This isn’t your story’s final form.

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This isn't Your Story's Final Form

  • A guide to writing your first draft
  • Sarah Johnson (anobi)
  • Have been doing NaNo for 6-7 years
  • Learn from the writing experience
  • We like to read, we like to see these beautiful, finished stories.
  • You like to have a perfect first draft, but...
  • Writing is a process; it starts as something smaller, it gets transformed, then it becomes a finished product.
  • What you read isn't what you write. This is true for every published book.


  • Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
  • Lord of the Flies - originally had actual magic and a Christ-like figure named Simon (the magic was removed)
  • J K Rowling changed the tone of her first book (was supposed to be a horror story)
  • The finished product won't be what you start with.

Writing is a journey

  • Explore your story. Start with your idea and grow with it.
  • Use NaNo to discover what is important with the story. NaNo lets you flesh things out, to discover what you really want.
  • Things you write aren't necessarily related to what you have planned. The explorations give you ideas, paths to explore later. Some of these can become flavor tags.


  • The more you do, the more you write, the more you think about what you're going to say, the easier it will be to get those ideas.
  • Keep on writing.
  • It's okay to rewrite scenes (but don't delete what you wrote the first time). Keep all the word counts.

Remember what is important

  • It is easy to get sidetracked when you're writing.
  • Remember what is important--in every butterfly of a story, everything seems to work, but this is the finished product that went through several rounds of editing.
  • This goes back into your personal reasons for writing.

Why are you writing?

  • For yourself?
  • For others? When others are reading your story, they're not looking for words but for the emotions you're evoking, the idea you're exploring. So what are you trying to say, to convey?

What is more frightening?

  • Telling a bad story?
  • Never having your story told at all?
  • Only you can tell your story. You're the only person who can tell this in the entire world. So focus on what you want.
  • We could fail in telling the story, but it is at least told.

Words don't matter

  • Exact words don't matter. You can't tell a story without words.
  • The characters you bring to life, the story you tell--that matters.
  • The words that you use aren't the important part (yet).
  • You will remember the epic tale.

Think about one of your favorite stories

  • What do you remember about that story?
  • Specific words?
  • ... or the themes, emotions and ideas?
  • Why?

Words are expandable; your story is not

  • It's not the words that matter, no matter what people say. It is how you make people feel reading your story.
  • Proof:
    • Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
    • Steinbeck's Irish setter had eaten half of the first draft
    • If words were important, we wouldn't have Of Mice and Men
    • But it was the story, the emotion, that mattered.
  • Find the balance

Write Terribly

  • You are encouraged to write terribly; this is at the core of every novel.
  • Ernest Hemingway: The first draft of anything is sh*t
  • No story springs full-formed from anyone's head.

Write All the things

  • We've heard: Show, don't tell.
  • But you should: show AND tell
    • tell what happened
    • then tell how it happened
  • You can always go back and add the extra stuff later.
  • Explain everything. Take tangents and describe the architecture.
  • Explain how you want it to feel for the audience; this is your first draft, it doesn't have to be perfect.
  • As you explain things, you will discover ideas that will help you tell your story better.
  • Leave notes for yourself.
    • e.g., if you forget where you want to go
    • stream of conscious writing down: I wanted the character to do X; I don't know how to do that.
    • in the process of writing notes to myself, I will come up with the answer
    • Leave yourself notes of what you want to happen in a scene
    • You don't have to describe it in detail (yet); don't slow down your creative process.
    • move on to the next thing

Embrace the bad writing

  • Tell yourself beforehand your story will be bad.
  • Sometimes you don't know how you can salvage it.
  • The editing process can help.

Editing is your friend but save it for later.

  • Don't delete your words
  • You can have a separate document for deleted/cut scenes
  • When validating the novel, include everything you've cut from your novel.
  • NaNoWriMo: The actual act of writing a novel is a small part of the lifespan; you'll spend more time editing.
  • It's okay to write things you know will be cut.
  • Go ahead--it's fine; still write the scene. Everything you write will help you (will give you a better idea of how your characters interact, of the setting and sociology. Write everything and explore it.
  • Don't worry about POV, tenses, plot holes.
  • Write what you are thinking.
  • If you have a main character, don't be afraid to break away and see what someone else is thinking. Many novels can have secondary character POVs here and there.
  • Final form will emerge only after writing and editing.
  • November: Looking for catepillars.


  • Q: Not necessarily the process of writing; do you manage your time differently during NaNo?
    • A: Yes; I try to get the not so important stuff done before NaNo to prepare (getting oil changed in my car). Interruptions in NaNo can be an issue. Stock your fridge with food. Stay focused on NaNoWriMo in November.
  • Q: How many hours a day do you write?
    • A: Two during the week; more on the weekends. I type 80-90 words a minute.
    • write-ins (online or in-person) and word wars can help.
  • Q: Do you count words in notes you leave yourself in the wordcount?
    • A: Yes; those notes you write and the scenes you cut help you write your story. If you're a professional athlete, you'll be practicing a lot. Everything you practice helps you perform.
  • Q: Writing 2 hours a day; is that a 2 hour chunk? Or do you break it into smaller chunks?
    • A: I try to do a two hour chunk. The idea is the more time you spend on one topic, the more efficient you'll be in it. Otherwise, you are spending more time realigning your brain. Cutting out breaks can spend more time focused.
  • Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
    • A: I'm primarily a plotter; I will write all the scenes and character reveals in notecards and arrange them into chapter sections. As I write them, I'll see a reveal doesn't fit; I'll move it to a different chapter.
    • Exploration and iteration: you can learn to do that in your heads over time.
  • It's okay to write things you know will be cut.
  • Never throw anything away; one of my prologues became a short story that was published.
  • You can write fan fiction, alter the characters and then create an original story.
  • Include what you write during NaNo.
  • You could try exploring your ideas; write what you want to happen. Problems you don't know how to solve. Think about ways to solve those problems.
  • You can always write "SCENE MISSING" and keep on going and figure it out later.
  • Plotting ahead can help you with that.

Where are you?

  • Sarah - Setting; three characters and no plot; some themes. SF futuristic dystopia--in the military, people have power suits. A small group splinters away, overclock their armors to win themselves an edge. Now they are hunted both by aliens and the mainstream people. Want the novels to be uplifting.
  • Tim - Memoirs instead of fantasy and science fiction.
  • Sam - NaNo rebel; rewriting the ending of my series.
  • Jenny - Fantasy: entirely plotted (usually a pantser). Taking fan fiction tropes and sticking original characters in there. Will likely do 20-30K shorter stories and have a collection (goal: 1.5 complete stories during NaNo). Have marketing plans for these books.
  • Anna- Completely rewriting story I tried to write last year (fantasy); world will stay mostly the same but have changed most of the characters' names. About half are plotted out.
  • Ellie - Fantasy YA (totally new for me). 2014 novel was a sci fi (research was a nightmare). Didn't do any research; techno-thriller (heavily based on technology and real science). Left holes for filling in research later; but the research didn't allow the plot to work. Do research in October. Science Fact vs. Science Fiction webinar. Premise but no plot yet. Supervillains.
    • Could do soft SF
  • Elaine My last NaNo will become a series. Characters are still talking. YA, historical fantasy. Research is needed (some of it has been done). Two 15 year olds, one from the present, one from the 1890's near Waco, TX (have a wealth of material from that area and time period). A dream world fantasy to connect them. Very character driven in what I do. Many things to keep track of. See Crash and Crush on Youtube: two steam locomotives were crashed deliberately as a promotional stunt by the railway. The youtube is really cool. Did a little research. Will see how the story will work. Some pantsing and plotting. The feelings have to come through. Having the girls work out their problems is a plot.
  • Have taken some writing courses in the past, most short stories. Have been reviewing those, looking for themes. Planning to do something about coming of age, a young woman in a very disfunctional family in NY. Lived there. All based in reality.
    • the more characters and places in your story, the longer your novel will be
    • note cards for characters are helpful
  • Last year did a steampunk, time travel, historical piece; have gaps in it. Finished but it is shelved. This year will be doing a YA modern day black beauty; a 14 year old girl tames a horse her grandmother picked up from a slaughter auction. Her journey becoming more confident.
  • Annette - Haven't written fiction; was in broadcast journalism then wrote articles on different topics. Victorian period story.
  • Janine - First NaNo. Mystery (first time). Need a motive for a murder. Method (poison) is known.
    • Two primary motives for any homicide: money or love
    • Okay to use a trope; sloppy writing is better than no writing
    • mysteries are hard
    • you can start with the solution, fill in the pieces
    • can't stop writing
    • love, money or psychosis
  • Doug: NaNo is enticing; scandavian corporation about open source, with someone who goes around killing because of ...
  • Yolanda: Will take my novel from last year and rewrite it form the antagonist POV (he is very weak; want to strengthen him as a character. SF (hero is lost in orbit). Motive: young, self-centered character who wants things his way.
  • Eileen: Did SF last year; will do it again this year. Space opera. Inspired by an article: closest inhabitable planet to Earth: Proxima B. Story starts when interplanetary police officer bargains with someone to go with a character who turns out to be a criminal. Intergalactic parking meter enforcer.
  • Daniel - Have done NaNo for several years. SF and Fantasy. Have had difficulty finishing the story, even after 50K words. Going back to the Vicious Planet, a story I tried a couple years ago. Too much missing. Couldn't get through it. Have a better idea of where it is going. Original main characters are now supporting characters.
  • Lisa: First NaNoWriMo. Write for a living (corporate writing and speech writing). This is out of my comfort zone. Have had an idea for a year, but don't know how it will begin or end. Borders on fiction/non-fiction; a look back at life. As I am getting older, seeing how I got here. No idea about plot or character. Just a thought.
  • Molly: Wrote 50K words late last year. Ended up in the middle of my story; will now write the other 50K. Fantasy.
  • For perspective: The Hobbit is 100K words long.