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  • Holly Brunnbauer

Writing a first draft - Lessons & Tips

Updated: May 6, 2023

Writing a novel (or thinking about it)?

Searched the far corners of the interwebs for the best approach?

Read every craft book until your eyes bled?

I have.

The good news is, I’ve found what works. Huzzah!

The bad news is, what works for me might not work for you. Soz.

But I’ll share it anyway, just in case.

A woman typing on a laptop with a coffee and lots of plants beside her.


The first time I attempted to write a novel I was under house arrest (aka – Melbourne’s lockdown) with two tiny kids. When I wasn’t hiding from them, I was tapping away on a keyboard trying to get to the finish line of my first rom-com novel.

My “process” was to write one word after the other. Simple, right?


Being the Virgo that I am, I agonised over EVERY-SINGLE-WORD. Sometimes I’d spend a whole day crafting one paragraph.

When it came to editing, I learned a hard lesson. All those pretty words were gone-gone-gooone. Maybe 10% made the final cut. Ouchies.

I would also go back and pick at my manuscript like a scab. Other times, I’d go on a writer’s rampage and slash scenes that weren’t “perfect”.

The main thing I remember is that it felt hard and finishing it seemed impossible.

When I eventually got to THE END, I promised myself I would do better next time.

Did I? Keep reading.



Plot Outline

The second time around, I plotted—heavily. Don’t roll your eyes, Pantser; I used to be you and now I will never wing it again. Knowing where I’m heading means I can foresee plot holes and swerve them. Less structural editing—yay!

Does plotting suck the joy out of writing? Nuh. My characters still go rogue. Sometimes I rein them in and other times I go with it and adjust my plot accordingly.

Scene List

Once I had my Plot Outline, I listed all the scenes and then divided them into chapters. Some people use post-it notes or cue cards and I tried this approach, but it wasn’t for me. Good old Microsoft Word did the trick.

Did I create a detailed plan for every scene? Pfft ... no. That was future Holly's problem. And now that I'm in the future (cue ambient space music), next time, I will be doing that in the prep phase to move things along faster in the writing stage.

Character Development

I wanted to know my protagonist inside out before I started. I created a snazzy character profile using Canva. Was it an elaborate procrastination activity? Probably. But it was also a lot of fun and useful. See pic below.

Goals, Stakes & Obstacles (GSO)

Some writers refer to this as Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. However, I watched a Masterclass by Golden May where they explained it in a way that finally clicked in my brain. So, I’m sticking with GSO.

If you don’t plot or do character development beforehand, that’s your prerogative, but I insist you at least think about the internal/external goals etc. for your protagonist/s. These are the building blocks of a ripping story and it’s excruciating to retrofit them during editing. Believe me, I know …

First Draft Planning Summary

  • Plot Outline

  • Scene List

  • Character Profiles

  • Goal, Stakes & Obstacles


Scene Goals

I swear this post isn’t sponsored by Golden May, but thanks to another one of their mind-blowing masterclasses, I have a better understanding of scene structure. They laid out the steps that every scene needs and I have taken to it like gospel because it makes sense. I even went as far as creating a Scene Goals Template, and before I write any scene, I spend 30 minutes filling it out.

Basically, the template is about what your character wants in that scene and making sure they don't get it, because if they do, the story wraps up and it’d probably be boring as hell. We writers must torture our characters. We must!

Writing Sprints

I used to spend hours chained to my desk and not having much to show for it except a sore back. Now, I do 40-minute sprints and force myself to have breaks. And by breaks, I mean mind-numbing housework and child wrangling. But it works, people. IT WORKS!

I went from struggling to get 3000 words per week to 3000 per day. On my writing days, I usually do 4-5 sprints, and half of those are done before the kids wake up. Yes, I’m one of those wanky morning writers. Don’t hate me.

Here's my writing sprints method-

1. Set an intention for the day (e.g. write 3k words) and note it in my journal and on my whiteboard. Sometimes I verbalise it on Instagram stories because I find public accountability/humiliation highly motivating.

2. Reread the Goals, Stakes, and Obstacles document to keep them front of mind. If I’m feeling lost in the story, it’s usually because I’ve veered away from these.

3. Spend 30 minutes filling out the Scene Goal Template.

4. Set an alarm for a 40-minute writing sprint and put my phone in another room. One, because then I’m not tempted to doom-scroll and two, having to step away from my desk to turn the bleeping thing off, enforces a break.

5. Keep my fingers moving the entire time. I write everything that comes to mind. That’s why it’s often referred to as a “word vomit” draft. I don’t stop to research, edit, fix grammar/spelling or reread. The more I do this, the better I get at letting things go.

6. Enjoy it and experiment. The first draft is the most creative phase of novel writing. I let my imagination run wild.

7. Don't push through when the alarm goes off. Breaks = breakthroughs. My best ideas rarely come to me when I'm hunched over a desk. They appear in the shower or when I'm washing the dishes. If I can’t solve an issue, I walk away and wait for it to percolate in my subconscious and eventually it bubbles to the surface.

8. Repeat the sprint & break cycle as many times as I can until I’ve achieved my daily goal.


There is no right or wrong way to write a first draft. Find what works for you. The main thing is to keep at it because typing THE END is orgasmic.


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