First Drafts: How to get them done!

Much has been written about the soul-crushing, trauma-inducing terror of the blank page. How does one stare it down and get through the first draft? Here are some things that have worked for me:

1. Start with an outline. I know that dedicated pantsers may vehemently disagree. But for me, one of the things I love about an outline is its inherently imperfect format that removes the need for flawless sentences or perfectly paced scenes so I can just jot down half-formed thoughts and fragments of ideas without all that pressure. And then somehow the next step from outline to actual draft feels a little easier, perhaps because I’ve got a framework to hang things on.

2. Stick with your cheerleaders. The tender shoots of a first draft should never be exposed to the harsh glare of critical feedback, no matter how well intentioned. There’s enough time for that later once you’ve done your own polishing and are ready to bump things to the next level. But during the looooong drafting stage of writing a novel, you’re going to need some encouragement along the way in the form of folks who will swoon at every chapter and tell you what a genius you are. Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about your mom, your aunt, your best friend, your fairy godmother, or your cat.

3. Write. Every. Single. Day. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes on your phone, you need to touch your WIP frequently so you don’t lose the threads of your ideas. Then when you get a larger chunk of time, you can hop right into the writing rather than spending time trying to remind yourself which character was in the bathroom and which was contemplating murder.

4. Find an accountability partner or partners. For my first book, I had a series of writing groups that I had to report progress to. For my current book, I am lucky to have A.H. Kim, author of A Good Family, who holds me accountable to showing up every single day for our Zoom writing session.

That’s what works for me. What has worked for you?

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Ehsaneh Sadr is an Iranian-American novelist and activist with a PhD in International Relations. She has worked, in various capacities, on campaigns related to Palestinian human rights, Iranian sanctions, access to credit for rural villagers, and safe spaces for children in crisis. She currently works with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition to create the cultural and infrastructure changes needed to support a shift away from carbon-based modes of transportation. Ehsaneh currently lives in Northern California with her husband and two children but also considers Washington DC, Salt Lake City, and Tehran to be home.

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