So You Finished Your First Draft
You’re almost there. You can probably even see it--your word count goal--flickering like an oasis in your subconscious. Those last 15,000 words or so seeming insurmountable, or possibly, if you’re lucky, completely and utterly doable. Whether you’re almost finished with NaNoWriMo, or just finishing up the first draft of a novel not written under the duress that is the month of November, finishing that draft is just the first step in a very long process. So to help you take the looming and very necessary next steps in your writing process, I’m sharing some of the best and most essential writing advice I’ve come across over the years.
“The first draft of everything is shit.”
Once the elation of reaching your goal passes, and you’ve taken the step back that you should take after finishing a draft, in a few weeks you’ll come back and read through what you’ve written. And that’s when it will hit you (if it hasn’t already): Your first draft sucks.
Maybe your characters’ motivations aren’t clear, your relationships have no chemistry or tension, your setting or world or magic system makes no sense, and you wonder if an earthquake hit your story while you weren’t looking because there are plot holes EVERYWHERE. Well, rest assured: You are not alone. All first drafts, according to our dear friend Hemingway, are shit. What’s important is that you don’t let the major suckage of your first try stop you.
You have to take the next step, which is to start revising. So when you see a problematic scene, highlight it. When you notice a character who isn’t doing what they should be to move the story forward, write yourself a note in the margin. If you find a plot hole, add a sticky note that just says PLOT HOLE until you figure out how to fix it.
Your first draft is supposed to suck. Just keep in mind that you can (and will) fix it.
"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."
— Neil Gaiman
A big part of the revision process is getting feedback from critique partners or writing groups. And as scary as it is to let your baby fly out into the world for the first time, it’s the only way you’ll be able to make your novel the best that it can be.
That said, it’s important to remember to be open to constructive criticism, while keeping in mind that it’s still your story.
I love this quote from Neil Gaiman, because I’ve found it to be incredibly true in my own writing. The best critique partners identify problem areas, but leave the writer the space to figure out how to fix the issues. The least productive advice I’ve received tends to be extremely nitpicky.
Be weary of criticism that’s too specific. It’s your book--never forget that.
"You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished."
— Will Self
Even once you’ve revised your first or second or fifth draft, you’ll still feel like it isn’t quite good enough. But you will eventually reach a point where you feel like it’s the best you can make it. You’ll move on to another story--a new idea--and the cycle will start all over again. You’ll write a terrible first draft and you’ll feel like it isn’t good enough. But then, you’ll keep working on it. You’ll get readers and you’ll revise, and you’ll do it again and again.
But because you must start fresh each time you’re writing something new; because you will become a better writer over time, but it will be slow and hard to notice; because writing isn’t and will never be easy--you have to learn that these feelings are a part of the process. And according to Will Self, they should be “cherished”.
So congrats on finishing (or almost finishing) your latest first draft. And good luck on whatever comes next for you and your new novel.