The gallop draft: 5 smart tips for writing a useful draft at speed

gallop draftNovember is when web-aware writers get their speed boots on; NaNoWriMo is afoot. We’ll see growing wordcounts reported around the tweetwires, in the forums and Facebook groups. I’ve never formally Nanoed, but I’m definitely a fan of the fast first draft. Here’s why.

It’s not just about speed for its own sake. It’s about harnessing all possible oomph from that initial ride of discovery with the characters. This draft is when we first make them speak and act instead of viewing them from a distance in note form. I’ve found a fast, intense blast is the best way to capture this in full vividness.

I’ve also learned what disrupts the flow – so here are five tips to keep the ideas coming.

1 Ignore the language. If the perfect wording comes to mind, fantastic. But my main aim is to write what I see, and that’s a scramble in itself. I just get it in the can. In any case, those scenes might be repurposed in edits, given to different characters, the roles may be swapped. Buffing the nuances would be a waste of time. So I don’t worry at all about whether my prose is fit to show around. I just hurl it onto the page.

2 Postpone the research. There are two kinds of facts you need for a novel.
1 The facts to check your story events are possible, or to find ingenious surprises from the special conditions of the story world. Usually we sort these out while we’re outlining.
2 Smaller details that arise while we’re writing the scene. Oh dear, you need to know what pall-bearers wear? No you don’t, because it doesn’t greatly affect what anyone will say or do. I scrawl a note in square brackets – [find out] – and continue to channel the action.

3 Don’t worry about factual consistency within the book – did this event happen on a Thursday, and was it twenty years ago? In most cases, you don’t need to sort your timeline out as you draft. Again, a short phrase in square brackets will allow you to flag it for later.

4 Or what characters look like. Eek, you’re writing your main character’s ex-lover for the first time. Or your main character. What do they look like? What’s it like to be in a room with them? If you haven’t already thought about this, you might grind to a halt, go squirreling off through Google, looking for actors who have the qualities that you’d like, or other things that help you visualise. But you don’t need to know this now. Write [what does he look like] and carry on as if you already know.

5 Or the beginning. You can’t know what the proper beginning of the book should be until you’ve polished the draft multiple times, so don’t fidget and dither about it now. Write a scene that roughly does the job – and you’re in.

Thanks for the lovely racehorse pic, Paul on Flickr

3nynsThere’s more about drafting tips, outlining, beginnings and describing characters in the Nail Your Novel books. And if you’re as partial to equines as I am, you might like this 🙂

Do you have any tips for smart drafting? How detailed are you about your first draft, and are there any tasks you leave until later?


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  1. #1 by mansaramjogiyal on November 1, 2015 - 7:57 pm

    I’m always afraid to language because my English is very poor,Thanks for shearing this article!!!

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 2, 2015 - 7:38 am

      Hi Mansaram! I hadn’t thought about the situation where you might be writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue! I think another writer has also raised this point below and come up with a nice solution.

  2. #5 by victoryrock on November 1, 2015 - 8:34 pm

    Yes, thanks for posting this. I’ve just wrapped up day 1 of NaNo, and although I don’t need the challenge to write a first novel, I’ve embraced it as a way to get moving quickly on a follow-up novel to the one I’m about to publish. Day 1 has been easy, as I’ve geared up my starting gate with good oil. It’s day 15 that will be the challenge, and the reminder to keep on writing with a focus on story and moment rather than letting myself linger on language and detail is going to help a lot.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 2, 2015 - 7:39 am

      Glad it helped – and it’s handy that you know day 15 will be your wall. Ride on!

  3. #7 by acflory on November 1, 2015 - 10:00 pm

    I was tempted to do nano again this year, but I’m just starting to get a feel for the second half of my current WiP and don’t dare allow myself to be distracted. That said, I’ve done pretty much what you recommend, Roz, in my previous nanos, except that I do edit just a little. Sometimes important plot events can hinge upon a word. -shrug- Mostly though I just spew words onto the page. Great fun. 🙂

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 2, 2015 - 7:42 am

      Hi Andrea! I forgot to mention the ‘no editing’ rule! You’re so right. That should have been 6 points.
      Like you, though, if I think of an edit that is incredibly important – for instance a pivotal phrase – I do go back and add it. But I don’t get involved in the scene again, or start thinking about it analytically and critically. A swift dive-bomb to add the new idea, then it’s forwards again.

      • #9 by acflory on November 2, 2015 - 10:51 am

        lol – I’m a failure! I do get caught up with distracting things, but in nano I type them in and leave them as part of the wordcount. So nice to be able to ‘cheat’ without cheating!

  4. #10 by Kinza Sheikh on November 2, 2015 - 4:30 am

    I even go as far in the rule one as, I was busily writing and was completely into a scene this morning. When their came a scene where a word was just coming in my mind in my own language. I bracketed that word in my language, when I finish my first draft. I will go through all those brackets and find the good English words that capture the essence I was trying to find.

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 2, 2015 - 7:43 am

      HI Kinza! I like your example here. And I bet sometimes your native words seem to have the more perfect nuance for the situation. Thanks!

      • #12 by Kinza Sheikh on November 3, 2015 - 7:14 am

        It sure does. But it is really fun in the editing process to dig in my thesaurus (happen to be good ol’ and find a word that capture it’s essence perfectly. I am the rare breed who really enjoy just making your novel more neat and gripping in editing process with the worries of plot lines and story structure out of the way.

        • #13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 3, 2015 - 8:38 pm

          I enjoy the editing too. I love the sense that I’m building and discovering new nuances that I couldn’t possibly have found in the early drafts.

  5. #14 by mrdisvan on November 2, 2015 - 8:33 am

    Marlon James says there is no point in polishing a first draft itself, but that of course you need to have a first draft in order to move on to a second, and a third, in order to close in on the work you’re trying to create. NaNoWriMo’s value is in getting the blank page turned into something from which the final novel can eventually hatch.

  6. #16 by SSpjut on November 2, 2015 - 11:58 am

    Reblogged this on SSpjut | Writer's Blog | Stardate and commented:
    Getting the story down is the hardest part of writing it. Roz Morris sharing what she does to get that first daft done.

  7. #17 by gibsonauthor on November 2, 2015 - 1:43 pm

    Reblogged this on s a gibson.

  8. #18 by amariesilver on November 3, 2015 - 12:21 am

    Great advice!

  9. #20 by DRMarvello on November 4, 2015 - 1:30 pm

    You offer an excellent check list, and I needed one. Thanks. I have a great deal of difficulty shutting up my internal editor during a first draft, and these tips should help.

    Since I switched to Scrivener, I’ve stopped using square brackets and started using the built-in “Inline Annotation” feature. It lets you mark text you want to review later as easily as you would make it bold or italic. During revision, you can search the project for all annotation text. It isn’t really that much better than using square brackets, except the annotation formatting makes the things you need to revise stand out more. I use the default settings, which turn the text red and put a border around it.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 4, 2015 - 8:58 pm

      Hi Daniel! I love hearing about these Scrivener features – then working out how to do it in Word. I guess a comment would accomplish the same thing. Or a colour.
      But it’s interesting that you use the term ‘inner editor’. I used to think the inner editor was a question of confidence, a little voice saying ‘it’s crap crap crap’ as you were struggling to get anything out. Now I think there’s a subset of the inner editor, which is saying ‘but you don’t know this yet, stop everything to find out’. Glad my tips helped!

    • #22 by DRMarvello on November 4, 2015 - 10:38 pm

      I see the inner editor as the voice that stops my forward progress and starts evaluating, revising, or questioning anything I’ve already written. It’s the shift from right brain creativity to left brain analysis. That definition is probably unconventionally broad.

    • #23 by DRMarvello on November 4, 2015 - 10:53 pm

      As for creating the effect in Word, I would set up a character style (not a paragraph style), and name it “Annotation.” I’d then set the text color to red and add a red border to it. I’d probably create a shortcut key for it at that point. Ctrl-shift-A is what Scrivener uses, and when I tried that, the combination was available in Word. Getting it to “toggle” like bold and italic would probably take some macro work. You could use Ctrl-spacebar to clear the local formatting, but that would also clear any other effects like italic or bold.

      Since Word lets you search for text by style, it would be easy to find your annotations later on during revision.

  10. #24 by biancaherdin on December 15, 2015 - 3:39 pm

    Wow this is so me! I never reach my daily target because I’m always going off researching, finding pics, going over and over the same sentence to make it better, etc. I do everything you mention! The end of the day arrives and I hardly have anything to show for it. I’m going to try and change it from right now and follow your tips. Fingers crossed I finally end up actually writing ha ha!

  11. #26 by Angelica Hopes on November 1, 2016 - 8:55 am

    Thank you for the excellent tips. I was laughing on the point #4 Or what characters look like – for me in the current romantic comedy WIP ms – my subject is a blend from reality (including a footage I made in Dec. 1, 2007 hahaha) and an actor to camouflage it towards fiction.

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