First time novelists think that getting to the end of the first draft is the “work.” It isn’t, but most won’t realize this until after they finish penning their first novel.
As a preface, if you are working on your first book, do not take this post as a deterrent. Finish the damn book, and use this as preparation for what lies ahead. I take no issue with outlining a new idea, or converting it into a text of 60,000+ words. This is the fun and creative part of the writing process, so you had better enjoy it.
Often, I tell writers to focus on the next book immediately after finishing draft one. Start coming up with a story. But out of all the advice on the internet, including my own, the topic of coming back to a first draft after a short rest never seems to be discussed. Believe me, I’m criticizing myself right now for not giving this its proper due before, as well as most others who blog about the writing process.
The reason it gets glossed over, I think, is because the sting of it is a one-time event. Most of us have written over a dozen long-works, or none at all. So few are at the cusp at any given time, and as a result, this post will likely not be shared, and it will disappear into the ether of the grand internet slush pile. It is a useless blog post in a certain respect, but I write it on the off chance that it may one day help one single writer overcome this obstacle.
The Prospect of Writing off a Loss
I’ve seen not a single study done on this, and I invite you to comment below with your own insights. How many budding authors quit after writing the first draft of their book to completion. I don’t have a number, so don’t let me lie to you, but I suspect that thousands, if not more, fall into this category. I write off these losses to the grueling hunt for representation, or the mountain of drudgery that we collectively call editing. The prospect of self-publishing is still tarnished by hostile attitudes, no matter how common it appears to be.
But there’s something else. A potentially deadly monster lingering around the very beginning of the post-edit process, and perhaps one of the causes of the onslaught of negative thought that accompanies purification of your work.
This monster isn’t writer’s block. It’s inadequacy. And it’s just as damning and critical as its cousin from the drafting process.
It takes an act of sheer courage to begin the writing process. You give up time from your life to devote to a singular project that will continue to consume you for months or years. Relationships become strained, and each of us must find the self-motivation to move forward every day despite what else is happening in the world around us. We need to get up every day, and devote at least a portion of it to our dream of putting our own words out into the world.
We can do this, because of faith. We believe in the drafting process that we have something meaningful to contribute to the world of literature. We fall in love with our story, our characters, and the fantastical world we’ve created. We push on, focusing on the best parts of the story. We struggle against all odds to finish (most budding writers won’t finish a novel). Then we reach the finish line, “The End.” Celebration is in order, but it comes to a crashing halt with the following hangover.
When we return to our words, they aren’t the same. They’re terrible. Sometimes the first paragraph of re-reading our work can be enough to cripple our efforts. The first snowball rolling down a mountain teetering on catastrophic valley-town smothering avalanche.
This is the seed of all future inadequacy. Instead of focusing on the awesome parts of the story and making them better, as we should be doing, we’re crippled by self doubt and the fear that perhaps our story, our idea, or our grasp of the written word simple aren’t enough. Instead of seeing how our work is different and wonderful, we look out into a sea of authors doing it better.
When this happened to me the first time, i thought for sure one of my buddies on the rig had deliberately sabotaged my work. The words were that alien to me. This doubt leads to months of constantly comparing our words to other works where the author seems to be doing exponentially better than we ever could.
For TSOV (now scrapped), it even carried over into the query process. I watched other authors re-write parts of my letter in ways that shocked and amazed me. Their words were great, and mine appeared so sophomoric that I swore the average third-grader could have done a better job than I. Those thoughts and attitudes sank my original series, and pushed me away from writing for three years. I’m writing this post, because I don’t want to see that happen to you.
Your book might not be good enough. Go ahead and let that idea find a place in your mind now, and save yourself years of potential torture. I heard these words first from another author, and didn’t want to believe it. Looking back now, what should have been a mild hiccup turned into a deserted wasteland of unwritten pages because instead of embracing the idea, I wore myself out trying to fix something that would never become anything.
Now that the idea is planted however, the next step is to NOT give up. When you finish writing a novel, it changes you. Your words haven’t changed, you have. 80,000 words is a lot of writing experience, and if you don’t improve as a result of the process, then you probably did something wrong. It’s NORMAL to feel like your first draft was crap. That’s because you were a different writer when you started on it. The skill you gain by “doing” changes your style, it accents your ability to pass a thought, and it can either drive better works and fix your current work, or it can overcome you.
Try this exercise. Read the first few pages. Then skip all the way to the end of the document and read the last few pages. This is a great way to see the change in your words over time. If you spent six months writing a draft, (or even three weeks), you’ll see a pronounced difference. You’re a better writer now. THAT, is the reason you can see faults in what you thought was awesome before.
The first thing that you will likely notice is the sentence length. New authors like to string words together into strands of enigmatic goo, and through the course of cranking out thousands of lines shift toward shorter frameworks. The pattern will actually oscillate as you continue to find your own voice, and after a while, you’ll stop thinking about it.
I highly, highly, highly recommend, especially for a first novel, to set the red pen aside, and read through the entire text at least once without changing anything. You can keep notes in a separate document or notebook if you like, but focus on story details, not grammar. You might make a page or two of recurring problems to keep an eye out for, but focus on the story itself. Read through, start to finish, and don’t touch a damn word.
My next suggestion is going to seem like a ton of work, and this is going to take a huge leap of faith on your part. It is something that MOST authors will benefit from. Now, if you spent a great deal of time on the first draft making sentences pretty, then you might be better off with another editing routine, BUT, if your words were really that amazing, you most likely would not still be reading this post.
Rewrite the whole damn thing. Every word. The whole story. You can use your current work and notes as a guide, or start again from a revised outline. But rewrite everything. A second draft is exactly that.
We’re spoiled in the current era of automatic typesetting and digital storage that we sometimes forget earlier writers had to hammer out the whole text again on a typewriter as a natural part of the editing process. IE, #amwriting and #amediting were the same thing. Writers were notorious for drafting and redrafting a dozen, two dozen, or even fifty times.
And you know what? It works. It’s actually easier than trying to rearrange everything to tighten up the script. I’ve made a habit of doing this with almost every long work now, precisely because it is so effective. A novel isn’t a pamphlet or flier. It’s not five or six pages of story. It’s a lot of shit to keep track of, and the administrative tasks of fact-checking and item tracking can make even the sharpest of accountants bug-eyed and atrophied. I rewrite drafts now because it’s easier, not harder, than the alternative. It’s like hitting the reset button, and it has the added benefit of improving your skill at every phase of the writing process at once. In fact, you may improve so much that you come back to your second draft and go through this whole process again.
It happens, it’s normal, and it stings. Looking at your first long work with a critical eye can break your heart, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent wound. Take solace in the fact that most, if not all of us, have gone through it at least once. Things will get better as you continue to write more books, and there are actionable steps you can take to break up the process into manageable chunks instead of trying to fix everything on the first pass.
Plan on a lot of editing passes. Like I say in Finish the Damn Book! Write fast, edit slow. The path to publication is long and tedious. Put on your boots, choose a road, and keep walking, you’ll get there eventually. Good luck.