How do your favorite authors get their first draft done? Everyone has their own process for getting their story on the paper, but we’ve asked Kaitlin Felix, Lynda Loigman and Ally Malinenko for their process–and they each had very interesting answers.
How do you get your first draft done?
Kaitlin: By the pricking of my thumbs and a desperate plea for mercy from the writing gods. I am a turtle writer, meticulous and methodical, but I also have ADHD, so that’s challenging.
Sprint sessions or co-working spaces with other writers are so valuable to me. The time limits force me to make progress without agonizing. Brainstorming sessions and critique partners are also wonderful because the other person usually has a way better grasp on diagnosing an issue within a scene than I do. Often it takes one ten-minute conversation, an idea smacks, and then I move through the next piece like a thief’s knife through purse strings.
Lynda: I tend to self-edit as I go along, which forces me to move at a glacial pace. I write three sentences and then erase two.
I do not recommend this method! The good news is that my first drafts tend to be fairly complete. They still need a lot of editing, of course, but the bones of the story and the characters are there.
I usually spend some time thinking and then hit on an opening and immediately start writing. Then somewhere around the 10K-15K word marker I hit a wall. So instead of moving forward, I go back and start reworking those first 10K.
I do this over and over again, revising and polishing and then eventually I admit to myself that the only reason I’m doing this is that I honestly have scared myself out of going forward. In order to keep the book going, I start setting word counts to encourage myself. I track how much I accomplish and celebrate it.
The point of this time is encouragement and to keep the joy front and center. Then once I hit the 20K marker, things start to flow on their own and I’m usually good to the end.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Kaitlin: Plantser, because fitting into one category has never been my strong suit.
Whenever a new project begins to germinate, I usually have a picture in my head of the ending, or a particularly significant character moment. For my last novel, which is currently in editing, it was the very first line “I saw my death in the warrior’s eyes.” This popped into my head as I was folding my son’s laundry one morning. It sparked images and emotions I couldn’t ignore.
From there, I wrote a historical fantasy that I’m immensely proud of. I always have an emotional journey I want the character to go on even before I have a plot. That journey then informs the plot, and subsequently the first draft. I will outline thoroughly, but I like to leave myself room to play around.
Lynda: I’m a plotter.
I spend a lot of time thinking about my books before I write them, which often makes it look like I’m just sitting and daydreaming. Sometimes, my husband talks to me when I’m “working,” and I have to shush him and explain that I’m deeply involved in character development or some kind of plot point or figuring out a character’s motivation.
Ally: I’m a little bit of both.
I can’t start a book without knowing how it opens and how it ends and then a pivotal scene in the middle.
For Ghost Girl, I knew I wanted to open with a storm, missing people and a stranger coming to town. I knew how it was going to end (from the last big showdown to the very end scene in the cemetery) and I knew the entire scene in the woods when the kids go looking for Deanna’s bracelet. Everything in between, like the way Scratch worked and the effect it had on the other characters, all of that was just what I felt like doing each morning.
Everyone’s brain works differently. I can’t have a rigid outline because then I feel locked down but if I don’t have another stone to hop to, I’m lost. But those things work for other people.
Has your process changed from book to book?
Kaitlin: My first full-length piece, which was a Norse mythology-inspired urban fantasy, started life as a novella that I wrote for fun as a spin-off from another project. It’s probably the easiest and quickest thing I’ve ever done.
Once I realized I had something special, I went and expanded the novella into a novel. My last book, the historical fantasy, was an agony to write, but incredibly worth it. The current project I’m working on, which will be published through Outland Entertainment, is a sequel to a short story I wrote for a Norse/Muslim historical fiction anthology. This one had a full synopsis and research period before I even wrote the first word.
Now I’m deep in the drafting portion and finding it equal parts difficult and exhilarating.
Lynda: My process hasn’t changed dramatically, but every story is unique, so my process looks slightly different with each.
It’s also important to keep in mind that a writer’s life experience while writing one novel may not be her experience while writing another. I began my first novel while grieving the death of my mother. I wrote my latest novel during Covid.
These events, of course, impacted my process.
Ally: My process hasn’t changed but it’s smoother than it was. Which I think makes sense. Every book is its own thing but now I know not to try and start without that opening scene, ending scene, and pivotal middle part cause otherwise I’m just wasting time.
I also try to approach each writing morning feeling joyful about what I do, feeling excited. Even during the hard parts.
I spent 7 years writing a book that did not sell and I was so broken from that I almost quit writing all together. Then I decided to go back to the stories I loved as a kid -the middle grade spooky stories.
How do you set aside time to get your first draft done?
Kaitlin: I’m a full-time mother, a full-time homemaker, and a full-time author. I also live in a country that isn’t home for me, with a language I find challenging. So it’s an adventure!
I have carved out a good routine for myself. I write in the mornings when my son goes to school, break for lunch when he comes home, then when he goes off again I have a couple of hours to wrap up the threads of what I did in the morning.
Lynda: When I wrote my first book, I had one child in middle school and one in high school. It took me a long time because it wasn’t my priority (and, honestly, because I didn’t know what I was doing). Now, both of my children are out of the house, so I can set my own schedule in terms of writing.
I know this is a luxury, and I’m extremely grateful to have so much time to do what I love.
Ally: I’m a really big believer in schedules. They don’t work for everyone but for me -who has a day job -I get up at 4:45 in the morning and write for two hours before I go to work. I don’t write after work because if I have a bad day I find that I use it as an excuse to not write.
In the morning, nothing has touched me yet. No bad news. No bad emails (hopefully). Just me, the quiet of an early Brooklyn morning, the clack of the keys and a cup of tea. But that is time spent typing. Not just writing. And by that I mean, I also walk to work in the morning and that time is just as important.
When I’m walking I think about what I did this morning, what I have to do next, where the story is going, what problems I need to sort out.
I had a friend who used to say, “When your brain gets stuck, move your feet” and I think that’s wonderful advice. So yeah, remember, writing isn’t just typing. There’s more to it than that. A lot more. All of it counts.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about getting your first draft done?
Kaitlin: The best advice I ever received was that it’s ok to not write.
Creators are often the most self-critical, perfectionist, and prescriptive when it comes to work and productivity. And if we’re neurodivergent or disabled or marginalized, that can be especially true. The draft will still be there tomorrow, and you will finish it.
Guilt is the enemy of creativity.
Lynda: When I wrote my debut novel, I was enrolled in an adult writing class. My teacher told us that to be a successful writer, the most important thing is to finish your story. If you don’t finish it, no one can read.
Keep writing. Keep pushing forward.
Ally: Everyone says this but that’s also what makes it true. First drafts are awful because they’re supposed to be.
You need to get the words down so that in revision and edits you can fully build the story you wanted to tell when you first had the idea. I’m going to repeat the wonderful advice that Shannon Hale gave which is something like “Writing a first draft is filling the sandbox so you can make castles later.”