5 Things I’ve Learned After Finishing a First Draft

Today, January 28th, 2019, I finished the first draft of my work-in-progress, The Wolves of the Far North. At long last. To be fair, the title of this post is a tiny bit misleading. While this is the first draft of my current wip, it’s actually the second draft I’ve ever finished.

But that is neither here nor there.

What matters is that this book was different. This was my the first time I sat down with the intention of writing a draft that I would one day query. It was the start of a journey, and it carried a certain weight and responsibility before that I’d never had to deal with.

But I’ve mentioned before, what with how long I’ve spent on this draft, that this wip was a struggle. It was an older draft that I decided to try reviving, so I spent much longer in the outlining phase and it took me almost four months to write it. Not terrible by any means, but some days the writing was like pulling teeth – slow and painful. Not to mention, it was significantly longer – the draft is currently sitting at 92,600 words. It’s the most I’ve ever written towards a project and in its current state, it’s rough. But I’m proud. And so, so excited to shape it into something that others may one day read.

And because it was such a struggle, I learned a few things along the way.

1. Writing is a Lot of Work

Like, a lot of work. This was the most obvious lesson, and also the hardest to digest. I felt for the first time the difference between writing for fun and writing because you have to. Because you want to make a career out of it. It’s not just a hobby, now it’s a responsibility. You have to do it, even if you don’t feel like it. And if you don’t feel like it, man is it hard to push yourself. I have intense respect for those writers who churn out multiple drafts a year.

Despite the struggle, I know that won’t be the case for every draft I work on, and some projects will be harder than others. This was definitely a hard one. But I got through it. And I know that no matter how hard my future drafts are, I can get through them too.

2. Finishing is the Most Important Step

More than once I thought about giving up on this draft. But I proved to myself that I can see a project through to the end. Even as I began to find problems in the plot, or weak character motivations. Even when it seemed like a better idea to scrap it altogether and start over, I didn’t. I stuck to it, for better or worse. I finished it, even though it turned out to be a very rough draft. To call it a first draft is generous at this point. A zero draft is a better description. It’s a foundation. A starting point. And even though I wonder if I’ll end up wasting my time, I know that I can see a draft through to the end. And boy, what a struggle it was. It might take me longer than I expect, but I know I can do it. I know I can turn an idea in my head into a novel.

3. You Have to Start by Telling Yourself the Story

This might sound weird. Especially if your an outliner and you feel like you’ve already ‘told’ yourself the story. You think you know how it all plays out, but writing it out is different. More than once I could see errors I didn’t notice in the outlining phase. I could see the difference between the story I was telling and the one I wanted to tell.

Maybe its easier to see the flaws and inconsistencies as you transition from one scene to the next, but I wouldn’t know what the story needed if I didn’t first write it, from beginning to end. I can tell when the story is veering off down a path I don’t want to go. I know when I’ve taken a misstep. And I took notes throughout the process so I can quickly identify the problem areas when I go back to edit.

4. The Outline is a Guide, and Just Barely

This is something I always seem to forget. Story-telling is far more organic than I give it credit for, and you’re going to deviate. Despite having everything plotted, you’re going to come up with new and better ways to handle certain scenes. The most daunting part is when it’s going to take the draft in a direction that is vastly different from what you’ve outlined. It happened to me right in the middle of this zero draft. Immediately I wanted to go back to the drawing board, but if I did that I would never finish the story. I would always find ways of improving it, and always find a reason to go back to that outline.

I’m sure a big part of my struggles with this was because it was an older draft that I was reworking. So I tested different scenes or points of view, made notes, and most especially, I wrote down why I think this change might be a good idea. But in the end, I don’t veer off into these new directions, mostly because I need to see what it is about my current outline that doesn’t work. Keeping a notebook or document ready to collect all these notes and new ideas is essential. Hell, don’t be afraid to leave the notes in the draft itself (as I do). But I wouldn’t jump into them immediately, even if it feels right. Think of it as a sign that those scenes need work, and any ideas you come up with will serve as great starting points. Store them for later, to give yourself a chance to consider them properly.

5. Proper Preparation Saves Time

I have this chronic problem called world builder’s syndrome where I work endlessly developing the same world, and never get any actual writing done. That was something I actively wanted to avoid with this draft, so I didn’t spend nearly as much time fleshing out the world and the characters as I usually do, and I was quick to stop when I felt I was getting carried away. Instead, I made notes for things I came up with as I went along, and what I knew needed fleshing out or changing.

In retrospect, I should have spent a bit more time developing the world. Especially the characters. I have a slew of place holder characters in my current draft, as I didn’t want to ruin my momentum by taking the time to flesh out a new character, or even give them a name. And while I initially thought it was a good idea, I got stuck more often than not as a result of this. In my effort to avoid getting stuck indefinitely in the planning stages, I went into the draft unprepared.

For the next draft I work on I’ll need to reassess my preparation. Thankfully, I know exactly what I need to prepare for when I start editing. I think more preparation would have helped this rough draft find a little more polish. Instead, my draft rewrite is going to be more cumbersome than I anticipated. In the end, I suppose the amount of preparation you need is determined by your own process and the demands of the story itself. Don’t spend all you’re time planning. But don’t forget that the planning stage exists for a good reason.

Now I’ll admit, some of this seems a bit obvious. A lot of these tips were things I already sort of knew but didn’t quite understand just how much of a role they played when it came to my writing. And of course, this is a list very specific to me and my struggles.

Still, if you are struggling to finish your first draft maybe some of these will click with you. This is the second draft I’ve finished, and it was much harder than the first. And even though it’s not the first time I’ve ever finished a draft, I feel like I learned much more about my process and about myself than I did the first time around. I’m sure I’ll continue to learn with every draft I finish, and I can only hope that means the process will get easier.

Let’s Chat!

Did you find any of these musings helpful for your own process? Have you ever finished a particularly long draft of something? What did you learn, about yourself or about writing, that you found invaluable?

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