3 things I learned from finishing my first draft

Hiro from Heroes
“Yatta!” – Hiro Nakamura, Heroes
One week ago, after several false starts and many tears, I finally finished the first draft of my novel.

It’s a good feeling, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m getting my manuscript workshopped by an awesome beta reading group next month, and I’m trying not to look at or think about it too much before then. Based on the feedback I receive from the beta readers, I’ll probably write a second draft before putting it away for a few months so I can come back to it fresh. I will most likely need a few redrafts before I’m ready to query agents and publishers. And there’s no guarantee it will even get published. Many authors’ first published novels are not actually the first novels they’ve written.

While I take a break from my first manuscript, I’ve started a rough outline of what might be my second. My theory is that having something else in the works will make the rejections less soul-destroying, but we’ll see. 😉

In the meantime, I’ve come up with three things I learned by finishing the first draft. They’re obviously writer-focused, but I think the broad lessons are applicable to other areas of life.

  1. If something is important to you, you have to make time for it.

    A lot of people talk about wanting to write a book. Most of them never start, let alone finish one. If you’re serious about it, you need to make time to write, and prioritise your writing over other things. I don’t mean abandon your kids and stop going to the job that’s keeping a roof over your head. But if you take a good hard look at your day, there are probably things you can do less of, like watching TV and surfing the internet. Then set some time aside specifically for writing (or whatever your goals are).

    The perfect circumstances for something are never going to happen. For years, I wrote the occasional flash fiction but never made much progress with any novels I attempted. I’d told myself it was because I was too tired and didn’t have enough time to write. But the truth is, I simply didn’t want it enough back then to make any sacrifices for it.

  2. pen and ink
    I finished the first draft of my first novel. Photo: Freerange Stock Archives.
  3. Break big goals into smaller ones.

    Writing a novel is a daunting task. Many writers have daily word targets, and if that works for you, go for it. For me, setting a goal like “I must write 2000 words today” just made me feel bad about how little I was writing and how slowly things were going.

    Maybe it’s because numbers scare me (Contrary to most Asian stereotypes, I suck at maths) but my most effective goals were things like “I’m going to write that scene about X today” or “I have 20 minutes before dinner; let’s see how much I can write before then”.

    There were days I opened up my manuscript and eked out a hundred words or so. There were days when I easily cranked out a couple of thousand. There were days when I wrote nothing, but maybe had an epiphany about how I could solve a particular problem with one of the characters. But each of those days brought me a tiny bit closer to the end of that first draft.

  4. Be open-minded.

    Writers often talk about “plotters” vs “pantsers”. Plotters outline their novel before they begin, and I know of authors who have colour-coded spreadsheets of every scene before they’ve written a word. Pantsers, on the other hand, fly at the seat of their pants without much of a plan at all. I think most writers lie somewhere between these two extremes, but I was always closer to pantsing than plotting, believing that plotting would stifle my creativity.

    However, about 12 chapters in, I decided to try plotting. Using Scrivener, I mapped out chapter by chapter, scene by scene, for the rest of the novel. It took me a few frustrating hours. But after that, I was much more productive because when I sat down to write, I could just write — instead of staring at the screen for half an hour trying to figure out what scenes were needed to get from Point A to Point B.

    I’m not telling you to write a certain way. There’s no one way to write a novel, and you need to figure out what works for you. But the things that work for you might not be what you expected, so be open to trying things a new or different way.

Hope that helps you in some way! What are your goals?

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