KNOWHOW To Write a First Draft I with Sophie Wills

 Where should you start with a first draft for an MG novel? Sophie Wills, who debuted last year with the hilarious and brilliant The Orphans of St. Halibuts, shares her wisdom with KnowHow.

So, the first draft.

Getting started 

There are a few ways ideas can start. A picture usually pops into my head – a character in a situation – and a mood. It feels like my brain has given me a teaser. Your job is to look closer. Thinks along these lines,

    “Who’s this, then? Why on earth are they doing that? Something seems a bit off here…” and your job is to investigate.
Ideas often arrive when I’m dropping off to sleep, or while I’m out for a run, or when my mind wanders. I have got lost in the local woods more than once trying to figure out the mystery and failing to pay attention to my surroundings!

So where to start…
  • Try taking a walk, stepping away from the computer and see what strikes you. Ideas can literally come from anywhere! 
  • Take a closer look at the images and characters that pop into your head. Investigate! 
  • Allow your thoughts to wander. This early on, you never know where things might lead...

To plot, or to pants? 

And then, there’s the actual getting down to the writing. To plot, or to pants. I start each book off very much a pantser, and write myself into a terrible plot dead-end which means I have to rewrite completely.

But it also means that by the time I start again, I know lots about my characters, have figured out what the heart of the story is, and have plenty of ideas for scenes and twists, which I jot down as I go.

  • Write a paragraph or two working out the basic structure of the story with any important turning points.
  • Then, begin writing your story again with this in mind. I can’t claim it’s an efficient way to work, but it does eventually get me there. 

As I write, I move between planning and pantsing, but one thing for sure is that all my notes and writing are typed. I rarely write anything by hand. I look in envy at other authors’ beautiful stationery and handwriting, even the messy handwriting actually, and those amazing diagrams with bits of string linking pictures and scenes like they’re solving a murder – but I have to type out my thoughts. I’ve tried drawing diagrams to organize my ideas but I just end up writing paragraphs on them, which rather defeats the point.

  • Try different ways of writing - typing, longhand, drawing, mind-mapping. Until you try, you won’t know what works or doesn't work for you!



Sophie Wills lives on the edge of south-east London with her family. Her debut middle-grade, The Orphans of St Halibut’s, illustrated by David Tazzyman, was acquired at auction by Macmillan and was published on 1 October 2020. She is represented by Kate Shaw at The Shaw Agency. You can find Sophie on Twitter @SophsWills and her website is


Jo E. Verrill is an enthusiastic writer of humorous books for children, and an advertising and broadcasting standards consultant. 

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