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First draft finished: it's just the beginning

Drum roll: I have finished my first draft! (And yes an exclamation mark is warranted). It’s taken ten months of research, planning, writing, self-doubt, re-writing, crying, editing, and more self-doubt but I am finally at the end. Is the manuscript any good? Don’t think so. Are there a few promising paragraphs? Possibly. Do I still like the story? Yes I do. Will it get better? Let’s just say I intend to do everything I can to improve the next draft.

Two types of writers: those that build up and those that cut down

Having announced (AKA sung from the rooftop) that I have finished my first draft, the question often asked is “so how many words is it?” I’m reminded of Shawn Coyne who talks about two types of writers: those that build up and those that cut down. I’m definitely in the former camp, adding pieces of clay to a statue rather than carving it out of marble. If you have been reading my blog you’ll know I’m a bit of a structure geek, and so my words / narratives / scenes / chapters become longer the more I work on them. It’s therefore no surprise (to me) that my first draft is shorter than the target 80,000 word count. I guess you could call it an extremely long outline. As Terry Pratchett once said “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

So what’s next? Well, first I’ll take a breather. Take a step back. Maybe write a short story or two, keep listening to podcasts and taking the online courses, and read widely–including more of the same genre (historical fiction).

I’m going to revisit and re-map the draft against the Story Grid. I will question my original assertions about genre and conventional and obligatory scenes and look for gaps in the controlling idea to make sure there is continuity.

A revisit of my original character outlines is on my list of to do's: is everyone behaving credibly? Is a character more prominent now and have I discovered something new about them? A few new and unexpected characters have emerged during the creation of the first draft: do they deserve to be here? If so, I think I should get to know them better.

There are many great pieces of online advice for turning a first draft into a second draft:

  • Sam Blake suggests thinking of your work “as your growing pains draft ­– a chance to get those first draft words in better shape for a more in-depth polish in the third”. She also suggests checking the timeline by making a note of the date / day / time at the top of each chapter.

  • “Embrace the mess,” says Kellie McGann. She secludes herself in a “white board” room to draw charts and lists. If you’re going to re-structure now is the time to do it. She also recommends using Scrivener to “… organize, edit, re-arrange, double-check, maintain flow, and not lose your mind…” and I totally agree.

  • Chuck Wendig calls the first draft the “teenager of manuscripts”. He suggests convincing yourself that someone else wrote it. It helps to read the draft in a different font or format, and to re-read your work ALOUD. Reassuringly, he says subsequent drafts get easier.

  • There are heaps of writing tips–thirty, in fact–from Darcy Pattison. These range from sorting out Titles to Character Names to Dialogue. I might defer some of this checklist to subsequent drafts, but having stronger settings and connecting emotional and narrative arcs and nailing the theme are a must at this stage.

"The only real writing is rewriting"

There’s much to be done, and it’s not going to be an easy ride. Jennifer Ellis has 11 motivation tips to keep going, including:

  • Create a “to do” list so you can cross items off,

  • Set realistic but firm deadlines (she suggests four weeks to edit the first draft of a novel),

  • Don’t get bogged down on something you can’t fix: just flag it and move on, and

  • Remember why you wrote the book in the first place.

I’ll just keep reminding myself that “the only real writing is rewriting”, stay calm and carry on.

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