I am an advocate of intentional writing, which almost always means slow writing, but sometimes it makes sense to write a fast draft of a book – if, for example, you are participating in NaNoWriMo, have a chunk of time with few distractions, or have a fast-approaching deadline you are motivated to meet.
Writing fast still requires intentionality. You still need a plan – a clear idea of the point you wish your story to make and a grasp of the best narrative structure to get you there. That is to say, you need to know what you want your reader to walk away feeling after they read your novel and what they will walk away believing about the world or human nature. You also need to know where the story starts and ends and what the reader will be tracking along the way.
Let’s assume that you know all those fundamental elements and you’re ready to write. How do you write fast?
The main idea is this: don’t get mired in too much detail. No long descriptive passages about places or people, no finely wrought dialogue (unless you happen to be able to write that fast), no clever turns of phrases that take hours to hone. Aim to get the bones of the story in place – the character’s motivation, the arc of change, the cause-and-effect trajectory that drives the narrative from one scene to the next – and leave everything else for revision.
If your novel incudes any world building – and almost every novel does, though of course some require much more than others – you absolutely must know the key physical, philosophical and psychological realities that inform the story you are telling, but you don’t have to know, say, the details of the monetary system or who owns the main media channels.
In NaNoWriMo, fast draft writing may mean sacrificing the NaNo wordcount and not “winning.” Winning NaNo with a manuscript that has to be slashed and burned is going to feel good for about a week, and then it’s going to feel really bad as you struggle to rescue the story. It would be far better NOT to “win” but to have 30,000 words that really work, or 45,000 or 51,000 or whatever. Remember that words on the page do not make a story.
What does fast-drafting look like? Let me show you—but first, a little context.
This is a first sketch of a scene in a fantasy romance by first-time novelist Leigh Robertson. In this scene, the main character discovers a rare breed of dragon egg that will change her fate when it hatches.
The author focused on getting the bones of the scene in place, and didn’t get stuck on the details. Instead, she noted where things needed to be added later. I asked Leigh to give a little commentary on what she was thinking as she whizzed through – and her comments are in the margin.
TK, which you will see used throughout the sample pages, means “to come.” It’s proofreader-speak for anything that needs to be added. You can use it to stand in for a detail, a date, a description, or even a whole scene or chapter.
• TK date
• TK name
• TK description of town
• TK dialogue that establishes character’s authority
• TK how hovercraft are fueled for a long journey
• TK geography that isolates these people
• TK scene where Joe declares his undying love
• TK chapter where Dad walks out and Cassandra vows never to marry
What’s great about using TK as a placeholder is that when you go back to revise, you can scroll through searching for TK – and nothing else in the English language will come up. You can skip from TK to TK filling in details, and adding flesh to the bone.
Some TKs will take a simple Google search to flesh out. Others will be meatier problems that require more thought. But as long as the missing information indicated by the TK doesn’t directly impact the trajectory of the story, you don’t need it in your fast draft.
Download Leigh’s sample HERE to see what fast-drafting looks like.
Jennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.