Student Spotlight: 5 Lessons Learned from Writing a First Draft
Do you ever wish you could see a behind-the-scenes look at how other people write? Or that you could hear from other writers who have gone before you?
Well, I have something super special for you today. I reached out to some of my Notes to Novel students and asked them to share the number one thing they learned about writing a first draft, while actually working on their first drafts.
In this episode of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast, you’ll get to hear from real writers who are in the trenches, actively working on their novels—and in many cases, these writers have finished at least one draft, some have finished even more than one.
So, I think it will be very fun for you to hear how they did it, plus some of their biggest takeaways from the actual drafting experience and how the Notes to Novel course helped them get to the end. So, without further ado, let’s go ahead and dive right in!
And the first writer we're going to hear from is Kelsey Evans. Here's what Kelsey had to say about writing her first draft:
Kelsey Evans: Hi everyone! My name is Kelsey. I'm from Philadelphia on the East Coast, and I write adult fantasy. I have been working on a story for about two years.
And I wrote, you know, 10,000—11,000 words, and then was completely stuck because I had no idea where the story was going or how to figure out what else was going to happen in the story. I have read a lot of similar books. I've read a lot of books in other genres, but I was never able to figure out the path that my writing needed to take to create a story that held together—that had narrative fidelity, that made sense, that worked. So for me, module four of Notes to Novel was the absolute game changer.
It was like I had been blindly wandering around a room with the lights off, and then all of a sudden, someone turned on the light and handed me a map. And they said here's how you get from A to B, and from B to C, and from C to D. And so, learning how to create a flexible outline—one that, you know, had all of those key moments, those plot points that readers expected from a novel in my genre… It meant that I was able to still be really creative and still figure out different plot twists and still have a really interesting discovery kind of draft. But to do it in a way that allowed me to look at my story as a whole—but also to show me how to get from each of those goalposts to the next one.
And for me, that was the thing that has made just the absolute biggest difference. And I'm so, so grateful because I'm no longer wandering around in the dark without a flashlight. I'm still able to make adjustments because the outline is never really finished, so it allows me to kind of flex that creative muscle and see where things could go.
But within the framework of a story that will make sense—a story that will work. And so, the entire Notes to Novel course was just hugely eye-opening for me—learning about genre, and learning about scenes, and crafting compelling protagonists and antagonists—the roles that people play and all of those things were all immensely helpful. Not just in my work in progress, but just my understanding of the craft as a whole. In particular, the outline section was just like the biggest a-ha moment for me.
And it's something that I still come back to even though I'm in the drafting stage right now. I still come back to the lessons that we had in module four. I go back and watch them occasionally just because for me that was really the thing that has made the absolute biggest difference in my writing—and it makes me excited about my story again. You know, it’s really hard to sustain that kind of momentum when you don't know where things are going.
And it also doesn't take any of the creativity out of that just because you have a framework to work within. It just means that that's where you get to be creative. And you'll still learn things in your discovery draft that, you know, may not have popped up in your outline. But on the whole, writing now feels fun and exciting and also productive rather than kind of just meandering around without any kind of structure in place.
Savannah: I love what Kelsey said about having a framework to be creative within. And I think that's so important. No matter what type of structure you decide to use for your book, it's always helpful to have some kind of framework.
You might like this article: How to Outline Your Novel with the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet or this article about genre frameworks.
My favorite thing that she said was learning that this kind of structure could actually make writing fun again. Because I don't know about you, but I think that's the worst feeling when you know that you did love your story… You know that you were excited about it… But for some reason, the flame has just died out. It’s not really a good feeling.
So, to know that something like story structure or having a framework to work within can help you get back that excitement and fun—I don't know if that's something that we would all naturally think about. So, I think that's really cool that Kelsey pointed that out.
And personally, I am a plotter, so I love having that type of structure. But you know, no matter where you fall on the plotter pants or spectrum, I think it's always a good idea to try something new when you're feeling stuck. So thank you, Kelsey, for sharing those words of wisdom!
The next author we’re going to hear from is Stefanie Medrek. Here’s what Stefanie had to say about writing her first draft:
Stefanie Medrek: Hi, my name is Stefanie Medrek. I write YA action-adventure, and I’ve been writing seriously for just over two years now. I’m currently working on my second full-length novel. And when I took the Notes to Novel course, I had a lot of takeaways, but the two most important ones were probably: magical revisions and Savannah’s module on writer’s block.
So, I'll talk about writer's block first. I had a baby this past year, and after I tried to get back to writing (after the newborn phase), I had a really huge struggle with writer's block. I would sit down at my computer and I'd be staring at the screen and I wouldn't be able to get the words to come out.
I was lacking creative energy. So, in the Notes to Novel course, Savannah talks about what to do when you’re facing writer’s block. And she says that you should just sit down and write anyway. You don't necessarily have to write an entire scene, but you can just touch your book in some way.
So, she suggests things like maybe writing a journal entry to have a conversation with one of your characters, maybe writing some dialogue, or even doing something like formatting a part of your book. Anything you can do to touch your book and to make some progress will help to move you forward and keep you going towards your goals.
So, I found that this is really great advice. I started doing that every single day. Sitting down to write, even if it's just 100 words, even if it's not a part of my story… If it’s just maybe some backstory for one of my characters, or something like that. And it has really helped to power me through this period of writer's block and to get my creative juices flowing again. So, that's probably the biggest takeaway I had from the Notes to Novel course.
The second biggest takeaway that I had that really helped me was the idea of “magical revisions.” When I wrote my first novel, I got really bogged down in all of the minutiae of researching things and going back to edit scenes I had already written. If I made a change to a character or to the plot that was going to affect scenes and chapters that I'd already written, I would go back and make those changes.
I was really worried about keeping things “good” before I would allow myself to move forward. But in the course, Savannah teaches that you should not do that. If you want to finish your first draft, and if you want to finish it quickly, the best thing you can do is to utilize “magical revisions.”
And that means that you make a little note, you drop a little TK (which is like a little marker that lets you know where all of these magic revisions are in your draft—because the letters T and K are not found together in any English word. So, you can use the search function to find those really easily)... So, you drop a TK, you make a note of what your revision is, and then you write forward as if you've already made the changes associated with that note.
And doing this makes my writing go so much faster. So, writing the second book—although I haven't written many scenes for it yet—I have utilized magical revisions and things are just going way faster. Which is important because with a new baby, I cannot write as fast as I once did. So thanks to the idea of magical revisions, I am able to make so much more progress than I would otherwise be able to make.
So, those are the two biggest takeaways I had—using magic revisions and how to deal with writer’s block—those were really helpful to me.
Savannah: Magical revisions are one of my favorite tools to use when I'm writing my own drafts. And Stephanie did such a good job explaining what magical revisions are. So I won't even tackle that.
But the one thing I want to call attention to is how she said that even when you're feeling a little bit blocked or like you don't have that type of energy to write a new scene or work on your story in a super serious way… I like how she said to just make sure you're at least touching your draft as often as you can. So, whether that's everyday or every other day or whatever, it ends up being for you.
And one of my favorite exercises to do is to actually journal from your antagonist perspective. And I think this is fun because you can get in their head and just think about what they want and why they want what they want—and just how they became the way they are. So, really, just spending a little more time with them getting to know them better. If you're feeling a little bit blocked right now, maybe give that exercise a try.
Thank you, Stefanie, for sharing your two cents!
You might also like: Stefanie has been on the FWME podcast before! Click here to check out her episode–and to hear about how she finished her first draft in 6 months (and then landed an agent 10 months later).
The next writer we’re going to hear from is Angela Haas. Here’s what Angela learned while working on her first draft:
Angela Haas: Hi everyone! My name is Angela Haas, and I am coming to you from Colorado Springs, Colorado. I write primarily space opera books—so, think like Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, superheroes in space kind of thing. I love the thriller genre, action—adventure, anything like that. That's primarily where my focus is. I published my first space opera novel in June of 2022 and I just finished drafting book two in this series.
What I love about Savannah is that she presents information in a way that, for me, it's just so easy to absorb. When she says, “here's what we're going to talk about in this podcast” or in this course, she goes right into that and there's no tangents or deviation. She presents her outline and she follows it. I love that because sometimes I lose my focus if presenters are going off on tangents or going like super meta or cerebral into a concept and then I’m confused, so I have to restart or go back to really understand what's happening.
And that's why I took the Notes to Novel course because I was really excited to take a deeper dive into some of the things Savannah's already talked about on her podcast. When picking an aha moment for me… That's pretty difficult because the whole thing was like a series of aha moments!
But what really helped me, I guess, was what she was talking about in module five, where she's talking about writing scenes. And one of the lessons (lesson three, I believe) was about showing versus telling. And that is a concept that I understood to get through my first book, but when she really laid it out and she says, “it's not what you think.” And I was like, okay, well what is it…?
And she was right! It's not what I was thinking this whole time. It's really a combination of things, and it just stuck with me—the way that she presented it. I was like, oh okay, this is easy for me to implement now. Because I was really struggling. And for a while, when I'd write a scene, I was just throwing some body language in with some thoughts. But it's just much more intentional than that and it's such a combination of things. You'll be excited to learn about this once you take the Notes to Novel course.
But it’s something that stood out to me because I was thinking, okay, showing versus telling, you've gotta throw some body language in. But she says in that module that body language only goes so far. And you know, a character may slam their fist on the table or clench their jaw, but I promised you, the reader will feel nothing. And I was like, oh wow, really? Because I'm guilty of doing that! And when she presented it like that, it stuck with me because yes, you have to do some of those things, but you also need to weave in thoughts and you also need to weave in a little delayed reaction. It's just a combination of things that really shows the emotion of the scene and really gets the reader wrapped up in what your character is going through instead of just merely… Here's what I'm showing you they're doing.
And that for me was such a powerful change for how I can implement that into my writing. And it made my writing a lot easier because it helped me to think a little bit more about the reader’s experience. And being intentional instead of just throwing some body language out there hoping that the reader will understand. But that was just one in such a short time. I mean, I'd need like three hours to really talk about all the aha moments I got out of taking the Notes to Novel course! But that showing versus telling thing was really helpful for me, and it will be for you, too.
Savannah: That is a really fun tidbit! And I'm so glad Angela brought this up. Because I do think a lot of the advice we get about show don't tell tends to be a little bit siloed. So it kind of says, show what your character's doing or, you know, use those sensory details to really put the reader in the scene. But like Angela so nicely put, it’s about more than that. So something I teach in the Notes to Novel course is about interiority. And we're going to have a podcast episode coming up about that.
But basically interiority refers to how your point of view character subjectively processes events. So really it's their thoughts and their feelings. And this is something that I see a lot of drafts are missing. So I won't go too deep into this here, because like I said, we're going to have an episode on interiority coming up. But I think that's really great that this was able to help Angela so much. And it's one of my favorite lessons in the whole course, too.
So, thank you, Angela, for sharing your words of wisdom with us!
Okay, the next writer we’re going to hear from is Bree Cox. So, here’s what Bree had to say about what she learned while working on her first draft:
Bree Cox: Hi, I'm Bree Cox coming to you from the wonderful Midwestern city of Wichita, Kansas, and I write YA sci-fi. I grew up poor, so my parents said if I wanted to write as a profession, I needed to at least major in something that made money. And they didn't say how much money—which I think they maybe should have been more specific—so, that's how I landed in journalism. And there's not a lot of money there, but I guess, you know, it met the criteria of someone.
My first dream was always fiction, and I joke that my second grade teacher ruined my life by telling me I should be a creative writer when I grow up. So I guess if I finish this book at 45, then maybe I'm finally a grownup. But I guess that's probably debatable. And luckily I'm writing for teens, which is really my level of maturity, so it works.
After 10 years of struggling to write this novel, Notes to Novel course changed everything and got me to the end. Not once, but multiple times, which really is the goal, right? Every time you make it all the way to the end, you add in that dimension and complexity you really want to see in your writing.
That beautiful prose will always be there. You have to trust that. I didn't trust that. And that's really for the last run through. You just have to trust that you're a good writer, and then when that time comes, those beautiful words will show up.
I identified as a patser when I started writing, and I followed the advice that you only need to see as far as your car's headlights in the dark to keep moving. But it turns out that I was personally driving in circles for like a decade, so that advice was complete crap, at least for me. I was editing and re-editing the first 25 pages of my story for years, much of which I ended up having to throw out anyway.
Of the million aha moments that Savannah's brilliant, useful, and practical Notes to Novel course gave me, I'll talk about just two and they sort of flow into one another. So the first one is to invest in a flexible outline and the second is to write in scenes.
Even though I identified as a pantser, the outlining process not only helped me make sure each scene moved my character and plot forward—meaning it wasn't boring to my reader—this is a fun and creative process. So, I was surprised by that and I could play with it and pressure test ideas. Like what if this happens? Or, oh, what if this twist comes in, then what? How does that affect the rest of my story? And I could see how plot threads interacted and get an executive overview of my story so I could get control of the moving parts.
So, I moved from being an employee of my writing to the president.
It freed me up to be even more creative with words and imagery, actually, when I sat down to write, because I knew where I was headed.
And I identified my internal external genres and layered those in. And it allowed me to see the shape of my story and how it rises and falls. And then I could layer in my subplots and those key scenes. And before I knew it, I had a blueprint to write a really plot rich story that knows where it's going and why.
And if that all sounds really daunting, don't worry. The Notes to Novel course walks you through how to do it step-by-step. And it's actually easy once you break it down. And Savannah helps you to do that.
The second big thing for me is writing in scenes and making sure each scene had the five components needed to drive the narrative forward. I actually posted the five parts of the scenes over my computer. I am looking at it right now and I reference it every like 1,500 words I write. Does it have an inciting incident, a turning point, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution? And if those five components are unclear, the Notes to Novel course breaks it down for you. So it's super helpful.
Then I make sure each scene links to the plot or the character arc and that it solves part of the puzzle and challenges my character's worldview. So, those were my two big takeaways. Make a flexible outline and write in scenes. And those help me get from the endless spiraling to moving all the way to the end.
I highly recommend the Notes to Novel course so you can get a handle on those concepts and many more. It really takes examples and practice for you to develop your own unique writing method that works for you, and Savannah gives you the roadmap to do that. Good luck out there. I know you can do it!
You might also like: How to Write a Compelling and Well-Structured Scene
Savannah: So, that's our advice from Bree… And I'm so curious… Did anybody else grab a sticky note and write down what Bree said about how she moved from being an employee of her writing to the president!? Because I thought that was so cool! And I definitely wrote that down. So thank you for that advice, Bre, because I think we all do want to become the president of our own writing. And after working with so many authors, I know that this can be the case. And Bree here is proof of that.
So, thank you for that advice, Bree!
Our next piece of advice comes from Kara Kentley, and here’s what she had to say about writing her first draft:
Kara Kentley: Hi Savannah. Thank you so much for having me on. I'm really excited to be here !My name is Kara Kenley. I live in Virginia and I took the Notes to Novel course in November of 2021. I write Contemporary Romance because I love love!
I had always wondered if I could write a book and I’d always wanted to write a book. I'd had this story floating around in my head for quite a while, and it was pretty well developed (in my head anyways), and so I sat down and wrote it.
I just wrote it off the top of my head over the course of about three and a half weeks, I wrote a full hundred thousand word novel. Then I went to revise it and I realized it had a bunch of problems. What I wrote wasn't bad, but it could have been a lot better.
So, I started revising… And I read a lot about revising, so I thought I would be able to do it. And I realized that the second half of my novel was not as good as the first half, so I started trying to fix that. Then I rewrote the second half like a couple times and thought…. This isn't going anywhere. I really don't know what I'm doing.
I stumbled upon Savannah's podcast and became a devoted listener because her podcasts are perfect for while you're walking your dog, which I had to do every day. I could just listen to one of her podcasts.
Then one night I go on her website and realize she has this Notes to Novel course and thought, okay, I should look into this and see if this might help me. So I signed up for it and my original plan was to go into it and revise that first novel that I had.
But then when I started out the course, I’d had an idea for a second novel and thought that maybe I should start from scratch to see what it was like to start a novel from scratch. Because that that might help me revise that first thing I wrote.
So, during the Notes to Novel course, I worked on my second book, and we started out with a whole lot of exercises on things such as why you want to write this book, what your theme was, character development, and those kinds of things. I found a lot of that to be hard! And thought like… Okay, should I be doing this? This is so hard!
But the work that I put into all of that really made it easier to outline and then easier to write. So, I was really grateful for that part of it. But for me, the biggest aha moment in the Notes to Novel course was structure.
My original story that I wrote definitely had some structure and scenes flowed and things like that, but there were also saggy parts. And parts that didn't really add anything to the plot or the conflict. There was a lot of dialogue that didn't maybe need to be dialogue, too. So, what I learned in the Notes to Novel course was a whole lot about putting my thoughts into a structure that would work to move my characters and plot along through an arc that made sense and that went along with my theme.
And so for me, that was a big takeaway and a big moment where I realized that structure in a novel sounds really intimidating, but when broken down, it's actually doable. And so that was kind of what I took away. The outlining process is how you're setting up that structure. And, during the Notes to Novel course, I outlined my second story, and then after the class was over, I sat down and wrote it.
And I will say that writing it was a lot easier when I knew where I was going and I knew why it fit in with the structure and what the ultimate goal was. So, my second novel, I wrote, maybe not as fast, but definitely much more thoughtfully, and in the end I felt like the structure of it was better.
I'm one of those people that doesn’t want to revise immediately, so I'm going let it sit for a couple months before I get back to it. So since then I went back to that first book, and really pinpointed what some of my issues were and now I'm working on revising that, which is really turning out to be rewriting large portions of it. But I know that where I'm headed and my scenes are so much better than what I originally wrote because everything is moving forward and pacing towards the conclusion of the book. And it all relates to the theme. And so that's the big thing that I got out of the Notes to Novel course.
My advice to someone thinking about taking the Notes to Novel course is that it's a great course and you can get a lot out of it. But to do that, you're going to have to put a lot into it. So, take the course when you have the ability to put into it what you need to put into it. There’s a lot of it you can do by yourself. So, if you've got time, you can do it whenever it works for you—you can do it in your pajamas or whatever. But do it at a time where you can go through these modules and do the work in them.
I highly recommend going to the live Q&A sessions or at least listening to them—everything's recorded so that you can listen to it at a time that works for you. I found at the Q&A’s that, Savannah of course, answered questions I had, but I also found that I loved the Q&A’s because I got to see my other classmates and hear about what they were writing and what they were struggling with. And when she was answering other people's questions about what they were struggling with, a lot of times, I was struggling with that too. Or in the future I realized, hey… I'm struggling with this now, and so-and-so asked about that in one of our Q&A’s.
And you know, Savannah makes the material available to you all the time. Even after you finish the class, you can still access the material. So I go back to that material sometimes to find things that might be helpful in where I am in my journey now. So I'm so glad I took the class and I use what I learned every single time I sit down to write.
Savannah: Thank you so much for sharing your words of wisdom, Kara!! I'm going to highlight something really important that Kara touched on here. And that is the idea of attending these live Q&A's—even if it's not through the Notes to Novel course, just attending some kind of writing event... There are a lot of free ones out there… Where you get to hear what other people are asking or what other people are struggling with, or, you know, just a behind-the-scenes, look at what someone else's process looks like. All of that stuff can be so helpful. Because most writers are sitting alone in their houses, writing by themselves. And writing a book is not something that we're just talking to friends and family about all the time, right? So it really is important to find your community—whether that’s inside the Notes to Novel course or in another writing community. There are a lot of great ones out there.
I have a free Facebook group that you can join by clicking here. Or you can search for the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast on Facebook and request to join.
But either way, I do think this idea of finding a community is so important. So, I'm really glad to hear that Kara touched on that as well. And if you don't already have a community, maybe put that on your to-do list for this week or this month.
Okay, so our very last tip comes from a writer named Casey Drillette. And here’s what Casey had to say about writing her first draft:
Casey Drillette: Hi, my name is Casey Drillette. I am from Fort Worth, Texas, but I have lived in Asia for the past 10+ years—half of it in China and half of it in Thailand. I write fantasy and romance books. That feels very powerful to say that because I haven't actually finished my book yet, but that's where I'm going in life. I think if I could like mash the words together, I would call it the genre of “romantisy.” But pretty much fantasy and romance.
My biggest takeaway, from the Notes to Novel course was the major key scenes and how those are structured within a plot and broken down in the acts. In my previous writing endeavors, I had always had these ideas and I would write, write, write, and then I would get so incredibly stuck and… I guess it's writer's block. But it felt more like the story had just died and I had no idea where it could go from here. It's like I don't even understand how to get from this point to the next point. And it seemed to elude me, like how that process worked. How do authors get from point A to point B and onward?
So, when I went through the course, we learned about the key scenes and the different genres and how there's like an inner genre and an outer genre and a commercial genre—and then how they interact with each other. And how you can layer the plots with their own genres and key scenes within it—it just made so much more sense.
I spent a lot of time on an outline. I have my key scenes in place, and so currently in my writing journey, I am in the writing process. And so, well, I won't say I'm a full-on planner. I think a lot of things I'm doing would still be described as “pantsing.” But I am now “pantsing” with a direction. So, that is really helpful because I have a full outline with scenes. I guess I say I’m a pantser because I don't have a lot of my side characters decided on or fleshed out or anything. So, we’ll see who’s going to join the party as we go. But the key scenes have made a world of difference in how I conceptualize the story, and how I've planned this outline—it's helped my writing process so far.
When I get stuck for a day on one scene, it's great because I just move onto the next scene. I don't have to think about, “oh, where does it go from here?” I already know. So, I enjoy having that kind of outline and the roadmap I got from the Notes to Novel course.
Savannah: I really like what Casey said—especially how she said she identifies as a pantser—and if you're a pantser, you've probably been listening to all these tips going, okay, do I really need to outline, and my answer to questions like that is always just do what works best for you. So, I really like how Casey was kind of saying that she took bits and pieces from the course and then she kind of made them her own. So, she picks up tools when she needs them and then she puts them down when she's in her rhythm. So, I think that's really cool. And I think that's something that we can all do. You know, use the tools that work for you, but don't force yourself to use something that either you don't understand, or that you don't like, or that's not helpful for you. So thank you for sharing that with us, Casey!
Want to follow Casey’s writing journey? You can follow her on Instagram @caseydrillette.
Thank you so much to Kelsey, Stefanie, Angela, Bree, Kara, and Casey for coming on this episode and sharing your biggest lessons learned while writing your first drafts and from going through the Notes to Novel course.
If you enjoyed this episode, go check out the social media or the websites of all the different authors we had on today. Say hello and give them a high five for sharing their stories with us!
And if you are interested in learning more about my Notes to Novel course, click here to sign up for the FREE masterclass—The 5 Little-Known Mistakes Most Writers Make (and What to Do Instead).
The training is about an hour long and it’s totally free. And at the very end of the masterclass, you’ll hear all about the Notes to Novel course and how you can enroll.