Five Things to Do After You’ve Finished Your First Draft
You have finished a first draft! You’ve written a novel! Break out the smoking jacket with the patches on the sleeves. Pipe optional!
What to do now, though?
Maybe it was easy to write that draft. Maybe the words just flowed from you. Or maybe it was rough, emerging in fits and starts and required you to get up early, stay up late, and bribe your loved ones to stay away from you. Whatever the circumstances that brought you to the point where you typed that last word and told yourself “Done!” now you need to decide what to do with your draft.
Here are five things you can do after you’ve finished your first draft.
I know that shoving first drafts into drawers, or under the bed, or in a hidden folder on your computer is what people who feel like they have failed with their manuscripts do. But it’s also what good writers do. The scuttlebutt on the internet says Stephen King advises you to wait six weeks before you read your draft.
If you are the kind of writer who is in love with the words you’ve written, it’s even more important that you do this. After six weeks, the haze of creation will have faded and those words that seemed so shiny before are now—well they won’t all terrible, but it will be much easier to see the clinkers. Once the story starts to fade from your memory, you also might notice characters that disappear, plot holes you could drive a football stadium through, and terrible similes. Also, there will probably be too many adverbs.
What to do while you are waiting for those six weeks to pass? You could start writing something else. Some authors find it helpful to write one novel while they are are revising the other. But if you do start on another project, consider also carving out some time to read a book on craft.
It’s likely that you noticed you didn’t bring your A game to some aspect of your story. Maybe you struggled with dialog, or your plot kept wandering off into random corners and you had trouble herding it back. Maybe your characters seemed wooden, or your world just wouldn’t build, no matter how hard you tried. Or maybe you spent 20,000 words at the beginning really building that world and you have a sneaking suspicion that it was too much world building at once. (It was!)
Whatever weak spot you might have, someone has written a book on how to approach that problem. You can find resources by googling, “best book about X” or asking your friendly neighborhood librarian for suggestions.
Read that book and take notes, especially if your mind starts churning out ways to improve your writing. I find it helpful to read a chapter on craft and then do some journaling to help keep track of those revelations.
Writers who haven’t read books in their genre are like librarians who don’t read at all. Neither are successful in plying their trade.
Ideally, you will have read at least 100 books in your genre in the past five years. If you haven’t, use your six weeks to read five. If you have read 100 books in your genre, you should still use the six weeks to do some reading. Anyone publishing (traditional or self) needs comps, which are books in your genre that are like yours. They should be recent, and not the number one hit best seller. Every writer likes to think they have written the next Hunger Games/Da Vinci Code/50 Shades of Grey/Harry Potter, but you will show you know about your genre if you can identify two or three books that are not the first book that come to mind in your genre.
Plus, by keeping up with your genre, you absorb the rhythms and current issues that are being tackled. Don’t know where to find read-alikes? Contact your local librarian, and they can give you a list.
So you’ve let your first draft breathe for a good chunk of time? Great! Now you are ready to read it!
If you can, print it out and put it in a binder so you can better simulate the on-the-page feeling of reading.
I think it’s best to read your manuscript in one sitting (or two or three sittings if your book is longer) because not stopping will help you see the whole picture, and will keep you from putting it down partway through and walking away forever.
Will it be that bad? Probably it won’t be terrible, but its possible your first draft will be very, very bad. That’s normal. Your first draft is far from your final product.
To track what is good, I suggest picking a highlighter in your favorite color and marking what works well. It’s good to make notes as you go along, either as you read or at the end of the chapter. Three questions you might answer are: 1) What’s working well? 2)What could be changed? 3)What advances the plot?
Once you are done reading, you might do some free-form writing about how you feel having read your first draft. This can be on the emotional level (I love it! I hate it! Why did I think that the igloo sequence worked?) or some practical next-steps-type figuring.
Having read your manuscript, it’s time to revise! While I think every writer would like to have the first draft be the final draft, it’s likely that you have realized what every writer ever has: that you’ve got a road of revision ahead of you. Ideally you’ve got a good idea what to tackle first, but if not, do some writing about ways to go, or dive into a craft book about revision, or pick one thing to work on.
By doing these five things, you will be on your way to a manuscript you can be proud of, and one that’s ready to go out into the world.