Nine Secrets to Successfully Completing That Elusive First Draft

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At 1:04am, on the 20th of August, after exactly 292 days or 41 weeks and 5 days of writing my first draft of my novel, I wrote those two long awaited words… ‘The End’.

I was in bed, in the dark, laptop on my knees, with my sleeping beauty of a wife next to me. I stared at the screen, the cursor still blinking… and the first word that came into my mind was, “oh.” I stared around our darkened room and my gaze fell upon my wife. I searched for signs she was stirring… I had just finished my novel, of course she would just wake up… wouldn’t she? This was a momentous occasion… But her light sleepy snuffles continued. I couldn’t wake her.

I turned back to the screen. The cursor was still blinking. I read the two words in the middle of my screen. My eyes widened, my mouth fell slack… I really did finish? I wasn’t hallucinating or delirious like I had been many a time during this process…?

Nope. I really did finish. So what did I learn?

ONEHowever hard you think it’s going to be, it will be harder.

I knew before I started that writing a novel would be hard. If not for the quantity of words then for the shear monstrosity of content and information you have to manage and keep consistent. But knowing that and then actually writing a novel are two different things. It was so much harder than I expected. Especially when I was so invested in it. You are creating an entire world from scratch, the detail is insane.

TWO – However long you think it will take to write, it will take longer.

I don’t recall how long I thought it would take, less than a year, and ok, I hit that (just). But I remember frequently setting targets for this chapter or that section and missing them repeatedly. I fell short of goals and deadlines and never got anything done on time. Life has a habit of getting in the way particularly when you think it won’t. In fact, especially when you think it won’t.

THREE – First drafts are shit.

This was THE novel, the one I always wanted to write. It means the world to me. Which also means, I wanted perfection on draft one. That, is an impossibility. I put an awful lot of pressure on myself to have the perfect characters, the correct timeline, settings detail, all of it. I ended up blocking myself to the point I couldn’t write for a couple of months. Perfection comes through editing. Editing is a necessity not failure. The minute I accepted that the minute I unblocked myself and was able to free write, my pace picked up and I kept going.

FOUR – Routine is a necessary evil.

It’s one of those phrases used all the time. Writers need routine. But it wasn’t until I started trying to write this novel at pace that I really appreciated how necessary routine is. I write everyday or almost everyday. The simple act of doing that has improved my writing tenfold. Whether I write a blog post or a piece of flash fiction, it all helps. In this instance practice really does make perfect.

FIVE – Editing maps are gold dust.

I use an editing map, if you don’t know what that is you can read more in my post 8 steps to discover your perfect writing process. It’s a map of each chapter. I create it before I start (or in this case part way through) and as I write, in order not to stop or have to go back and edit to perfection (which would mean I never got to the end) I write notes in an editing map. I have pages of edits already listed under the correct chapter ready for me to take a red pen to my draft. I cannot tell you how helpful this is – makes me feel like I can hit the editing road at a run.

SIX – Chapter summaries should be written as you go.

My memories good. I can recall several digits of numbers that flash up in front of me, I can cram for exams and remember factual education things with ease. What I can’t do is remember 90,000 words of detail. I am really kicking myself for not having done this consistently, but what I should have done, and will do when I write book two, is write a summary of each chapter as I finish them. I now have to do this as I edit, which means I can’t write a blurb or a synopsis until I have read the darn manuscript.

SEVEN – Writing is hard on relationships

If you are single then this probably doesn’t apply. But if you have a partner or family or actually friends! then writing is hard on your relationships. I got very sucked into my novel. It took up a serious amount of brain space and time, which means there is less left for your partner. Novels don’t get written over night. This one took 292 days, that’s almost a year. Granted, I know more about my process and how to write now and therefore next time it would be quicker. But writing almost 100,000 words doesn’t happen quickly. And it’s all too easy to neglect those closest to you.

EIGHT – Change your mind – kill your babies.

I learnt I am pretty indecisive. There are a good few chapters in the middle where the storyline will need to be made consistent because I changed my mind repeatedly about everything. In the end I made a decision to cut two characters completely. It worked. I wrote on and got the storyline straight.

NINE – Just keep writing, no one else is going to write it for you.

Sounds ridiculous, but its true. I gave up twice on this novel. But I had to pick it back up because no one else was going to finish it for me. I got blocked, frustrated, irritated and deluded with it. But I kept putting one word after the other, and eventually they turned into sentences and paragraphs and apparently a novel! (Still in shock!). This is twofold – I didn’t just learn that I needed to keep going, but keep going in times of block too. If I got stuck on a part of a chapter, or an entire chapter, I just kept going. Skipped the bit I couldn’t do and wrote something else. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but it did for me. It meant I carried on, got words on the page, and most of the time, I found my solution in writing something later in the story. Don’t let block stop your progress, just write something else.

Now I have to edit. So my question to you is:

What is the best advice you could give me for editing?What’s your top tip?

Let me know in the comments below.

108 comments

  1. Congrats, Sacha! It must feel great to get to this point.

    “You are creating an entire world from scratch, the detail is insane.” This is so true, it can drive you around the bend after a while! Sounds like you’ve got some good strategies to deal with each aspect of the process.

    1. Thanks Jane, I am super excited to start editing, I am desperately trying not to start straight away in favour of giving my brain breathing space. I do hear editing is the most fun 🙂

          1. 80,423 words first draft. Rewrote 62,000 in 3 months on second draft. Now my brain is mush! Am waiting for my brain to solidify so I can start on third draft 🙂

          2. You wouldn’t believe the amount of words I have written and binned in the last 12 months. I seriously think I have a problem. Binge writer!

  2. Congratulations Sacha!!! This is fantastic news. 🙂
    My advice for editing? Don’t pull your hair out, it will eventually fall into place. 😉 (I hope.)
    Good luck!

  3. With you every step of the way, Sacha. In the middle of an edit as I speak, and it never gets any easier. Chapter summaries are a good idea, so is having detailed character profiles. I shall be checking out your theory of an editing map, sounds like it could help a lot!

  4. Congratulations Sacha, finishing a novel is an amazing achievement. I recommend resting the manuscript for a little while, it will give your brain time to process the writing and then you can return to it fresh. (this seemed to work on my first book, although I’ve not had it back from the editor yet so it could have been disastrous.) Going to try the chapter synopsis thing on my current draft seems like a good idea.

      1. I meant to rest my first draft for about a month, but it ended up resting for 3 months instead. I’ve no idea if this was reasonable or not, but seemed to work fairly well. I’m aiming to rest my current work for about a month but this might end up being longer.

  5. Well done Sacha! Cant wait to read it now, and feature it on my blog with beautiful cover art and links to your buying page… can youcsee that far yet???

    And you already have my editing tips, so I’ll not repeat them here, but editing is way more fun than writing! I love the editing stage!

    Btw it should be called polishing, or crafting. You are taking something already created and honing it into perfection. Editing has such negative connotations, as if you are removing a limb! As if it is something to be dreaded. But its the best part! Like forging a sword… polishing the blade, making it sharp and shiny, adding a beautiful carved hilt…

    1. hehe, thanks Ali, still in shock! I can’t wait for the day you can do that too. I definitely can’t see that far! feels like forever away!

      I like the term polishing. Thats a good way of thinking about it. I hope it turns out like that! bit scared at the minute!

  6. Fantastic, Sacha! I know only too well that anti-climactic feeling when you reach the end of the first draft. I’m a naturally solitary person, which fits in well with being a writer, but the down side is that it’s not easy to celebrate. And when it comes to something you’ve been working on for a long time (and no one else has a clue what you’re doing) it’s even harder. And then you also realise you’re still only part of the way there….

    But the important thing is that you’ve reached a significant milestone, and it’s a milestone that too many people never actually reach. So be proud of what you’ve achieved so far, and let the knowledge that you’ve reached that milestone be the spur that drives you to reach the next one.

    1. Interesting…. Interesting that you say anti-climatic. I didn’t find it anti-climatic at all! It was AMAZING. I had three hours sleep and was on a high for the entire next day!! I am still buzzing off it. When I held it in my hands I felt crazy good all over again. So it definitely wasn’t a let down for me. Even the realisation that I still have a way to go couldn’t put a downer on it!

      Thanks I really am so proud, I can’t believe I actually did it. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Hey, you know, the important thing is not to rush, you rush and you end up having to re write thousands of words. You just got to keep plugging away. I am glad this post is encouraging, you will get there just keep swimming as dori would say! 😀

  7. Congrats! Finishing a novel is such a warm, fuzzy feeling. I have to say that I agree with all your nine points. Writing a novel is a lot of information to remember.
    As for editing… I would take a break from the novel–at least a week. Then you can look at it with fresh eyes. I also keep an “editing list” as I write so I know what to look for when I do start editing, but you have your editing map. So you should be good. Good luck with the editing! 🙂

    1. Thanks Rachel, it really was a massively warm and fuzzy feeling. Glad you like the points 🙂 I just don’t know how people remember a novel with stacks of notes! Would you believe its been almost a week, will leave it a bit longer I think, before going back to it. Thats good advice 😀 thanks for the support.

      1. Thanks. Been cutting back on most things internet. Concentrating on family. Also about to cross over the 10K mark on book 2. I can’t complain! Now go celebrate more! Come back to it in a few weeks with fresh eyes and red pen.

  8. Just to add a formal Well Done to all the above (but you know that). And as Ali says you’ve had a few tips too. Your tips are excellent too. I should do a edit map, I know I need to do chapter summaries, I have to write down character details or I forget their names – one day I’ll do what I intend rather than just get by. And there is the best tip of all. Just start and keep going. You’ll find pitstops and road blocks on the way and you’ll surmount them. And it will be glorious!

    1. Thanks Geoffle, much apprech. Meh, we all work differently, not everything works for everyone, besides your process seems to be working fine enough for you 😀 you’re prolific!

  9. Great post, Sacha – re number 6, though blurbs and synopses shouldn’t contain detail, they’re a general outline, the blurb as an back cover advert to make someone want to read it, and the synopsis to give an overview to an agent/publisher. So you needn’t worry about that, I don’t think! I always get to the stage where I practically know the damn thing by heart by the end… all 124,000 words of it…. sick of the sight of it!!

    1. woah, 124,000 words?! :O :O. I am terrified that my second draft is going to go over 100K there are a few chapters i decided late on I wanted to add… and I just know what I am like, more will go in, in draft two! I guess draft three will be cutting!! Thanks for your support.

  10. Yay! Congratulations. A great summary of the experience too. I actually follow an editing method really close to your 7 steps. A tip? The only thing I didn’t see spelled out was “reading aloud.” It’s an amazing step because our ears pick up on detail that our brains brush over. Best of luck. I’m so excited for you and your book!.

  11. Just don’t be too attached to your first draft. This is your first finished book. You will make mistakes, you ARE human, aren’t you? If you are a robot editing machine get off this site!

    Have fun, and start thinking about your sequel!

    1. oh boy, I am like my harshest critic! I think someone will have to pry the finished thing out my hands before I accept its ready for publishing!! Thanks for the lovely comment 😀 sequel here i come!

  12. Congratulations! Sometimes I feel a bit intimidated by the prospect of writing something large like a novel although I would love to but posts like this make me believe it is possible – So thank you for that! :-p

    1. It IS intimidating, but nothing worthwhile is easy to do. So you just have to face the fear and power on through. I am glad you liked the post, I am wishing you all the luck i can so you too can write a post like this soon 😀

      1. Thank you 🙂 I always find the planning stage the hardest. I just want to dive in and start writing stuff but I know that I would probably find it less intimidating if I knew where I was going with it a bit more so currently planning more is my goal!

        1. ahh i got very stuck planning, I over planned to the point I couldn’t write. So in the end I jacked it all in and just started… worked for me. but isn’t a panacea for everyone…

  13. Cheers! What a great accomplishment. Polishing will be just as exciting. Good to let it simmer a bit for the fresh eyes thing – but not too long. Do read it out loud – makes some stuff so obvious.
    Great tips – the chapter summaries should be a real help to keep up and keep on track.

  14. Many congratulations on writing that first draft. Was it also a bit sad when you wrote those two words “The End”?

    I can’t give you any tips on editing because I’m way, way down the line, but I’ll know who to come to for advice when it’s my turn to edit.

    I hope some celebrations are in place for completing that first draft? If not, then you need to let me take you out to celebrate 🙂

    1. No. Not sad in the slightest, I was like F*** yeah!! hahaha, I am a bit daunted now though by the editing process! eek. :S ignoring it for now! Haven’t celebrated particularly…. tut, shame on me!

      1. I’ve heard the editing process can be fun. Try and make it fun, otherwise you could end up abandoning it a few times. Maybe have that celebration after it’s done or, in my case, have a second celebration 🙂

  15. Good on you Sacha! It’s such an inspiring moment when we reach the finish line. I can tell you from my perspective, the best part of writing a book is . . . writing the book, lol. That’s my pleasure, and then comes revisions. All your tips are valid and summarizing chapters along the way is a big help. Writing is a lonely occupation, no doubt.
    I write my books and blogs in longhand, as I’ve often written about in my blogs. My revisions begin when I take my first draft and begin entering it into the computer. By 2nd draft much has already changed and been cleaned up. I’ve taken the advice from many a great writer and don’t edit as I write, just keep going forward because I don’t like to interrupt my thoughts and that’s what revisions are for. After I’ve gone 2nd round I leave it alone for a few days and go back to it with fresh eyes for more revisions. This process can go on several times until I find the stories flow and I’ve caught what I think are all the errors and typos and it’s clean enough to send to my editor. Of course the editor will find the things I’ve overlooked, that’s what she gets paid for. But the cleaner we send it, the less it will cost.
    After it comes back from the editor I print out a copy of her ‘clean’ versions and read it against her version on the computer with her track changes so I can see where there were errors to learn from them and also to decide if I agree with all the changes. Some will be suggestions that I may feel I don’t want to change. It’s a process alright. But a few rounds of back and forth with the editor and another final read will then be sent off for a proofread again and another by me before it’s off to the formatter. In between that process I’m already working with a book cover designer so it will all be ready to publish near the same time. By this time you will most likely be sick of reading your book, LOL.
    Yup, you asked, I’m sharing. After your first book, you will notice how much your editing skills begin to grow with each new book. 🙂 I hope this helps.xo

    1. You know, it’s funny, because I am actually looking forward to editing much more than I ever did writing it. WRiting it seemed like such hard work all the time, I was starting with a blank page. It hurt! Now I have hundreds of filled pages, and I know that working on it will lead to something better than what I have got already. Im excited at the prospect I might have something worthy that can be read… getting closer to perfection… (HAHAHA yeah right)

      I am with you. I dont edit as I go. I cant. I’d never finish anything, and I dervive most of my sense of achievement from completing something.

      That’s a great idea about reading and looking at the corrections – my grammar is appalling. never been good at it, so I will remember this tip, and definitely use it when I get an editor.

      Thanks so much for all your advice 😀 <3

    1. Pahaha! Thanks Michelle. Yeah just that little old thing! Teeeheeee nearly killed me! Lol. Onwards and upwards in the week that’s passed, I have outlined 3 more novels oh dear… What have I started?!

      1. Hi Sacha. Yes I’m fine thanks, a few people have been asking me this, it’s been my mum who’s been a little poorly after an operation, she’s on the mend now. I was up in Edinburgh helping her out and joining in the Festival fun. Thank heavens she’s a strong lady. 🙂

  16. Thanks, Sacha! Now, if someone could please provide a way for me to ‘fall in love’ with my story, again! I’m at the climatic scene, and I feel it’s dragging. Uhgg!

    1. hmm, I might need to give that one a bit of thought! I hope you do fall in love with it again, time away usually helps – you know what they say…. it makes the heart grow fonder!

  17. Phew nothing is harder, but more rewarding. Give yourself a big pat, a lovely large glass of vino or whatever your favourite tipple is and recharge before you start editing. Best of luck, so excited for you. 🙂

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