On completing a first draft

ticker tape

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If you are passing Suffolk at any point today, you may hear the odd scream of joy or bought of hysterical laughter. After what seems like years (but has only been three months), the first draft of Genesis Redux – The Transcendence Trilogy Part 3, is complete.

I don’t know about you, but for me, writing a first draft us a little like taking exams or buying a house – it’s only once you’ve finished that you realise just how much stress you’ve been under. This has been especially true of Genesis Redux.

With Second Chance I went into the process blind. The challenge was to write a book. The first draft was fun because I placed absolutely no expectations on myself. It was only after a number of people read it and told me it was good, that the pressure mounted to get it into a good enough shape to publish.

Absent Souls was different again. This time I had some pressure because Second Chance had been so well received, but at the same time I felt comfortable with my writing process. Whereas Second Chance was a journey into the unknown, Absent Souls was a trip with old friends, the sort where you get to know each other at a far deeper level than before. By this point I had an idea where the series was going, but not necessarily how it got there, so I had the freedom to play around a little and see what happened. The good news is that so far fans of the series have loved the journey too.

With Genesis Redux, however, there has been pressure from the start. It’s the final part in the series, and although each book can be read (and enjoyed) as a standalone novel, it was important that I brought all the major plot lines to a satisfactory conclusion. This has proven to be difficult. It has taken a while for me to find a way to reach an ending that stays true to the characters without feeling contrived. I’ve probably discarded more scenes in this first draft than I ever have before, because I knew I was putting plot before characterisation, forcing my characters to do things that didn’t come naturally.

At the same time, I needed to have the draft finished by the end of this month for personal reasons, and only a few weeks back this looked unachievable. However, I’ve ended up with a completed first draft with which I’m mostly happy (which with first drafts, is a good space to be in).

Of course, any of you who have written a book know that ‘completed’ as far as first drafts is concerned is a misnomer. There are so many things left to do. I have locations I need to change and expand upon, I have plot threads I need to backtrack into earlier parts of the novel and I have themes that emerged towards the end of the novel that need to be tweaked and highlighted in earlier scenes. I also have to follow character timelines to ensure they haven’t miraculously recovered from injuries which happened only moments – but a few chapters – earlier, or manic mood swings with no apparent cause. There are motivations to assess and monitor, behaviours too. And of course there is the all important pacing to consider. And after all that there’s polishing, lots and lots of polishing.

Yet despite all this, editing is the process I love the best. While I enjoy the freedom of the first draft, I’m not the most creative person when faced with a blank page. I’m much better adapting something that already exists. I find I generate more ideas during the edit than I do while writing the first draft. The biggest challenge is to know which ones to include and which to ignore.

I can’t wait to start the editing process, but for it to be effective waiting is what I’ll be doing. I’ve learnt through experience I need to leave my draft at least a month, preferably six weeks, so when I read it back it feels like reading another’s writing, and that’s when I edit the best. So in the mean time I get to work on something new. For the first time in nearly three years I get to think of something other than the Transcendence Trilogy universe. I’m quite looking forward to it. But before that, I’m going to celebrate.

What about you? What’s your favourite part of the writing process? Are you like me and love the edit, or do you enjoy the freeform creativity of the first draft? Are you happy to leave a draft knowing there is work still left to be done, or do you have to correct all plot points before you’re ready to move on? I’d love to hear from you.

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43 thoughts on “On completing a first draft

  1. Hehe. I do love first drafts. It is the most intense part of writing for me. It is the part where I stay up all night without realizing it and act out scenes and can’t talk about or think about anything else. I neglect my children, my husband, my friends, my blog, everything. But getting that part done is good too. And then I finally get to sleep it off for a bit. Editing is good but not so manic.

    • It’s definitely intense. I think the reason I love editing is because it’s considered. It’s what turns partially incoherent ramblings into a story and then a novel. The first draft is a passionate affair but the edit is a long-term relationship. 😉

  2. Wow, Dylan – well done! You must feel amazing… I wondered (on Twitter, remember?) if you’d finish today 🙂

    I’m just beginning (slowly… slowly…) on my second first draft (ie, the first draft of my second novel). It’s a juddering, shuddering entree to the obsession – I know how I got into the flow of it, last time. Nevertheless, this is my favourite part.

  3. I wondered what that noise was too! Congratulations, it’s such a wonderful feeling to finish. Not so great when you go through for a second draft and see all the typos, poor grammar, wrong words, sentences that make no sense, internal inconsistencies and so on 🙂

    • Thank you! It’s true that the polishing stage of the edit isn’t as much fun as the shaping stage, but some of the typos can be unintentionally hilarious. An author friend on twitter, Adam Dreece, often tweets his favourite funny typos.

      • I have one: in an original draft of a story I wrote some 15 years ago, I describe a birthing process. My original text said “the umbilical cord” was cut and tied.

        Quite why, when editing for my ebook of short stories, I changed that to “fallopian tubes” I will never figure out :-/

  4. Woo! Congrats! Finishing a draft (whichever one it is) is always a great feeling. With me it’s usually followed by a brief contemplation of “…hot damn, I think I pulled it off!” :p

  5. I think it is great you are leaving it to reflect on and go back to. We all get word blind. Unless I’m doing a rush editing/proofing job, I like to go back to something. OK, maybe not a month, but that respite let’s you look anew. So long as you don’t start changing prose for something that you’ve already said later on, we’ve all done it.

    I don’t know how you work, but I always suggest a straight read through first without editing. Then go back and edit.

    • I wrote a post a while back about my editing process. What I do is print it out, then read it through once for pace. This helps reveal the slow bits and the bits that feel rushed. I then try to address the pacing issues (along with correcting the larger, structural changes to plot or character) before going onto the more detailed editing.

  6. So that is what the fuss was about; I just assumed Sizewell had imploded. Well done and about time, if you ask me. We, your impatient reading public needed to know this would happen and, yippee, it has. *does jig, smiles*. I’m with you both on enjoying the editing and on putting to one side to let it become unfamiliar again. So feet up for a bit and then back to it… please! Oh and did I say CONGRATS?

    • Thank you! Yes, you can put your nuclear hazchem suit back in storage, Sizewell hasn’t exploded. I won’t be putting my feet up, exactly. I’ll be planning my next book (and noting down ideas for Genesis Redux that inevitable crop up at inopportune moments). Plus I’ve some research to do for an idea I’ve had and …

  7. I can answer your question with a simple, “Ditto.” I feel exactly the same as you about first draft vs. revision. Your words: “I’m much better adapting something that already exists” certainly resonate with me. Our only difference is perhaps how much detail I put in the first draft. Since I start with a very extensive outline, that’s where I leave unanswered questions. When I get to the first draft, I make sure I put everything in. For example, all geographic details, all setting descriptions, passages requiring my research be complete before writing them, etc. That way I won’t get slowed down in the second draft. I can just polish away.

    Big congrats on finishing!! You already know I share your euphoria since we’re in much the same place. I’m taking three weeks away from my manuscript before I dive back in.

  8. I love first drafts. They’re freeing and fun and there are no limits. I struggle through editing and that’s where I’m stuck with two manuscripts right now. It’s hard to keep writing first drafts knowing that I have so much editing piled up, but I don’t want to silence my desires. I think it’s a terrible ‘in-between’ to be stuck in. All the power to you and your editing!

    • They always say write your first draft in haste, edit in leisure. The key thing with editing, for me, is understanding what I need to do at which stage of the process. If I try to do everything (big, structural changes, rewrites and line edits) at the same time, it ends up a mess. Instead I break it down into the component parts and make sure I have a clear idea what I’d like to achieve at the end of each stage. This helps focus the mind and prevents me from feeling overwhelmed.

      • I think my deterrent is the come commitment to edit. Not the overall time commitment, but the chucks of time. I can write some or part of a scene in a spare 15 or 20 minutes but when I edit, I need a minimum of an hour to make any good progress.

  9. WELL DONE 🙂 HUGE CONGRATULATIONS. I am still figuring out my process, so I’ll tell you when I eventually finish my novel! But what I do know, is being given ‘permission’ has really helped! :p :p :p 🙂 🙂 🙂

  10. That seems to have come round pretty quick – it seems like only a few days ago we were talking about this. Well done. My preference seems to be for first draft – the creation part rather than the knocking it into shape part. Having said that, I don’t find editing as daunting as I used to. As I’m currently re-writing rather than editing, it feels like it’s neither one thing nor the other at the moment!

    Sorry I wasn’t still close enough to hear the screams and laughter. Give me more warning next time and I’ll try to be there…

    • Yes, it was quick in the end. It helped that I realised there was one scene I’d planned but didn’t need, so there was less to do than I thought.
      I love the initial rush of the first draft but I prefer to take something that’s there and then mould it into something (hopefully) better.
      As for the screams, I’m surprised you couldn’t hear them in Sherwood Forest!

  11. Congratulations, Dylan. I can “feel” your excitement at working on something new. The time that lapses when you set a work aside makes it fun to get back into.

    • Thanks, Gwen. Yes, it’s nice to work on something new after all this time. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve done (I have very much) but it’s time to try something new.
      It’s great to hear from you. How’s the teaching going? Have you done any more writing or is that still on the back burner?

      • Thanks for asking, Dylan. My long-term substitute job ended mid-February. It’s been great to be back on part-time work hours – good for the whole family. We’ve all been reminded why I resigned in the first place; the household runs so much more smoothly when Mom’s not working 50 hours a week (I’ll blog about this soon).

        I’m back at (almost) daily writing. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. After a week of decompression and getting my house back in order, I’m working an hour or two per day on the novel I started last July in Camp NaNoWriMo. Feels good to be back at it.

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