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3 Essential Tools for Drafting Your First Novel

There are far too many articles and books out there telling you which software to use to write with. I don’t want to be “that guy” and add to that, so this article is just the three things I tell everyone who ever asks.

There are far too many articles and books out there telling you which software to use to write with. I don’t want to be that guy and add to that, so this article is just the three essential tools tell everyone who ever asks.

Not that there are just three things, I have a whole course on preparing you for the first draft, after all, but these are the essentials. The things you can’t reach the finish line without.

Without these things, I wouldn’t have finished any of my novels. And because I’m a crazy person, it takes me a long time to get from idea to published book. But that might be because I put aside my completed drafts for half a year until my mother asks when I’m going to edit it and publish it. (It’s because I’m distancing myself from my baby, okay. You can’t make necessary changes if you’re too close to something.)

And here they are, the three essential tools for drafting your novel:

Essential Tool #1: A “roadmap” of your story

Even if you’re not a “plotter,” you can’t keep your story on track unless you have some sort of idea of where you want it to go.

At the very least, know where your story ends before you write. That way, you’ll have a point to reach no matter how much you meander to get there.

white and black signage

My roadmaps are complete scene outlines for every scene in my story. I don’t do structural edits because I know the story’s pretty solid to begin with. There might be a few comments here and there about consistency (time of day was one in Crimson Prince) or clarification (Ancient Greek names in Out of the Grave), but for the most part the outlining I do beforehand ensures my roadmap is clear from the start.

This can be as simple as a few key moments you want to include, so you write up to each of those points, or as complex as I make it and list and outline every scene included in the story.

Whatever works best for you is probably the one to go for.

This is one of my essential tools because it was only by creating a roadmap of my story was I able to finish a draft.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different methods; I’ve somehow combined the outlining processes of Kristen Kieffer’s Pre-Writing Project, K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel, with my recent fascination of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.

It’s just taken me years to get to this point.

Essential Tool #2: A “running list” for changes you want to make

This goes hand-in-hand with fast-drafting, but the second of my essential tools is pretty applicable no matter what major project you work on.

The idea behind it is simple. You want to finish your project. And you don’t want to keep going back and making tweaks every time you have a new shiny idea.

If you make numerous tweaks, you don’t get any further along the road and your project falters to a stop.

By making a running list, you’re telling yourself you’re aware of the changes you want to make. You’ve written them down and can continue writing your novel. You can fix the draft once it’s there on paper.

person writing on white paper

My running list for Du Lac looks like this:

  • Change Gawain → Gwalchmei
  • Cloister courtyard → enclosed grass
  • Change Guinevere → Gwynhwyfar
  • Change Arthur → Arturus
  • Joyous Gard is in Northumbria. It takes two weeks to get there from Camelot on horseback.
  • Check Camelot Castle where throne room & great hall are.

I realised halfway through fast-drafting that last one. It wasn’t pretty when I realised the throne room wasn’t the same room as the great hall.

But at least it’s something I know now and can correct it when I do the edits.

I tell anyone who asks (my mother, for one) that they need to make a note and move on.

I’ve said it before:

You can’t polish the turd if you don’t have a turd to polish.

So use the running list of amendments and keep writing until you reach the finish line. And only then can you go back to change your Love Interest Arm Candy’s dress to something only a prostitute would wear. (I see you, action films, I see you.)

Essential Tool #3: The urgent need to tell your story

I think this one is the most essential tools of all.

grey and white cat with mouth open

If you don’t want to tell the story, why are you wasting time writing it?

I’ve had a few moments where I’ve doubted why I’m even bothering with an idea. I’ve shelved so many projects because I didn’t think they were good enough.

The one thing that helped these books become books was my urgent need to get this story out there in the world.

It’s cheesy as fuck, but it works.

My desire to tell this story to was stronger than my anxiety over telling it.

It’s something many authors struggle with. But no-one seems to talk about it as openly as they do outlining and plotting your novel.

If I hadn’t had that itch to write, that burning need to tell the story, I wouldn’t have finished the stories I have (six at the time of writing). Of cause, there’s also the pre-writing, but without the need to find some way to tell the story, nothing would have fallen into place.

Fear of failure drives quite a few authors to quivering wrecks at the thought of sharing their work with the world.

The public only ever thinks of the end result when they think of writers and books.

They assume the words just flow onto the page. And suddenly a fairy waves a magic wand and the book appears fully bound on a shelf in every Waterstones in the land (or Barnes and Noble, for my American friends).

No-one ever stops to wonder how the words get there. Or what happens if there isn’t a magic unicorn to turn you into an overnight success.

We nervous wrecks must accept where we are and ask ourselves, is this a story I want associated with my name? We must accept that not every story will become a bestseller. And we must understand that writers must write is a terrible excuse made by people who don’t understand that not every story wants to be told at that moment.

So I have a pin board of Shiny Ideas, some of which are series ideas, of story I want to tell, but aren’t quite there yet. Once I’ve got the Lancelot Trilogy drafted, edited and published, I’ll work on the next one.

I believe authors, real authors, are people who can’t help but to tell stories. We’re the people who care too much, we think too much, and that’s why we tell the stories we do. That’s why the dire urge to write is on my list of essential tools.

What’s the point of an author who doesn’t want to write.

assorted stickers

What use are my essential tools for you?

If you want to write your own stories, you can’t just jump in feet first and expect to run right out of the gate.

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. And you only get out of it what you put in.

I’m not here to tell you how to write your own novel. I’m here to say you need to slow down and think.

Whatever software (or hardware) you decide to use to write your novel, remember to have these three things on hand so you know your story’s first draft is the best it can be.

  1. You can’t produce a cohesive story if you don’t know where your story’s going.
  2. Your story won’t go anywhere if you stop and start over the tiny details you think of every three seconds.
  3. You can’t write a story if the story isn’t burning its way through you for you to tell it.

Just something to think about.

Another of My Essential Tools Helping You to Plot Your Next Best Novel:

I don’t believe in clichés, so everything here is something you can take away and use right away in your own stories.

If you want a more in-depth look at plotting a novel, check out my three-hour masterclass, “The Plotting Procession.” It’s expanding on this three-step plan of crafting a plot so you can write your next best novel.

By buying the masterclass, you receive for free a 74-page companion textbook complete with prompt questions and worksheets, a checklist entitled Things to Do Before You Draft Your Novel, and a 3-page worksheet I called Quick And Dirty Story Details.