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From the Blog: 5 Tips for Fast Drafting from a New York Times Bestselling Author


NaNoWriMo is basically an exercise in fast drafting: getting as much of the first draft of the story as you can on the page as quickly as possible. Today, bestselling author J. Elle is here to share some pro tips for fast drafting:

My first middle grade novel took me nine days to write. 

The first draft was about 40,000 words or so. And yes, it needed to be revised before it sold to a publisher. But the meat of the story was on the page in just over a week’s time. I’d never drafted anything quite that fast before. Within a single month I’d written an entire novel, revised it a couple times and readied it for sale. A few months later that novel sold at auction and will be on shelves May 2022. 

I still look back on this feat with a bit of shock and awe. To date I’ve sold five novels to major publishers, two young adult, two middle grade and one non fiction and my experience fast drafting has forever altered the way I approach writing. I should mention, fast drafting isn’t for everyone. Writing is such a personal thing and each storyteller has their own process, but in the event getting the first draft out is the biggest hurdle for you, like it is for me, I’m going to share five tips for knocking out that first draft in record time. 

1. Start with a SHORT story pitch.

Pitching a story in a few words is tough. But it’s a worthy effort and the best use of your time before you get any words on the page. Why? Because it helps you hone in on the core of your story and its hook. A good short pitch involves the character, their dilemma, and a hint of the stakes. In October of 2018 I pitched my YA debut novel in a tweet which then blew up. Not many words can fit in a tweet, but by choosing the right set of words, I was able to convey the heart of my story and it really resonated. (From that tweet, I signed with a literary agent and sold my debut novel to a Big 5 publisher in a six-figure-deal.) The biggest favor you can do for yourself is understand the story—its essence, its core—you’re trying to tell before you start drafting. And that’s hard. But the more you play around with creating a short pitch, you’ll begin to see a clear snapshot of what your book is going to be about. That’s your jumping off point. 

2. Expand your pitch into tent pole beats.

From your short pitch, spend some time deciding on what your major beats are. Now, yes this is a bit like outlining. And for you pantsers out there, I empathize with you. I was a pantser and still am in many ways. But I still do this step because this step ultimately saves me time. The beauty of fast drafting is that you know what you need to do when you sit down to type. So a lot of these steps are about doing pre-work so that when you sit down to type you’re not spinning your wheels to figure out what to type. Instead you’ll have a clear goal and you’ll be ready to execute it. Also, note that the goal isn’t to perfect each of these steps, but instead to try to do each step, to the best of your ability, and in a way that makes sense. 

I could write an entire piece on beat sheeting novels (which I love and do for all my books), but for the purposes here, I’ve organized the main things you want to know below in a series of questions. Simply answer each, make a chart if you like that sort of thing, and once you have each question filled out in a way that logically makes sense, move on to the next step. (NOTE: It’s a good idea to get feedback on this step if you have critique partners and fellow writers you trust.)  

  • Opening Scene - Who is the character before the world changes?
  • Inciting Incident - What happens that forces them to make a choice, changing their lives forever? What are they choosing between? 
  • “A” Plot - What is that choice they make? What are they pursuing or working toward? Finding information? Going on a quest? Uncovering the truth behind a murder?
  • Stakes - What are the stakes of the “A” plot? What’s at risk if they fail to accomplish whatever they’re pursuing? It should be something that personally affects them or someone / something they care about. 
  • “B” Plot / Character - Who or what is the theme of the story? What character in your story is going to embody that theme and play a key role in helping the main character change?
  • Midpoint - what happens in the middle of the book to change the character’s direction. Usually it’s some bit of new information or they realize things are not as they seem. 
  • Stakes Raise - How do the stakes (what’s at risk if they fail) raise after the middle of the book? 
  • Character Arc - what does your character believe about the world in the beginning of the book that by the book’s end they will no longer believe? (An extension of this question is: what things can happen in this character’s life to facilitate them incrementally learning this big truth? If you don’t know this question right off, that’s okay. But this is a question you want to go back to every now and again, even after you finish the first draft, to ensure your character is actively involved in a plot that is resulting in their change.)
  • Failure - How will your character fail big? This happens at about the 75% point of the book and it's the final moment of failure, usually, before they pick themselves up off the ground (figuratively or literally) and learn the lesson they’ve needed to learn. There forward they act on their new belief to the end of the book, demonstrating how they’re changed. 

If you’d like a more in depth look at how to beat sheet a novel, I strongly suggest reading Jessica Brody’s Save The Cat Writes A Novel

3. Flesh out your beats into a detailed synopsis. 

Now the fun part! This step is the most helpful thing you can do to enable yourself to fast draft. 

Write a mini version of your story, also known as a detailed synopsis. The key to writing synopses is not to worry about the voice, but instead what happens. Try to convey what happens and its impact on the character to show how the story moves from tent pole moment to tent pole moment (per the step above). This takes some trial and error and you may get annoyed with yourself because it’s not as easy as it seems. But, I’ve seen that if you can write a compelling and cohesive synopsis, the draft that you execute will be far stronger and more efficiently executed. 

Definitely get beta feedback on your synopsis from writing friends you trust. It’s worth going over this a few times to get it right. In terms of length, aim for 3-4 pages for a middle grade novel and 5-10 pages for a young adult or adult novel. These are just general guidelines. My latest YA novel required a fifteen page synopsis and I am very glad I did it because it conveys the tone, arc, and plot of the novel and the main plot threads quite well, which allowed me to draft the first 23,000 words of the story in five days. 

4. Summarize each scene. 

(Note: a chapter can have more than one scene.)

Okay, we’re getting really close to writing! Now that you have a mini version of your story, consider how you will break it up into scenes. This doesn't need to be perfect, but spend some time figuring how to stretch your synopsis into a full novel. Give each scene a short summary. Aim for a few sentences, no more than a paragraph, just so you know what needs to happen in that scene (or scenes). Do not skip this step. I repeat, do not skip this step. This step allows you to sit down and execute the scene without figuring out what to write. The “figuring out” part is where a lot of writers slow down. Do that in the summaries so when it’s time to draft you are ready to execute, not sort out details. 

5. Write with a goal in mind.

Plan your writing days. I’m not talking anything extensive here. Just grab your phone calendar or a post-it note and write down which days you want to do which scenes. Then on writing day re-read that summary and execute it. If you’ve done all the pre-work the words will fly from your fingers. Don’t worry about grammar, typos, reading back what you did. Insert fillers such as, “TITLE” or “NAME” for details you haven’t worked out yet. Just get the scene that you’ve summarized out. The goal is to finish the draft. After that is when you make sure it all works together through revisions and fill in the details. Right now the goal is finishing the draft. It literally just needs to exist! 

If you’ve done all five steps, pat yourself on the back because congrats, you’re ready to fast draft! Don’t hesitate to tag me on socials if you try this method out and it works for you. I’d love to hear how it goes!

J. Elle is the New York Times bestselling author of Wings of Ebony. Elle has a Bachelor’s of journalism and an MA in educational administration and human development.  She grew up in Texas, but has lived all over, from coast to coast which she credits as inspiration for her writing. These days the former educator can be found mentoring aspiring authors, binging reality TV, loving on her three littles, or cooking up something true to her Louisiana roots.

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