Writing Your First Draft

My mentor books have given me inspiration
throughout the years. I still refer to them often.

By Linda Wilson     @LinWilson

When you know the type of book you want to write, start reading. Not only will you learn a lot, but you’ll have fun—guaranteed. Keep a list of the books. Take notes. Haven’t written anything other than school assignments? No worries. Experience helps, of course, but it is not necessary. What is necessary is a willingness to learn and a willingness to take some knocks as you navigate all there is to know about writing for children. Sage advice I learned from an editor: writers who succeed may not be the most talented, but they are the most determined ones who never give up. 

While reading your book choices, do a little research on genres. The biggest categories in genre are fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. That’s where the generalities end. There is every type of genre known to man/womankind. You can pick one or make up your own. But decide during this stage so you’ll know who you’re writing for—who your audience is. Your choice could and most likely will narrow down your book choices. If your book idea doesn’t fit into any category, there will still be books similar to what you have in mind. Seek those out.

While you're doing your research, it's a good idea to look into resources to help make sure your idea is viable before you continue. 

Choose Five Favorites

Once you’re satisfied that you understand the genre you’ve chosen, pick 3-5 books from your reading material that you liked the best. Expand your notes on them. Decide what those authors have accomplished to make you like their books so much.

In my own pursuit of writing mysteries for young children, the books I read were all children’s books. A criteria that developed during my reading gave me the insight to understand why I chose certain books over others as my favorites.

  • The book was thoroughly enjoyable to read. I loved the story and looked forward to getting lost between the covers.
  • The book was fun and enlightening, allowing me to dream a little while reading, and filling my head with the most wonderful thoughts and desires.
  • The book stirred my creative juices which spurred creative ideas of my own.
  • The book left a message and kept me thinking about the message after I finished reading it.
  • Keep in mind that mentor texts don’t have to be on your subject. Seek out the mentor texts that help you reach your goals, even if they are off topic.

Favorites Turn into Mentor Books

There were many other reasons I loved the books I selected. Reading them as an author, not as a child of course, the list gave me something to strive for, goals to try to reach, in my own writing. 

Taking the Plunge

Of course, you’ve already got an idea for your story/nonfiction book or article. If you don't, which is what happened to me when I started out, pick a topic you care about, a topic you will enjoy learning about. Look at what others have written. Topics are narrow. You don't want to choose something so big that it would be unwieldy.

While it’s a good idea to hold off on writing too much in this phase while studying the market, you can take notes on how to develop your idea. Also, you can be researching your topic. And, you can go sit under a tree with your purple notebook and dawdle, doodle, and play around with your idea. No need to get anything down in concrete yet. That comes next.

Outline or Pantser

You’ll know when you’re ready to get down to work. This is a crucial stage, one I have struggled with. And one I hope to help you with, so you can circumvent the pitfalls I've fallen into.

But first, decide whether you work better writing as a pantser, writing "from the seat of your pants," or writing from an outline.” If you’re a pantser, start writing. Write the whole book/article. Editing can come later. 

My preference is to work from an outline for both fiction and nonfiction. I think outlines save time. And outlines can be adjusted as you get deeper into your story. For me, nonfiction outlines are relatively easy to write, as material seems to fall in place. Fiction is harder.

If you are an outliner, after you’ve made a list of characters who will most likely take part in your story, decide where your story will take place and the time frame. I suggest using 3x5 cards; use each card to describe a scene.

For me this is a fun process. The cards are easy to fill in and easy to edit. Writing is sketchy on the cards. You can fill in the details later. But getting the story/nonfiction down on cards makes way for your next step: finding the structure you will need.

When you are ready to structure what you’ve written, if you haven’t already, refer to the vast resources available, such as Save the Cat! By Jessica Brody, and You Can Write for Children, by Chris Eboch, who is a terrific writer and editor who belongs to my Albuquerque Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, SCBWI, chapter.

I edited as I worked on my first book. It was a mistake. The story took a much different shape later on, so I wasted a lot of time editing parts that weren’t even used. I strongly suggest you disregard all editing until you get the entire first draft done.

If you keep your quest as simple as possible, you will get your story/nonfiction book or article off the ground. Future steps include seeking out writing organizations such as SCBWI, which offers many resources, critique groups, and lectures and conferences you can attend.

The second book in my Abi Wunder trilogy
is on the brink of publication. Stay tuned!

Linda Wilson is the author of the Abi Wunder Mystery series and other books for children. Her two new releases are Waddles the Duck: Hey, Wait for Me! (2022) and Cradle in the Wild: A Book for Nature Lovers Everywhere (2023). You’ll find Linda on her Amazon author page, on her website at LindaWilsonAuthor.com, and on Facebook.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, thanks for this detailed and insightful article on starting a first draft. I like that you mentioned the first step is to read. I attended a workshop last year (it was either through Highlights or SCBWI) and the instructor said she periodically took out 50 books (it might have even been 100) from the library in the genre she wrote and studied them. I keep attempting to do that also, but always get sidetracked!

Terry Whalin said...


Thank you for this excellent article about writing your first draft. I don't believe I've read this information from others. Reading is always the first step to stir what you will write.

author of Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Revised Edition) [Follow the Link for a FREE copy]

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you Karen and Terry. Good point, Karen, to keep reading in our genre.

Build Your Brand

  Contributed by Margot Conor While you are writing your novel, or even when it is just an idea in your head, start to build your brand. Res...