First Draft Done. Now What?

I’m a novelist, so I know the feeling: You conquered your fear and started your novel. You wrote for months or maybe years.  You survived the long desert known as “the middle.” You wrote your favorite parts; the parts that made you want to write the story in the first place. And then, you wrote the last sentence. Added the last period. The End.

Celebrate! You finished your book!

Except, we all know it’s not yet time to celebrate.

“The first draft of everything is sh*t.”
Ernest Hemingway

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”
Vladimir Nabokov

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles.”
Shannon Hale

But before you get to the process of rewriting (I’ll blog more on that later), you must navigate this moment. Like any good story, you need to take care with your transitions. And this transition — from rough draft to revision — is arguably the trickiest.

Transition too fast and you’ll force the story; go too slow and you’ll lose momentum.

I just finished my first draft for my next novel. So what do I do during this moment? What — for me — makes for a successful transition?

1: Celebrate
I know, I know, I said it isn’t time to celebrate, but you should take a moment to appreciate your accomplishment. Drink a glass of wine, take a nap, do a cart-wheel, do something. Me? I high-five my characters. In this moment, I don’t have to push them to expose themselves or tell me what happens next. We can sit back, kick up our feet, and congratulate each other on surviving the journey.

2: Print it out
This step assumes you wrote your draft on a computer. If you did, PRINT IT! Create a hardcopy; an OBJECT; an object is a powerful thing. For me, this is part of the celebration. Seeing it, holding it, experiencing those 450 pages is nothing short of miraculous. Plus, when you’re ready to attack revisions, having it printed will make the task easier.

3: Take a Break
Seriously. Walk away. Do not write on this story for a while (by all means, write something else; I write fiction every day. I’m just taking a break from this story). Give yourself time to breathe. Yes, if you take a break you can approach your own material with “fresh eyes,” but this break will also give you time to prepare…

4: And Don’t Talk About It
At this stage, your work is still a partially-created monster… let it hide in the dark a while longer. It will grow in the dark; if you expose it to light, air, or other people, it will shrink. There will be PLENTY of time to share the story with the world later. For now… shhhhhh. Let it sit. Alone and undisturbed.

5: Let Your Characters Run Wild
While I write the first draft, my characters sometimes still hide stuff from me. It’s natural; I was trying to expose them; they were trying to protect themselves. Oftentimes, it’s not until right after the rough draft that they really start opening up. It’s like they say, “No one is looking anymore, now I can let loose.” I don’t write on the story at this time, but I do continue to bask in my characters’ crazy… and their honesty.

6: Stew Your Problems
While writing the rough draft I inevitably think of at least 1,000 problems I will have to solve during rewrites. During this transition phase, don’t actively think on these problems, but do lock some of the larger issues away in the crock pot of your brain. Sometime during your “take a break” process, the answer will most likely appear.

7: Think Before You Read
When your break is over (you’ll know when/how long if you listen to your gut), DO NOT READ FIRST. Sit down with a pad of paper and think through what you HOPE is in that draft. Outline your story again. Make new character notes. Whatever you think you accomplished — or whatever you know you still need to accomplish — write that down. This will help you be more objective about your work when you finally do read it.

8: Read With a Pen
A first draft rarely lives up to what you imagined it to be — except in the few places where it so far exceeds your hopes that it’s hard to imagine that you are the one who wrote it. You’ll want to mark those parts that you love. And cross out the parts you hate. If you just read, when it’s over, you’ll think, “Oh dear, I have SOOOO much work to do.” If you read with a pen, you’ll start formulating a game plan of how to conquer rewrites.

9: Reorganize
If you’re anything like me, the pieces of my novel move around. Endings belong at the beginning. Beginnings belong in the middle. Middles belong at the end… While I read my rough draft, I start making stacks of papers. I move this section to the front. That section to the back. Stories are fluid. Part of rewriting is restructuring. Be open to the moving.

10: Make a Plan
Before you actually start revising, make a map of the road ahead. Do you need to restructure the first act? Did you lose track of a subplot? How’s your character arc? You can always veer off the map, but if you have a plan, you will always be able to return to it during the revision phase (just like you probably prepared an outline before you started writing. Now create an outline for your revisions).

Also, don’t get beaten down by reading your first draft. Remember, the first draft of everything is sh*t, Ernest, and keep working. This is the exciting moment. This is when you get to build sandcastles…

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These are my tips. How do you celebrate finishing a rough draft and transition into revisions?

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