The DuplicatesAnatomy of a Novel – Installment 5

The First Draft


In the first four installments, I spent a lot of time covering all the work I do before I start trying to get words on the page. With The Duplicates, as with my other books, I just trusted my process. And I knew the idea would let me know when I was ready to begin creating a solid first draft.

Now, I had a good understanding of the book I wanted to write, had a solid outline to write from, and had my characters down.

As part of a series, the characters were somewhat easier to finish since I’ve spent a lot of time with several of the major players. But even recurring characters require planning for two primary reasons:

1) Consistency – I want them behaving in a manner that readers expect. The last thing I want one of my readers saying is something like “Merlin would never do that.”

2) Revealing Layers – Recurring characters give you the opportunity to peel away additional layers of the personality onion. While I strive for character consistency, I’m always looking for ways to introduce a bit of new backstory or alter a character’s series (long-term) arc. What I do want my readers saying here are things like, “I didn’t know that about her.” Or “Yeah, I can see Doc doing that.”

I had several others characters that were new and needed time to emerge before I started writing. I needed to create a multi-dimensional villain and other minor characters to help advance the story in some places.

And as you’ll see when you read the book, I had another layer of complexity to deal with given the Vanya, Ralphie, and Jeremy characters’ uniqueness.

The final outline that emerged from literally months of thinking and scribbled notes took me about 80 hours to complete. The outline was around 14,000 words and had close to 80 chapters, plus an Epilogue. The average word count of each chapter outline was around 150 words. Some, like the one I shared in the previous installment, were a bit longer. Others were quite short.

I ended up combining some chapters to help with the pace and The Duplicates ended up with 73 chapters, plus Epilogue.

And Away We Go

On April 5th, at 9 AM, I sat down at the desk in my upstairs office and created a new Word file. The cursor immediately started blinking at me from the top left corner of the screen. I grabbed my outline, read the first chapter outline, then looked back at the screen.

Frigging cursor; still blinking.

Yeah, I know you’re all very familiar with this one. Whether you write books, films, presentations, speeches, whatever, the blank page is intimidating.

I even have trouble with grocery lists from time to time.

Particularly intimidating are the first lines of a new book. They’re important, and I tend to struggle with them and end up fiddling with them right through final draft.

Trust your outline to get you rolling.

For The Duplicates I wanted to do several things with the opening.

* I wanted to introduce the murder.

* I wanted everyone to know Eve had plans to commit it and wasn’t feeling bad about it.

* I wanted to plant the short-term memory concept early since it plays a major role in the book.

* I wanted a touch of humor consistent with my voice.

In short, I wanted to do a lot in the first few lines.

Here’s what I ended up with:


Eve had well-entrenched plans to kill her husband.

Just not tonight in this condition.

Killing the philandering son of a bitch was one thing. The way she saw it, she’d be doing the planet a favor. But offing the bastard while soaked in a Shiraz-fueled haze that possessed the power to eliminate recall might make it impossible for her to savor the memory as the years passed.

And that would be tragic.

Eve laughed and chugged the last of her wine.

Yes, temporary memory loss, not the death of her lame-ass excuse for a husband, would have been the real tragedy.


That’s the final version, but the first draft was pretty close. I spent about a half-hour on it before I was satisfied that, for a first draft, it worked.

The rest of my first day was pretty much smooth sailing.

As were many of the other 47 days I spent writing the first draft of The Duplicates.

Thank you, Outline.

Now is probably a good time to provide you with some of my writing metrics.

First Draft Metrics

•48 consecutive days writing
•205 hours total writing time
•91,842 words
•1,913 average words per day
•448 average words per hour
•7 average words per minute

And here’s my Daily Output Log. I started keeping one of these for each book, and I find it very helpful. And it only takes a couple of minutes to set up and manage through the process.

It’s also a great ‘in-your-face’ reminder if you aren’t doing the work.

And while writing is an amazing creative experience capable of producing great books that people want to buy and read, in the end, it’s about words on the page.

It’s all about word count.

That is unless you’ve figured out a way to get people to fork over their hard-earned money for a collection of ideas running around your head.

first draft chart

I’m not sure if the Daily Output Log provides any real insights other than demonstrate that I wrote every day, showed steady progress, and my daily word count increased as I neared the end of the first draft.

I attribute that to the fact the book was dominating my thoughts, even during the times I wasn’t writing. And I knew exactly where it was going, and my characters (and outline) were, by now, doing most of the work.

In the end, about 95% of my outline was solid and ended up in the book. The other 5% was related to a small plot change I made with one character. It was an easy tweak to make, and it made the book better. And the change made it possible for me to other things with the character in subsequent books in the Damaged Po$$e series.

How Good Does The First Draft Need to Be?

That’s a great question and it’s different for all of us. I know some authors who strive for a near-final version in their first draft and incorporate a lot of the editing process into it. Others hammer out the first draft to get the story down, then fix it all later.

I fall somewhere in the middle, although I’m moving toward getting as close to the final version as I can in the first draft.

I start my writing day with a review of the previous day’s effort. I read it once, then pull out my outline, and use the lens of my 4 Cardinal Rules.

Here’s my Outline Template again as a reference point.

Outline template blank 7-3-16 copy

On the morning of Day 2, I read the 1,601 words I wrote for Chapter 1, then reviewed the chapter outline. On the template, you’ll see my 4 Cardinal Rules on the right side. Without spending a lot of time on it at this point, I review the first chapter to see how it’s working with each Cardinal Rule.

Advance Story?


Reveal Character?


Generate Emotion?


Develop Theme?

Nope. But I’m not dealing with the theme during Chapter 1, so I’m good.

3 for 3.

I’m a happy guy.

Onto Chapter 2.

Review outline.

Find a sentence to make the frigging cursor move.

The Fixables

Fixables are those minor annoyances we all struggle with during the writing and editing processes. They can be particularly annoying during the first draft.

Awkward or long sentences that sound great as you’re writing them, but aren’t working. And clumsy dialogue that’s not doing anything except take up space.

Should I let it go for now? Should I try to fix it? Delete it? Take a break? Go to the pub?

Damn, he’s shrugging when he should be shaking his head.

She’s smiling, but shouldn’t she be pissed off at the moment?

Does she make enough money to drive that Mercedes? If not, how comfortable is she carrying that much debt?

There are countless types of Fixables.

Clothes, weather, the color of the sky, all the atmospheric elements you’re trying to work in.

Whenever I get stuck mid-chapter or even mid-sentence, my first question is whether or not it’s a Fixable.

If it is, I usually let it go and move on.

If it isn’t, and is impacting one of the 4 Cardinal Rules, I’ll stop and try to get it right before I move on.

I don’t spend much time worrying about Fixables during this part of the process.

When I do, I find myself burning a lot of time. From experience, I know, even if I stop to fix it, it stands a good chance of getting changed again during a later round of edits. I’ll mark it up in Word, so I’ll remember it, then move on.

I’m sure you have your own take on how clean your first draft needs to be.

And as I said earlier, my approach keeps evolving.

But I’ve learned: the better the outline; the better the first draft.

And I encourage you to give the 4 Cardinal Rules a shot if you aren’t already using something similar.

They work.

When you’re finished with your first draft, celebrate, then get back to work. You’re just getting started, and you have a long way to go.

In the next installment, we’ll be dealing with the editing process.

Yeah, I know.

Everybody’s favorite.

Right up there with the dentist and tax audits.