How To Bang Out That First Draft

Today’s podcast episode features a roundup of guests and topics for the month as well as my thoughts on how to get past the neurotic need to make the first draft perfect. The transcript is below, for those who prefer to read their writing advice.

Also, don’t miss the October 1st exclusive agent and editor podcast episode available through Patreon. My agent guest for October is Melissa Edwards of Stonesong Literary. Melissa joined me today to talk about how her background in litigation helped prepare her for agenting, as well as providing the foundation for her private business, MLE Consulting. Also covered: differences between the adult and children’s publishing worlds, what “timeless” Middle Grade feels like and the benefits of working with an agent vs. going on your own.

Check out a teaser for Melissa’s episode below, and support the podcast for $5/month on Patreon to listen to the entire episode.

My editor guest this month is Olivia Valcarce an assistant editor at Scholastic. Olivia joined me to talk about how different houses function within the publishing industry, what “commercial” means, and the benefits of working with a more junior editor.

Check out a teaser for Olivia’s episode below, and support the podcast for $10/month on Patreon to listen to the entire episode.

Twitter user Meg asked me a few weeks ago to talk about getting past the need to make your first draft perfect. She said it’s one of her biggest road blocks and a source of great frustration.

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Yep, I get that.

There’s a word for first drafts – shitty. Seriously. Every author I know refers to the initial incarnation of their work as the shitty first draft. It’s sucks. It’s supposed to suck. That’s okay. I know it’s easy to say and harder to accept, so I’m going to tell you a few tricks of my own that help me get over that particular road block.

Also, make sure to tune into next week’s episode with guest Katherine Locke, whom I also posed the question to.

First of all, realize that perfection is never attained. And I do mean never. No author I know ever reads their finalized, printed books. There’s a few reasons for that. Inevitably, mistakes do sneak into finished versions of books. Typos, small mistakes, even misspellings do occasionally slip past the entire team of professionals whose job it is to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s a fact of life.

My biggest flub? In the hardcover edition of Not A Drop to Drink there’s a line of dialogue attributed to a character who is… dead.

But that’s not the only reason why we don’t pick up those lovely finished books – except to smell them. I totally smell my own books. The truth is that the path of publication is a long road. We are usually on the road promoting books that we wrote 18 months to two years ago, and typically haven’t touched the text in at least a year. Honestly, we’ve grown in that year as writers. We’ve got another year of experience under our belts, and when we crack that spine, we see things we would’ve done differently.

Fact: When I do a reading, I’m never reciting from the page. If you were following along you would see that I’m editing as I go, dropping a paragraph here, adjusting a sentence there, or tweaking some dialogue on the fly. I’m fixing it as I go – fixing the finalized product.

All of this might make you feel better – writers are never satisfied with their own stuff – but I realize it’s not particularly helpful as a guide to push you through a first draft.

Twice now I’ve heard authors share this piece of advice – “I can’t edit nothing.”


Middle grade author Liesl Shurtliff said this in her episode, and Katherine Locke’s upcoming episode echoes it. You can’t fix what you haven’t written yet. Get it out. Get it down. Throw those bones on the page and put the flesh on later.

My particular process involves writing linearly, shoving forward to the bitter end and revising later. New and younger writers make the mistake of reading their work from the beginning every time, only adding new words when they get to the end of what they’ve delivered.

This is a mistake – for one thing, you’re going to suck the life and vitality out of those first few pages, going over them so often that the hair falls out. Second, you’re going to get sick of your own stuff fairly quickly.

Avoid this by only reading what you wrote the day before. I crack out anywhere from 1000 to 2000 words a day when I’m drafting, closing the computer and calling it quits once I hit the word count goal. The next day, I read what I wrote, fixing very minor things – misspellings, word repetitions, etc – the most basic of basics.

Then, I surge ahead.

Some writers I know don’t even read what the wrote the day before, or refuse to scroll backwards for even something like a character or place name. So for example, if you’re moving right along and realize you forgot the best friend’s little sister’s name, don’t put the brakes on. Momentum is important, and once built, easy to break. Instead, use [brackets] when you hit these bumps. Put something like [little sister’s name] in brackets, and keep going.

Brackets are easy to find in the document later with a simple search, and you can fix it later, when your brain isn’t whirring away at your plot.

I even know writers who write notes to themselves such as, [put something funny here], [fix this dialogue], or [give this guy a cat]. Then – they keep going.

It bears repeating that you can’t fix what you haven’t written yet. Many people say that editing is the real work of writing. Drafting is just the first step.

Get that first step under your belt before jumping up to the second.

If you have a suggestion for something you’d like me to address in a monthly roundup dealing with writing, publishing, or questions for me in general – feel free to ask! Email me at