So, you’ve finished the first draft of your novel. It’s wonderful and perfect and you feel just dewy about it, right? Right?
More than likely, your first draft is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad manuscript, and at this point you may be doubting your ability even to write your name. But fear not: you’ve just finished, in Anne Lamott’s words, a shitty first draft, and that’s something to be proud of, plot holes and typos and question marks and all.
Once you’ve gotten over your existential crisis and self-loathing, however, you may be hit with a tidal wave of fear as you encounter the prospect of combing through all those dreadful sentences and errors for slivers of decent writing. You may be running your draft over in your head and realizing how the protagonist needs a guide to motivate him to pursue his goals or how the antagonist’s motivations aren’t all that clear, causing the plot to fall flat and runny. With those major changes, the story seems so different than you originally planned that you might as well write a new shitty first draft with everything set straight this time and all the creases smoothed. But do you really have another 100,000 more words in you? And another and another?
To avoid unnecessarily pumping out draft versions of your novel, here are some tips for what to do when you’ve finished your first.
1. Walk Away
Seriously. Stephen King recommends shoving your draft in a drawer for six weeks and not even thinking of it until then. Sometimes we writers can have a one-track mind about our stories, and when we’ve dedicated hours a day for weeks and months on end to a project, we can get stuck in the rut of seeing it through that singular lens. We find ourselves spinning in circles and churning out the same sentences and phrases, the same tones of voice for all of our characters and the same plotting tricks we always use in the first draft. After all, our goal with that draft is to simply finish no matter what ends up on the page or how we get to the end. While this mindset works for the drafting stage, it is not as productive when we suddenly have to resolve plot holes or draw out the nuances of a character’s personality. Fast and furious is not exactly the best approach to this kind of writing, so taking a long break from your work allows your brain to reset to neutral and recharge its creative abilities.
In this time, your story also shifts and changes. Without you constantly hovering over it and trying to shape it how you see fit, it can sit and gel over and take its true form, so that when you return to it, you’re able to see those truths it was screaming at you that you ignored the first go around. While it may be difficult and you may be biting your nails the entire time thinking of all the work you could be doing with those six weeks, it’s more productive to leave it in the drawer. Even if you only let it lie for four weeks or two, giving yourself extended space from your story will allow you to approach it with fresh eyes and a detached mind when you do pick it up again, and you actually may surprise yourself with the new life you’re able to breathe into it.
2. Small Assignments
This is another Anne Lamott suggestion, and I think it is essential for this phase of the writing journey. That long break between the first and second draft is a strange one for daily writing time, as you don’t want to let your writing muscles atrophy but you also don’t want to start up some project so big and distracting that you ditch your novel in the drawer, convinced this new story is the greatest thing anyone will ever write. In this time, I usually journal a lot and become more flexible with my daily word count goals. I tend to slow down in this break and try not to focus so much on writing excellently as enjoying the process again. The initial drafting phase can be a bit brutal to my affection for writing, so I like to use this break to remind myself why I fell in love with writing in the first place.
Old projects, short stories and poems, stream-of-consciousness entries, all are great for giving yourself something to work on that is low stakes and won’t get in the way of your larger goals. It also helps to write in a different genre or style than that of your novel in order to help your mind clearly distinguish between projects and to prevent any unintentional merging between stories when you do pick up your original piece again.
3. Print and Read
I think there’s really something to reading words on a physical page. It may seem like a waste to print your terrible first draft, and if you’re a clean freak like me, you may be wondering where all of that paper is supposed to go when you’re done with it, but the words seem more present and substantive than when they’re read on a screen. This is important for understanding the true impact of your story, where its strengths lie and where its faults have settled.
So, when you’ve taken your six or two or four weeks to let your mind rejuvenate, print off your manuscript and read it once through in its entirety as if you were reading someone else’s novel. Save all the red pen markings and margin notes and potential edits for the second and third read-throughs and try instead to focus on how the story flows and feels as a whole. Try to experience the complete sense of it, to determine whether it has depth and purpose and, despite all of its flaws, has something to drive it forward. You’ll have plenty of time to critique and rewrite later, but with this first read, you want to know that your story works, or at least will work eventually. Likely, if you’ve finished a long and hard draft, you’ll come to the other side of this reading positive you can do the work to get it there.
4. Edit in Chunks
Once you’ve read your entire novel through and have felt the impression of the story, it’s time to plunge into editing. Editing is a long process; it’s dull at times and aggravating at times; it can be defeating and usually is not nearly as fun as writing the story the first time. If you read your novel and digest all of its problems and realize your responsibility is to fix all of them, beginning to end, it can be intimidating as well.
Breaking your editing into clear chunks can dispel some of your anxiety over the process, and there are a few ways to do it. I’ve encounter two popular ways of breaking up editing, and they are to either a) determine your story’s major issues and focus on resolving them across your story in separate passes; or b) divide your story into ten-page increments and resolve all of the major issues within each increment before moving to the next. I tend to prefer the first method, as I’m forced to read through the story over and over and can see how it develops as a whole over time, how my edits affect the entire story rather than one portion of it. But all writers have their own styles and approaches, and you may have to experiment at first to figure out what works best for you. I mean, Kurt Vonnegut supposedly didn’t move on from a page until he decided it was perfect, and while that seems a bit extreme to me, it may be exactly what you need to do to straighten up your story. Whatever it takes.
NOW TELL ME // How have you approached finished drafts in the past? Did you find this advice helpful? Comment below!