Writing the First Draft of Your Novel: Don’t Fear the First Draft Mess – Holly Schindler

My first draft is a complete and utter…


What it is not is disorganized or unruly or chaotic.

Doesn’t make much sense, does it? We’re trained to think of a mess as something out of control. Something untamable, even. Something that needs to be fixed.

After going through the first-draft process as many times as I have, I’ve come to welcome the mess. I’m also able to deal with it in a much more streamlined way—because I’ve learned to accept the mess.

Here’s my process:

1. Outline. This is also not a neat process. It’s not some tidy little outline with points A, B, C, subpoints 1, 2, 3, all laid out. It’s paragraphs. It’s sketches. It’s a giant wad of brainstorming. I write about the characters—their wants, their needs. I figure out the main plot points. I branch off into the possible subplots.

2. I REVISE MY OUTLINE. I’m not kidding. I hone it, get rid of points or characters that I don’t think will work. I figure out the shape of the overall novel. (You might want to check out some books on plotting here—you can start with Save the Cat or even Googling the beats for your genre.)

3. I write random chapters. This works because I also use Scrivener for drafting. Each chapter appears in the “Binder” on the left side of the screen. I write whatever appeals to me that day—whatever scene I find the most intriguing.

4. I REVISE MY OUTLINE. This is inevitable. After a few chapters, I’ve happened upon a few ideas that I never could have anticipated. It gives me new ideas for how the story should be structured. What the turning-point should be. What the best sub-plots are.

5. I write more random chapters. See #3.

At this point, the whole thing looks like an apartment that’s half-moved-into. Open cardboard boxes all over the place. And it will probably get messier, because I'll alternate between #4 and #5 for a while.

But don’t worry, because we’re soon on to the next step, which is one of the most fun:

6. Move the chapters into order. In Scrivener, you can just drag and drop your chapters.

7. Finally, I write a narrative thread connecting all the scenes and linking the chapters together.

Voila! The first full draft of the novel is now complete. And it’s complete because I embraced the mess right from the beginning. Seriously—it’s soooo tempting to write chronologically. To go for that edited-as-I-go nice neat draft. In my experience, the “neat” drafts are deceiving. There’s far more work tht needs to be done to a draft written chronologically and tidily than to one written messily.

Go for it—embrace the mess!


  1. Outlines get a bad name from research papers, but they're very helpful!


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