From Zero to First Draft


Image by jjpacres via Flickr

I have almost finished the first draft to my most current novel. It has taken me roughly six months to arrive at this point in the process. This is how long it usually takes me to write a first draft for a novel. I know that once I finish the first draft, I will not be done. I will have many, many edits to do. But, even though I don’t like to edit my own work, I know it will be helpful. After all, it’s part of my process of writing. It is part of the basic plan I like to use when I write.

Most writers who have published more than novel or book have a particular process they use when they write. Some prefer to write on paper (I used to prefer this method when I was in college and wrote research papers. Others prefer writing at a particular time of day or evening (I prefer to write at night, if I can). But whatever method used, most writers have their own ways of writing.

For those who are interested, here is the process I use when I write a first draft.


I am nothing if not an English teacher. And as an English teacher, I believe in pre-writing. I find it an important part of writing. This is because even though I may have not written a word at this point, I am thinking about what I want to write. It’s when I plan out the basic plot, protagonist, first chapter, and ending. Here’s what I do during pre-writing:

1. I let the muse find me. There are those who say “write what you know”. This makes sense; after all, it’s easier to write about New York, for example, if you live in New York. I know of other writers who have said “write what you can imagine”. Doing this, assuming the writer has a good imagination, gives license to people who don’t normally have the background in something to write about it anyway. Sometimes this works. For example, I have written many stories about Catholic seminarians and other religious, even though I have never been a seminarian or religious. But for me, the expression “let the muse find me” seems to work. What does this mean? It means a couple of things. First, it means that there is an inspiration, or muse out there for your book. You don’t necessarily need to have experience with it. That muse can come from many, many places. Second, it means that, when you’ve found your inspiration or muse, you’ll know. Most of the time, the inspiration is active. It won’t leave you alone. It will follow you just about anywhere. And when that happens, you’ll know it’s the one.

2. I plan a protagonist from people you know. I cannot write about a person without a template, which is to say, a real example. Almost all of my characters in novels are based on real, actual people. Of course, I change each character to fit the novel or story. In this way, the character and real life person on which the character is based are different. But I usually have to know a type of person before I can write about him/her.

3. I plan the opening chapter. For me, this is very important. The first chapter needs to capture the attention of your readers and sustain it. To do this, I like my first chapters to be active and brief. This doesn’t always happen, of course. But I try to include action, suspense, surprise, and most of all, conflict. After all, the first chapter needs to draw  readers into the story. Also, if I can, I like to have the first chapter reflect the larger conflict in the novel. This means that the opening chapter will offer a challenge to the protagonist (and to the readers) that will be similar or metaphorically the same as the larger challenge in the novel. In that first chapter, the protagonist might think that s/he has solved the issue, but what s/he doesn’t know is that it’s only the beginning.

4. I find a song that will help write the first chapter. Like I said in one of my entries not too long ago, I like to work with playlists that I make from music from my iPod. It helps me think zero in on details, themes, moods, and other elements that I could not find without music.

5. I plan what will happen at the end of the novel. Will the protagonist solve the problem? Will the story come to a conclusion? What is the real conflict in the novel? These are questions that I think of as I think about a conclusion. At this point, of course, I don’t write that last chapter, although I may write a sentence or two about what I want to cover or what I want a character to say. But I need to have a basic idea about what I want to happen at the end.

6. I find a song for the ending. Sometimes this does not happen. That’s okay, it doesn’t have to at that point. But the key is to start looking. That way, I have something to use to help me write the conclusion by the time I am ready.

7. I research key information to help write the story. The Internet has become an extremely valuable tool for me when I want to do research for a novel. Let me give you some examples. For Fragile Creatures, I had to find out the main parts of the Roman Catholic mass in order to structure the novel. For Evening Prayer, I had to find out how people prepare heroin just before an intravenous shot. And for the novel that I’m writing now, I had to learn about jellyfish. Of course, this is also an ongoing process, and throughout writing, I will look up information I need on the Internet.

You may notice that I have not done some of the key things many successful writers do during pre-writing. Those things usually include brainstorming, outlining, and other ways to organize one’s writing. This is because, honestly, I don’t know how I’ll get from the intro chapter to the end. I mean, I have certain things I want to include. I may have some ideas about what the characters might say or do. But the only way I will find out what happens is if I write the novel. And many times, I don’t know what will happen from one scene to the next until I begin to write it.


I. I write the first chapter when I feel the inspiration to do so. This usually happens in the evening, and I can usually polish off the first chapter pretty quickly since I’ve already thought about it during the pre-writing stage. Often, I will have just experienced a muse-like situation earlier in that day or week. Also, keep in mind that I try to write a short first chapter anyway. So, I can usually write it within one evening.

8. Unless I won’t have time, I try to write the best scenes at night. I write best late at night. Sometimes I won’t go to bed until almost two am if I feel particularly inspired. I will often pay for it in the morning, but it’s usually still worth it.

9. I continue to plan the story as I go through my day. I think about a scene or character in the car or while doing the laundry. I will sometimes get a great idea while driving, which can be frustrating since I have to wait until I get to my destination before I record it on my phone or on a piece of paper.

10. I try to write during the day to the best of my ability, but it is usually inferior work, especially in the beginning. It’s unfortunate but true. However, once I get past the second half of the novel or if I’m writing a scene I’ve already thought about and planned, I can usually write something adequate during the day.

11. I write to cure writer’s block. Writer’s block happens to me often, especially at the beginning of a novel. The cure is to write. Only after I write can I find the next part of the novel.

12. I continue to research when I don’t know for sure. Like I said above, I research as I write and as I need information. Thank goodness for the Internet.

13. When I finish the first draft, I set it aside to write another first chapter for a different book. Surprisingly, I usually have two or three novels in my head at any given time. I don’t know why. It just happens. And it’s very helpful. When I finish and write a first draft for a new novel, it’s a chance to separate myself from the first draft I’ve just written. And when I return to it for edits, it’s like it’s brand new. I can read it with a fresh set of eyes.

Anyway, that’s what I do for a first draft. As you can see, I don’t do that much planning. Instead, I mostly plan as I go. And the most important pieces of the story I already have I store in my brain until it’s time to write it.


About L.M. Gil

L.M. Gil, a writer and English teacher, worked closely with Roman Catholic seminarians for several years. Born and raised in Upstate New York, she has lived in Europe, the Middle East, and the Southwest of the United States. She lives with her family in the Baltimore area.
This entry was posted in Fiction, first drafts, Kindle Fiction, Uncategorized, Writing fiction, writing process and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s