week, after hearing April Kihlstrom talk about the process. Did it work? Yes. Did I do it exactly as the instructions said? Nope. I am NOT a pantser. I need a path to follow, even if I know that path is going to change (and it will). So, in my “free” time, over a couple of weeks, I plotted–making use of Martha’s Scene Tracker, and writing a page of basic info for each scene I had planned. Then I took the week to write.  Essentially, I did Book in Three Weeks.

Guess what? I wrote 150 pages in five days. I had a book.

And then I revised.

Because, for me, this is what NaNoWriMo and Book in a Week and Karen S. Wiesner’s book First Draft in 30 Days are about. Oh, yes, they’re about the first draft, but–really–they’re about getting that draft out of the way so I can start fixing it.

I hear authors talk about writing a slow first draft, revising as they go, cleaning up the plot and the characters and the prose before they move on. I believe that, for these writers, this process works. It does not work for me.  At this point on my writing path, it doesn’t seem to matter how long I spend on the first pass at a page, or a scene, or a chapter.  I’m going to have to change it…often in very big ways.  Any extra time I send on phrasing or voice or setting–the work I do to get things “just right”–is wasted.

The truth is, you really don’t know the beginning of your story until you’ve written the last scene. Odds are, the pages you will revise just before you send a manuscript off for submission will be the first ten. When I’m first-drafting, I need to get to “The End” as quickly as possible, so that I can stand back and look at my story–my whole storyand really understand what it’s about.

Since I did BIAW, fast first drafts have become one of my soapboxes. It’s a little crude, but when I speak at conferences, I tell the writers in the room that my first draft is my “vomit” draft. In other words, I get it all out and worry about cleaning it up later. 🙂


I know this process isn’t set in stone for me. As I write more books, my attitude and the way I come at the first draft may change. But for now, I’m definitely on the side of the fast first draft.

I’ll make it fantastic in the revision.

What about you? Do you speed through the pages the first time around, or do you need to take more time, figuring out the details before you can move on? Have you done NaNoWriMo, or a variation? Are you joining the NaNoWriMo gang this year? Or have you built your own, flexible, method for getting that first pass on the page?

Join in the conversation. I’d love to hear your take on things.


  1. Tanja says:

    You know I think I’m going to give that a try. I keep on thinking everything has to be all planned out, and it all has to make sense and at least be somewhat good. I really need to let go of that idea, and “vomit”.


  2. Andra M. says:

    my first draft is my “vomit” draft. In other words, I get it all out and worry about cleaning it up later.

    I love that! It’s so true, too. When I finally get a story out, boy do I feel better. Maybe I should rename my computer to “The Throne?”

    I’m a pantser as far as plot and characters, but I do try to speed through the first draft. I’ve done NaNo three times, won the first two. I had to quit the third year, because I was pregnant and didn’t have the mental or physical energy to continue. Plus the story I chose didn’t excite me. This year, however, I expect it to be different.

    We’ll see.


  3. beckylevine says:


    Go for it. It takes a bit of mental pushing, because we all want our writing to be better…now! So don’t try, at first, for absolutely ignoring everything, but see if you can let go of some of that perfection.

    I do more plotting when I come to a dead end, if I need it–a bit ahead of where I am, to see where I’m going.

    Good luck!


  4. beckylevine says:

    Andra–wow, three times! (And, yeah, pregnancy will do that to you.) How do you feel about those drafts when you’ve got them out? Ready to move on and revise?

    Good luck with NaNo this year.


  5. janflora says:

    Thanks for all the extra info in your post. This is my first year doing NaNo and although I have written for many years I have never completed a whole book-length work. I have a serious problem with my Inner Editor taking over, though I have had some success with “vomiting” out some short stories and children’s stories. Often, that is beyond my control [much like your metaphor implies 🙂 ] With novels, however, I tend to plot in my head and outlines, but when it comes to actually writing it all out, I can’t stop correcting myself and revising. I guess I am wondering how you, and other folks, keep focused and stop the editor within. I like deadlines, which is why I am trying out NaNo this year.


  6. beckylevine says:


    The outlining is why I worked for a couple of weeks before I dove into my scheduled week. I knew I couldn’t do the week without SOME direction. You might play with a bit of light plot in the next week or so, and ONLY let yourself plot, until NaNoWriMo starts, then WRITE. One thing that really helped me was word count. I decided I’d go for 150 pages, and I only had a school week, so I divided by 5 and said I “had” to do 30 pages a day. I also told myself if I didn’t, that was fine, I’d still have more than I would have any other way. And I did it! I did do some late night writing to catch up, but it all paid off. I don’t think I could have sustained that for a whole month.

    How much is 80,000 divided by 30. Why not just see if you can get close?

    Glad you’re going for it! I’d love to hear from you after. Maybe I’ll do an end of the month NaNoWriMo post to see how everyone feels about it!


  7. beckylevine says:

    Yikes. I just realized I said “80,000 divided by 30.” FIFTY thousand, FIFTY!! Am I nuts? 🙂


  8. Marketing myself? Scary. I’ll take to the caves, thanks! No just kidding. But, it’s so much easier behind the safe blanket of the internet and so forth! : ) Wonderful post, Becky, thanks!


  9. Andra M. says:

    “How do you feel about those drafts when you’ve got them out? Ready to move on and revise?”

    The first year I loved what I ended up with. I continued on with it, and after a few more drafts I’ll have something publishable.

    The second year, blech! While I loved the characters, the story was terrible.

    The third story ended up bland, probably because I couldn’t concentrate on it.


  10. beckylevine says:

    Gottawrite Girl, I agree with you completely. It is scary, and the Internet makes it WAY less so. And easier. And as far as I can see, you’re doing a great job so far!


  11. beckylevine says:

    I love that the first one is going to turn into something. And, from listening to other writers, I wouldn’t be too sure that, someday, the others won’t come back to you, too–when you’re ready to look at them fresh. Keep them in a drawer!


  12. Sherrie says:

    The best story I ever wrote flowed out in a matter of weeks after I read “No Plot? No Problem!” by Chris Baty, the guy who started NanoWriMo. It was March, but I committed myself to writing my book that month and told my family they had to pitch in around the house more because Mommy was going to get this book written! It worked. I’ve been polishing the story since then and sketching ideas for a sequel. I outlined chapter ideas on note cards in the evening and the next day I would flesh out the concept on the computer. Having the short time frame really encouraged me to apply myself and once the creative juices got going I felt so free! Since it was a middle grade novel, the book came in around 25,000 words, far less than most NaNoWriMo writers, but gosh I felt accomplished. It was wonderful! I plan to do NaNoWriMo next month. Although I’m not sure yet what I’ll be writing about…


  13. beckylevine says:


    I’ll be really curious to hear about the difference between doing the writing month yourself and doing it with the whole NaNo support system.

    Have fun & Good Luck!


  14. Hi Becky,
    Catching up. Thrilled to come across your kind words. Thank you, Becky!!


  1. […] told you I wasn’t going to stay organized. From first drafts to marketing all in one week. I’ve heard this discussion before, though, and it’s an […]


  2. […] keep myself psyched up for the main event. Earlier this week, I chimed in on the discussion over at Becky Levine’s blog post about writing first drafts and found a few new ideas and resources. I am, however, growing more […]


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