Monday, 24 February 2014

The First Draft Blues

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, someone told me they believed I'd one day be a writer. I believed it too. That fact that the person who told me this went on to be a successful and award-nominated novelist and screen-writer themselves only reinforced my confidence that one day I too would be a published novelist.

Gradually, though, it dawned on me, that I'd have to actually write a book to make that happen.

And then followed years and years of not writing a book and hating myself for it, of waking up every January 1st and thinking: 'Here I go again, not writing my book for another year'.

I did eventually start writing, of course, but it was short fiction. The shorter the better. I had some success and thought, okay, this is what I'm good at, this is okay, I'm still a writer. I told anyone who would listen (or asked) that I was pretty sure I'd never write a novel, because it just wasn't where my talents lay.

And then I had an idea for a book. Still I procrastinated, but the idea wouldn't go away.

Last April, my husband bought me a new laptop and gave me a deadline: 20,000 words by the end of the summer, or the laptop went to my teenage daughter. Ah, he knows me so well. I exceeded his target a month early and I was on my way. Writing a book.

Some ten months after starting, I've nearly finished the first draft of my novel. I should be cock-a-hoop, right? Punching the air, typing THE END in the biggest, boldest, most italic-y font I can find.

But I'm not. And that's okay.

The thing is, I have a lot of words, but they don't feel like a book yet.

I have a sort-of story, my protagonist goes on a journey, but I know it needs more narrative drive.

I've discovered what my book is about in the process of writing it, but I know I need to draw out the themes, strengthen them, weave them through the fabric of my book so it's less like crochet and more like a tightly-woven damask that shows different colours and patterns depending on how you turn it in the light.

I have characters, quite a few of them. Most of them are engaging and interesting. Almost all of them are more engaging and interesting than my protagonist. I need to make her more than just a sounding board, less reactive and more proactive in her own life. I need to find out what is unique about her AND what makes her like everyone else.

I have important scenes that are woefully underwritten and less important scenes that go on and on and on. I need to look at the balance of my book, the rhythm, the pace.

I need to do all these things, and more, before the big heap of words I've put together resembles anything like a book. And I'm itching to get on with it. Getting to the end of the first draft is a notable achievement, but it feels more like a mid-point than anything else. Hence the lack of air-punching.

My aim is to have a solid second draft done by the summer. If you hear whooping across the internet sometime in late June or early July, it'll probably be me, typing THE END.

And then, following feedback, I'll get cracking with the third draft. And maybe, just maybe, by then I'll have written a book.


  1. I've had this experience a few times - coming to the end of a draft, but feeling still miles away from the end. And every time, people would say 'celebrate each step'! It's a long journey and you've got to keep remembering that you're supposed to be enjoying it, which isn't possible when you're focusing on the end (this written by a very impatient writer!). It sounds like you've got a very supportive husband, which helps a lot! Good luck and keep writing, one word at a time makes a book in the end.

    1. Thanks, Emily. It's true, if you don't mark the milestones, it feels like the end will never be in sight. I'm trying to feel quietly pleased while girding my loins to enter the editing phase.

  2. I agree, first draft is a first draft, there's a lot more work to go, but it's fantastic to have achieved that! I'll celebrate that with ya!

  3. I'd still mark the milestone of getting to the end of a first draft. So many people don't even get that far! And besides, sometimes we're too hard on ourselves... you know there's a lot of work still to be done but there's no harm in patting yourself on the back and maybe marking the end of this first draft with a glass of wine or some other small treat? Otherwise it's just a long haul without any rewards in sight.

    Good luck with the next draft but well done on this first one!

    1. Thanks, Kath. I need to keep reminding myself that I've come a lot further than I ever thought I would. Onwards!

  4. Congratulations for reaching the end of the first draft! HUGE achievement - don't underestimate it! And yes, now the work begins anew, but as you can already see what needs to be changed, you're half way there already. Good luck.

    1. Thanks, Katherine. Am cracking my knuckles and getting on with it.

  5. Hi Rachael - I'd like to agree with the others about giving yourself a big pat at the back. By my incredibly slow pace of progress (if I add together the total time spent between starting my novel and my agent sending it to publishers it's THREE YEARS!) completing your first draft in ten months seems very impressive. Plus I think it's a very strong premise, and I'm sure that drives it on.

    Your comments about what the manuscript needs and the fact that you're not feeling euphoric at this stage sound to me like a writer who has some real understanding of what it takes to write a really good book (yes, it's bloody difficult!) and that must surely increase your chances of doing just that. Good luck!

    1. Thanks, Isabel. I think it can be hard to drive forward a literary novel and I worry sometimes that there isn't enough story there. And then I think of all my favourite books and they are all about people just living their lives.

      My years of writing short stories have taught me a lot about editing and rewriting, and some of the elements that are refined in the later stages are the same, especially characterisation and theme. The most challenging thing for me in the longer form is narrative drive.

      One of the most important things I have learned from other writers (such as yourself) is that there is a process, and it takes time. Writing, editing, building words and worlds. What you end up with may well be radically different to what you start with. Just because what you've written isn't right, doesn't mean you can't make it right.

  6. Well done for getting this far, and good luck for the next step.

  7. Hah, I remember coming to the same conclusion at a similar age. I went on to be a journalist in the mistaken impression that it was the same as 'writing' which of course it is not. But I am at last having some success with my first novel 'Ignoring Gravity', all these years later. My advice: Just Do It! SD

  8. I agree that getting to the end of the first draft is an achievement worth celebrating. Milestones along the way have been very important in keeping me motivated I know that for sure.

    It's great to read that you know what now needs to be done with the first draft. To have these insights now it really good.

    I know I read and re-read my first draft 5 times over before I could get a handle on what was required. I had to take months off and go write some short stories, just so I could get some distance and some clarity from the story.

    I am now polishing it off - two years after I started. It's an exhausting journey, and a frustrating one at times, but I realise now that it has been very satisfying.

    I recognise that person who approached each new year with that same sigh *another year and still no book* I was exactly the same, so I know that the fact our books have now actually materialised and are on the page and can be read by other people, is a major accomplishment.

    So well done and enjoy the onward journey. You have the wind in your sails now a map and land is in sight. Happy sailing :)