Ten Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My First Draft

Five years ago, I decided to write a book. So, I did. It was easy.


Said no writer in the history of the world, ever.


When I began writing in 2016, I naively thought that I would sit down and write my first novel in a few short months. I would do it carefully and methodically so that there would be no need to edit. I’d work out the plot along the way with a glass of red, no problem.


(Fool! Fool! If only she knew!)


Needless to say, I got about 20,000k into my historical circus novel and realised it was terribly written, a weak premise and that I had a lot to learn.


I ate my humble pie accordingly. It was bitter.


Since my first tentative steps in writing fiction, I’ve often thought about how useful it would have been to have started out with some key pieces of knowledge from the onset of my writing path. I’ve therefore put together a shortlist of things I wish I’d known before I started writing my first novel to help any other aspiring writers on their journey. Whether you’re grappling with the first glimmer of an idea, or well and truly into the editing process, here are a few gems of wisdom from one scribbling dreamer to another.


1. You do actually have time to write the book


There will always be something in the way of your writing (in my case, two wailing wildlings under the age of three) but if you want to write a book, you need to prioritise and protect your writing time and keep showing up. Keep. Showing. Up. You’re busy. I get it. I’m busy. Everyone is busy. There are busier people than you writing a book. Write into the night or early in the morning, on public transport or in the doctor’s waiting room. One word a day will eventually write a book and you really do have the time to do it.

Turn off Netflix, my friend. I see you.


2. Stop worrying about if you're a plotter or a pantser


Anyone who has ever read a writing blog, or book has heard some variant on this theme. Plotter vs. pantser. Gardener vs. Architect. Post it, note enthusiast vs. chaotic notebook hoarder. One writer will command you to make a detailed cork board story beat plan, whereas another will tempt you into just following your heart and the scent of the story. These labels can be helpful in finding your optimum drafting method but regard them with healthy distance. Finding the perfect method may distract you from actually writing. Many writers are a mixture of both.


3. If your goal is to be traditionally published, there are rules.


Now before the anti-establishment crew come at me with their torches and pitchforks, hear me out…


Perhaps you have broken every traditional publishing rule in the book and written a breath-taking novel which will get agent/publisher attention, regardless. Perhaps your favourite book is an 800K YA romance about alien falling in love with a mole, written in a fictional space dialect of Morse code that few readers understand.


There are exceptions. Of course, there are always exceptions.


But if you stray too far from traditional publishing guidelines, you dramatically reduce the likelihood of getting an agent to actually read your manuscript and not throw it on the slush pile. Publishing is not (only) about talent, it’s about business and your book is the potential product to be marketed. If traditional publishing is your desire, you should at least be informed of the requirements, even if you intend to break them. Some of the most important aspects to bear in mind are: word count, genre, beats and, if you're writing for middle grade and/or YA; explicit content.


If the rules aren’t for you, there are other increasingly popular self-publishing routes to pursue.


4. Forced diversity is often worse than no diversity


I could wax political on the topic of diversity for an entire essay. This was a hard one for me to crack, and the best way I can simplify an incredibly complex topic is as follows:

A lack of diversity will make your fiction unbelievable.

Token diversity looks like box ticking for social points.

If your book is set in contemporary New York, it is highly unlikely that every individual your protagonist encounters will be white. Even if they belong to a homogeneous social circle, their daily interactions with this environment demand ethnic diversity and a lack of it calls into questions your perception of reality.


However…


Arguably worse than lack of diversity in fiction is the lesser discussed concept of forced diversity. In an attempt to be inclusive, we can easily fall into the trap of box ticking. Often this is done by the inclusion of flat and unnecessary side characters who have no real role in the main plot and the ‘diverse’ aspect of their character is mentioned but never explored. Represent your range of characters as complex, fully fleshed out individuals and not just a scapegoat for a general lack of diversity in the rest of your book or you will be called out for it.


5. You need to be aware of clichés in your genre


Does your crime novel follow a middle-aged, alcoholic, divorced detective who gets too close to the case and wrestles the demons of his past?


Is your YA dystopian novel fronted by a sassy, weapon wielding girl in a love triangle who must save the world from the totalitarian government?


Has the chosen one in your fantasy novel reluctantly agreed to a journey into the unknown on a quest for the (insert magical object here, usually a sword) before the dark one leads the kingdom into unending… well… darkness?


If so, you may want to readdress your plot premise, or at least think about how to spin these overused tropes into something unique. Make your detective a devoted Mormon trying out veganism. Make your dystopian heroine a polyamorous librarian who never even holds a gun. Subvert clichés to keep things fresh.


6. Writing technique is just as important as story.


The first person I showed my work to was my best friend. (HEY, LAURA!) I waited with bated breath for her feedback with a million developmental questions.

  • Is the plot weak?

  • Are the characters flat or nuanced?

  • How can I improve the story pace?

  • Am I overdoing the foreshadowing?

Her first piece of feedback had nothing to do with any of that. She told me my sentences felt backwards.


It’s boring but necessary, but you need to brush up your grammar and punctuation. I’m still working on this aspect of craft myself and it’s vital. If your book is not well written, your reader won’t stay around long enough to enjoy the story, or they’ll be too distracted by your disordered adjectives to enjoy it. (Sorry, Laura.)


7. Characters flaws are more important than character strengths


We emphasise with characters who are as flawed as we are, who make mistakes and reflect our humanity. Moreover, the character’s flaws should drive your plot.


A perfect character would ask the antagonist who killed their lover to join her at group therapy in order to work through the antagonist’s homicidal inclinations.


A flawed character would strap a loaded gun to her thigh and begin her quest for vengeance at any cost.

And that’s a story.


8. Writing retreats can boost productivity


A great way to set aside uninterrupted sessions is to plan a writing retreat. If funds allow, you could take a short break alone or with a writing group for accountability to work on your manuscript. If such luxury is beyond your means, offer to house/pet sit for a friend in exchange for a new and quiet space to work.


9. You will have your own ‘dark night of the soul’.


It will happen, and it will be brutal. A beta reader will be overly critical, you’ll run into a plot hole or merely have a bad writing day. You’ll read back what you've written and wonder why you every thought you could write a decent book. Step away. Take a break and come back in better mental space.

And keep showing up. Keep. Showing. Up.


10. Community matters


Writing is a solitary endeavour and if you don't have IRL friends trying to graft out their first book, it can be very lonely. Connect online or through any means available to you with other writers. They will raise you up, they will cheer on your book and most importantly, they will correct your typos.


And finally.... remember why you started writing in the first place


The drafting trenches are a hostile place and you may question why on earth you inflicted this unique style of torture upon yourself. During these moments, reflect on why you started writing in the first place.


Remember, you’re writing because you’re a storyteller. There’s a story in you that needed to get out, so let it.

Lick your wounds, give your inner storyteller a hug and then let her fly.


Meet Rachel Zillikens

Rachel is a a Welsh writer of fantasy, historical and contemporary fiction. She teaches English as an additional language and resides in the south of Germany with her husband, children and a cat named Gretel.


You can connect with Rachel on Instagram @rachel_zillikens_writes.

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