Your first draft is bad... really bad... but that's a good thing!
Before you revisit your first draft, there is one thing you need to know: that manuscript you poured over for
hours on end, the one that brought you to tears and caused you to all but overdose on caffeine and rich tea biscuits... it's rubbish – an absolute pile of tat. And the sooner you accept that, the better your second draft will be.
I am not being unnecessarily cruel. In fact, I think knowing that other authors – even really really famous ones – also write dreadful first drafts is comforting. Very rarely does a story come out fully formed and beautiful and, besides, that's not what first drafts are for. First drafts are for getting the story out. Second drafts are for refining it. Third drafts are for making it beautiful.
So, with that in mind – let me prepare you for what you'll experience when you finally unlock your first draft from its drawer.
Number one. Fear.
Trembling hands, dry mouth, staring at the first page without really focussing on it, getting up and making a cup of tea so you don't have to read anything quite yet... this is the moment you've been waiting for, the moment you'll revisit your hard-work and figure out what needs to be done to get it ready for the reading public. Starting to write is hard, but re-reading those first tentative words is even harder. Why? Because when you finished your first draft you felt like the champion of the world. You were floating on air, buzzing with pride. You achieved the impossible – you wrote a novel! But now the buzz has faded and you know that when you re-read it, after stepping away and giving it some space for a few weeks/months/years, you will find countless things that need to be edited or rewritten.
Number two. Happy surprise!
You finally pluck up the courage to read your first chapter... and it's bloody brilliant! You feel like a genius. You've achieved the impossible. Everyone said your first draft would be rubbish but it's not!
Number three. Ah... yuk!
You get past chapter one and it all starts to go down hill. This is because your first chapter is the most rewritten part of your novel, and always will be. So it was bound to be in better shape than the rest of the novel. The rest? Not so much.
Number four. Overwhelm.
So much to do. So many red pen scribbles. You start writing in blue pen too, and green, and purple, so the notes are more distinguishable. Then you add some posits, notepaper, the back of your hand... anything! But there's too much of it! Too much to do!!!
Number five. Determination.
There's lots of work to be done, but it's exciting. You've got new ideas. You know how to make things better, how to make your characters more believable, how to weave in some more intricate plot points. You know it all and you can't wait to get started!!
Now that you know what to expect, here are a few tips to make the process a little easier:
1. When you're busy ignoring your first draft, read some books on the craft of writing.
I read Self-Editing For Fiction Writers and Structuring Your Novel. Both of these were fantastically valuable. I made notes on things I knew I would need to do, just from what I remembered of my first draft's plot lines and character arcs. I made notes about key structural elements that are necessary for a good story. And this meant that when I reread my first draft all of these things were in the forefront of my mind and I could see clearly what needed to be shuffled, deleted, and refined.
2. Print your manuscript.
Reading your manuscript in printed form will ensure you read and keep on reading, instead of being tempted to start editing right away. It will also allow you to scribble notes, although I prefer to write mine in a separate notebook so things remain as neat as possible!
3. Colour code. But not too much.
I love using different colours, it makes things much easier when you're trying to find things. I use black for general structure notes, blue for things that need to be added, green for things that need to be edited, and red for really massive important things that I need to think about/solve.
4. Don't over-edit.
In my mind, this is the point at which you fix structural elements, character development, plot, and some of your dialogue. But don't get caught up on the nitty gritty – the finer elements of grammar and syntax can wait until later.
5. Don't be afraid to delete things.
When I revisited my first draft, I deleted a good chunk of my first chapter, one of my key characters, and lots of other minor bits and pieces. Deleting things is difficult, it's hard not to get attached and think of all the time you've spent crafting that character/paragraph. But if it doesn't fit, or it doesn't add to your plot, just get rid of it! It wasn't a waste... everything you wrote helped you refine your craft, and it might lead to a better idea for something different.
I hope some of those tips were useful. I found the process of re-reading my first draft utterly terrifying but also incredibly exciting. I didn't mind when I read dialogue that made me cringe, or scenes that didn't work... because I had ideas about how to fix them, and I could see where it was all going.
But even if you can't see the solutions straight away, don't be hard on yourself. You got this far... so you can definitely overcome the next hurdle!
Tweet me @CaraThurlbourn and let me know how your first drafts are going, or hop on over to Facebook and leave me a message.