You’ve seen it in dozens of movies, so many it’s practically a cliché: on a desperate deadline, the writer frantically types the last words of the manuscript—closeup of the words The End—then rrrrips the paper out of the typewriter carriage, and immediately sends a pile of pages off to his publisher. Finished! (I realize I’m showing my age with this illustration.)
I wish those scenes came with a Don’t try this at home, kids caption. Don’t send me (or your publisher) that first draft. It’s not ready. No, really. Don’t ever submit anything to anyone that isn’t your very best effort. And a first draft isn’t. Hence the name.
I’m not sure how my high school English teacher conveyed this, but everything I turned in—every short story, every essay, every how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation—was written and rewritten and written again. I still write and rewrite and tweak and read aloud. (Yes. Every blog post—read aloud. The cats think I’m nuts.) Occasionally I think some of y’all and I must have had a different English teacher.
I recently had a writer contact me about reserving editorial time. “What’s the word count?” I asked. “I don’t know yet,” she said. “I still have a few chapters to write.” Oh, sugar. If you can’t give me a word count because the manuscript’s not finished yet, you’re still on the first draft and we don’t need to be having this conversation. You’ve still got work to do. Holler at me when you’ve got your Best Effort ready.
But how do you get to that? What do you do once you’ve finished the first draft? Here are some things to factor in to your timeline:
• If you’re under contract and in danger of missing your deadline, call your publisher and ask for an extension (and then be sure you hit that one). There is nothing more unprofessional than someone who should know better handing in what Anne Lamotte calls “the shitty first draft.” If you’re not under contract but working on a self-imposed deadline, be gentle with yourself. Don’t stress. Keep working.
• Now that you’ve finished, set the manuscript aside and take a much-needed break from the computer. You need a cooling-off period. Go shopping. Read a book. Schedule a massage. Get reacquainted with your friends and fam. And sure, you can write—something else.
• Check your contract. Have your written as many words as you said you would? Have you written too many? Too few? If you’ve written on spec, know what word count publishers expect to see in your genre; it will be easier to sell this manuscript if you’re within the norms. More than likely it’s too long, so be prepared to cut.
• After an appropriate interval (at the very least a couple weeks, longer would be fine), take up the manuscript again and begin to read and revise.
• You could start with cleaning up typos, punctuation, and misspellings—these are annoyances that will distract you from more important things.
• Have you lined up beta readers? Have you let a critique partner see the work in progress? Have you addressed that feedback?
• Try reading aloud; you’ll be surprised at what jumps out. Keep an eye on the big picture story; make notes. At the end of this first read, you might ask yourself the four questions about plot. Fix any story problems you’ve discovered, then start on the next pass.
• Some writers take revision in pieces, reading once just to look for telling phrases, say, or just for the beginnings and endings of chapters, making sure the intros and outros lead where you want them to lead (ideally to turn the page). Make a pass for dialogue tags, another for info dumps, and one for duplicate words and phrases.
• Read your dialogue aloud again.
• Tighten up everything. Watch for sentence structure; many less experienced writers tend to use the same three or four constructions over and over.
Do this as many times as you need to until you think it is perfect. (Mind you, this shouldn’t take months or years. We’ve all heard the story about the writer who’s been working on the same novel for a decade but if you’re looking for a career as a writer, you need to finish this book so you can move on to the next one. And the next one.)
So there’s some tension here, between getting the project done … and getting it done right. Between making forward progress without rushing. Between sending your editor a first draft and sending her something editable.
Some time ago, a young writer was directed to me; she had a good story, but it was still a first novel from a first-time writer. And, because she didn’t really know* about the editorial process, it was a first draft. We sent a couple passes back and forth, and toward the end of this process, she sent me a note that made my heart swell: “I feel I’m finally sending you the manuscript that should have been our first pass.” And that, friends, was the manuscript that was ready to be shopped around.
UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.
* Want to know what you should look at before we talk? Read this.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”