The End ... or is it the Beginning?
By Dave Butler
Typing the words ‘the end’ is incredibly satisfying. When I finished the first draft of my first book of fiction, my writing mentor congratulated me. “You’ve got a novel,” she said. Then, before I had time to bask in the glow of achievement, or even pour my first celebratory drink, she warned me that the hard work was about to begin.
After many months hunched over a keyboard, banging away like the proverbial monkey on a typewriter, and after many days with blood, sweat and tears running down my face (often at the same time…), I had no idea what she meant. However, her warning frightened me. What could be harder than what I just did – writing a 100,000 word novel? What did she know that I didn’t know?
Now that I’ve completed the first draft of my fourth novel, I remember my mentor’s words of wisdom. And it turns out that she was right.
“The function of the first draft is to help you figure out your story. The function of every draft after that is to help you figure out the most dramatic way to tell that story.” Darcy Pattison
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Terry Prachett
Writing a full-length book is hard work. There’s the emotional roller-coaster ride that all writers recognize, the days when you struggle with every word, every phrase, every sentence; the days when your characters take the lead and you can’t get the words down fast enough. The days when you question why you attempted such folly, and the days when you’d rather write than do anything else. And all the days in between. The hundreds and hundreds of hours away from family and friends in that solitary pursuit known as writing, the special events missed, the sunrises and sunsets witnessed through the window of your office rather than outdoors. The feeling that the manuscript is either your best, or your worst work… and knowing that you’ve lost your ability to objectively decide which it is…
“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway.
“Your first draft is not crap. It’s the most important. You’ve got to start somewhere.” Bryan Hutchinson
“It is better to write a bad first draft than to write no first draft at all.” Will Shetterly
However, it’s a common mistake for new writers to assume that they can go from a first draft to a published novel in one easy step, that book publishers and movie directors and TV producers will line up outside their door when that last page of their first draft slides into the printer tray.
The truth is: writing the first draft is nothing more than a first step in a long, long process.
Every writer has a process that works for them. While I write on a laptop, I print a copy of that first complete draft, double-sided and 3-hole punched. I put it in a three-ring binder, then let it sit untouched and unread… sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks.
When I’m ready, I come back to the printed draft with fresh red pens, sticky notes, and I use my head, rather than my heart. I try to be as brutal and honest as I can, looking at the draft as if it had been written by someone else (and depending on how long it’s been since I wrote the earliest chapters, it can seem as if it was…). I look for ways to cut and tighten the writing, reading it aloud to hear the rhythm of the words and phrases. I try to go deeper into the motivation of the characters, making them more interesting, less superficial. As best as I can, I look for holes in the plot, ensure points-of-view are clear and consistent, and I track where tension builds, and where it subsides.
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I am simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” Shannon Hale
When that is all done, and the draft is covered in red ink and multi-coloured stickies, I rewrite it.
Then, it goes out to beta readers and my agent. After I get their feedback, I edit it again.
If I’m lucky enough to get a publisher for the book, then their team of editors has its way with the manuscript. And I edit it again.
See the pattern? A first draft is just that: a first draft.
“You can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult
I love reaching the final words in a first draft. But I now know that it’s only the beginning, not ‘the end.'