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After writing four books, here’s what I’ve learned about drafting: it’s hard, frustrating, invigorating, confusing, inspiring, MESSY, and it sort of sucks. Author confession: I hate seriously dislike drafting.

It reminds me a lot of those early days of dating – yes, there’s the excitement; the sizzle of THERE MIGHT REALLY BE SOMETHING HERE. But along with that excitement comes the awkward realization that at any moment the whole thing could collapse and fizzle away. Then you’re back to blind dating, where you inevitably ask, “So, what do you like to do when you’re not at work?” when what you really want to ask is, “Will you let me binge watch {insert teen drama} on Netflix without judgment?”

So because of this awkwardness I feel when I draft, I rush. I don’t mean I open my laptop and start writing all willy-nilly until I reach 90,000 words. No, that would be crazy (also, I’ve tried it and it felt a little like how skydiving without a parachute might…reckless and certain to end badly). “Rushing” for me means a daily word goal — set to ensure a first draft in about 4 months — that I stick to like my life depends on it. I also don’t revise while I draft, with the exception of Chapter One. I’ll admit that on this latest book I’ve revised (rewritten) Chapter One five times. That first chapter is my foundation, and without it I become a lot more willy-nilly, which isn’t good for me. *See above for the whole skydiving without a parachute thing.

But before I start the drafting process, there are three things I do first:

  1. Write a detailed synopsis (think 10 pages, single spaced level of detail) outlining the major plot points, and I run it past no fewer than three people I trust to tear it apart.
  2. Take that synopsis and create a chapter outline in Scrivener – it looks similar to a corkboard, with cue cards representing each chapter and a sentence or two within each card covering the major point of each chapter.
  3. Make sure my alarm is set for 5am daily, and that I have loads of coffee at the ready. This is not a mistype. I drafted COME AWAY WITH ME nearly entirely between the hours of 5am-7am. Yes, I am that crazy writer up before the sun. It’s okay, you don’t have to get up at 5am. My point is to find time you can protect, so you get your words down every day.

Once I have those steps handled, I do a quick character sketch for each of my main players, a setting outline, and any research I need to be able to start writing. So my main approach to draft one? Organization & Commitment. Simple, but not always easy (especially the 5am on a Sunday thing…)

This works for me. And it’s taken some trial and error. I have written a draft without much of an outline, twice, and both those books are RIP in a drawer. Coincidence? Probably not. Hence the synopsis — which I used to detest and curse at loudly, but have now come to appreciate and dare I say, love a little.

Finally, when I say I write a first draft in about 4 months that doesn’t mean the book is done. I WISH. Typically I revise for a solid month or two, sometimes longer … and that’s before it goes to my editor, after which time there are more revisions. So the path from first word to complete book is probably closer to 7-10 months per book. And during that time, like Colleen, I do nothing but think about my characters. I dream about them. I imagine what they’re saying to each other while I grocery shop. I picture scenes during my runs, or when I’m walking the dog or watching my daughter’s gymnastics class. I obsess over plot points, constantly asking myself if I’ve added enough tension to the pages. I live that book while I’m drafting, so that by the end I’ve moved from blind date with my characters and their stories, to moving in together. No, I haven’t proposed marriage yet (that comes after the revision stage), but at least I know there’s something there worth committing to…

What are you tips and tricks for getting through your first draft?






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Karma Brown is the author of COME AWAY WITH ME (MIRA/Harlequin, September 2015), an emotional story of one woman’s discovery that life is still worth living, even if it’s not the life you planned. Karma is also a National Magazine award-winning journalist, and lives outside Toronto, Canada, with her family and their mischievous labradoodle puppy, Fred.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. I just love this sentence! It’s so very true. “But along with that excitement comes the awkward realization that at any moment the whole thing could collapse and fizzle away.” Of course, I’m still feeling this way during revisions. 0_o

  2. “My point is to find time you can protect, so you get your words down every day.” This is so important, and I haven’t managed to do it yet, but it’s on my to-do list!

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