What is a pre-first draft and why do I write one – Natasha Lester

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By Natasha Lester

I am an inveterate pantser when it comes to writing. Every other part of my life is organised with lists and charts but whenever I try to coax my writing ideas into anything resembling a plan or an outline, the idea curls up and dies. So I’ve come to accept that I will start writing a book knowing very little, that the story will evolve for me, page by page, as it does for the reader, and that I will find this very stressful, but that it will all work out in the end.♥

My pre-first draft is probably the closest thing that I do to planning, but it’s the messiest, most chaotic piece of planning you’ll ever see. So what exactly is a pre-first draft? Glad you asked!


I have three kids so my life revolves around school holidays. I try to do a draft of a book each school term and let it rest over the holidays. I submit my manuscript to my publisher in mid-November every year, just before the kids have their very long, two-month break.

After I submit a manuscript, I have a couple of weeks while the kids are still at school to get my pre-first draft done. It’s essentially a quick and very dirty – as in no spell checking, no fixing typos, absolutely no writing scenes in order whatsoever because I don’t know what the order is! – 20,000 words.

I sit down at my desk with my idea, which is usually something as small, such as, for The Paris Seamstress, that I’m writing a book about a Parisian seamstress trying to establish a ready-to-wear business in New York in the 1940s. Not much to go on, right? So my 20,000-word pre-first draft becomes, in a sense, my exploration of the idea, an attempt to find the story within the idea.

It’s not an outline in the sense that it lists scenes and events that will happen in the book. It simply gets my characters onto the page. It allows me to start to get to know them and to find the voice of the book.

I usually find that my first efforts at the voice aren’t quite right. But somewhere in the process of writing 20,000 words, I discover it. I work out who the characters are and how they might relate to one another. I find characters I hadn’t planned to write. I can get down the one or two crystal clear scenes I always have in my head and see how they work in words.

In the pre-first draft, I write the scene that I want to write that day. It might be a scene that comes in the middle of the book. I wouldn’t know, at this point, because I don’t really know what the start of the book is, or the end. The pre-first draft helps me to flesh out my book idea, to see where it could go, and who the people are at the heart of the story.

WHY 20,000 WORDS?

I’m not exactly sure why I like to do 20,000 words. I think it’s because, based on going through this process a couple of times (for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald and The Paris Seamstress), that’s the point at which I’m finally able to see where the story is going. It’s enough to make me feel like I know what I’m doing, but not so much that I feel awful throwing a lot of it out when I sit down to do the actual first draft.


A mess! No spell-checking, no proof-reading, no editing or making it pretty. It is literally the world’s worst piece of writing. But that’s okay. The point of it, for me, isn’t to be good writing. The point of it is to provide a place from which my ideas and imagination can grow.


Once I have the 20,000 words, I let them sit for the 2 months of school holidays. The characters and the story swirl around in my head and start to unravel, to work themselves into being.

In February, when school starts again, I sit back down, read over the 20,000 words, take out all the notes and ideas I’ve scribbled over the holidays and write the actual first draft with a bit more of an idea of what I’m doing and what the story is.

What do you think? Does that sound like a super-weird process to you? Or can you see the advantages?

Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive for L’Oreal, managing the Maybelline brand, before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts at Curtin University as well as her first novel, What is Left Over, After, which won the TAG Hungerford Award for fiction. Her first historical novel, the bestselling A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, was published in 2016. This was followed by Her Mother’s Secret in 2017 and The Paris Seamstress in 2018.


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