Kicking Out a Fast First Draft

* This post originally appeared on Writer Unboxed, June 29, 2011

A couple months ago, Sharon Bially interviewed me about writing, working, and mothering. She asked if I had any "tricks." I mentioned that I did: I write fast. Since then, I've had a lot of people ask me how I do that, and some even wonder if I should. Because I love to hear about other writers' processes, I thought I'd throw my method into the proverbial ring.

Fair warning: My process will not appeal to many of you. (Any pantsers out there?) This is not a let's-see-where-the-characters-take-me method. And you'll notice I'm not going to say anything about artistry, or the wonder of crafting a beautiful sentence. These things are hugely important to me, but I leave that for revision, which is a critical distinction.

When I talk about writing fast, I’m not talking about a fast re-write or a fast revision. (There’s no such thing.) This is about quickly putting a story on the page from which the painstaking work of rewriting and revising can begin. So, without further ado, buckle your seat belts. Here we go.

Every genre has a standard word count. MG may be 45k. YA may be 75k. Commercial fiction may be 90k. Fantasy may be 120k. Figure out your word count, and divide it in half (more on that later). For this example, I will use the YA standard and come up with 37,500 words. Then apply these percentages:

1. Introduction,wherein characters and current situation are introduced: 10% of the total word count  (or in this example, 3,750 words);

2. Rising Action, wherein protagonist faces a change of plans: 15% (5,550 words);

3. Progress, wherein protagonist works toward his/her goal and things go well: 25% (9,375 words);

4. Raising the Stakes, wherein things go awry, conflict sets in and all seems lost: 25% (9,375 words);

5. Final Push, wherein protagonist puts it all on the line, faces the climax, and reaches the goal: 20% (7,500 words); and

6. Denouement, wherein you wrap up loose ends and convince the reader that the exercise has been worthwhile: 5% (1,875 words).

Seem rigid? It is. Sometimes I break my own rule. But paying attention to this formula provides excellent pacing, and pacing is tricky business.

Next, for each of those six sections above, and keeping in mind the word count parameters, I outline the action in each section in short bullet points. Essentially, asking myself what needs to happen to get me from point A to point B. This is exterior action, not interior motivation.

Then I write every chapter I’ve outlined solely in dialogue. I don’t even put in the tags. Character A says “X” to B, B responds, C questions, A responds, go, go, go, as fast as I can. As the action points occur, I insert them like stage directions. It might look like this:

Oh you did not just say that.
I most certainly did.
Take that back.
[A slaps B, and B falls over]

Another trick I learned from my daughter, who’s blind and incredibly insightful: I can better “hear” my characters talking if I close my eyes and don’t look at the screen as I type. Try it sometime and let me know what you think. Typos be damned.

Then I go back in and flesh out out where the action and conversations take place, what the time of day is, what the weather is like, what people are wearing--ideally making the setting and details significant to the action and characters. I don’t necessarily do this in a chronological way, but rather hop around within the draft--writing the parts I feel inspired to tackle at that particular moment, thus avoiding the dreaded “writer’s block.”

If I get to some detail I have to research, I don’t stop writing to do it. I throw down an @ as a place marker. The @ sign doesn’t show up in your typical narration so they’re easy to do a Search for later. For example: @length of Lake Superior lakeshore.

What I have now is a rough first draft. The word count is about half what the finished product will be because there is still much to be explored and added, but because the initial framework is in the right proportions, future drafts will grow within that well-paced frame.


But, you see, once the story is trapped on the page, it isn’t going anywhere. That’s the trick: The quick capture. Once trapped, the story is my play thing. It’s time for the first of many, many revisions. It’s time for the hard work to begin.


*The Frame is my own modification of a formula I learned from Michael Hauge, who writes and teaches about effective screenwriting.

Photo courtesy of the LSE Library


  1. came over after reading the article--so insightful! thanks for sharing!
    • anne
      Thanks for stopping by!
  2. Anne, I needed this.--how did you know? I'm deep into my second novel (first draft) and coming up against thick walls. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and inspirations on the process. Back I go, diving in...
    • anne
      Sending warm fuzzy writing vibes your way!
  3. I originally read the article on Writer Unboxed and liked the idea so much that (1) I printed the article for my collection of writing tips and (2) added your blog to my RSS feed. This is a much more thoughtful version of the way I worked through my first drafts of two recent manuscripts. It helps to have some kind of process and goal so the work doesn't just feel hopelessly unfinished!
    • anne
      Thanks so much, Juliana! And..."hopelessly unfinished"...ugh. I hate that feeling.
  4. That's really similar to what I now do! Years ago I was a pantser; no more. Very cool post!
    • anne
      Yea! Another reformed pantser! We could start a club. Former Pantsers Anonymous (FPA)? Although...I guess we wouldn't be too anonymous now.
  5. Anne, I don't want to take another five years to churn out a book. After doing my character studies and plotting, I found this on Writers unboxed and decided to try it. Beautiful! Churned out seven chapters in three days. I'm putting a link to this on my site so my writing group can find you. Thank you, thank you, thank you--
    • Anne
      Awesome - I'm glad it's working for you, and thank you for spreading the word!
  6. Shari
    This is an incredibly useful strategy for writing, a step beyond "outline your story.". Thank you.

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