I’ve never pretended that I know everything there is to know about writing.
The whole point of starting a much earlier version of this blog 11 years ago was to spotlight my life as a naive aspiring writer. I only started giving writing advice as I began to commit to learning not just how to write, but how to advance as a storyteller.
Even then, though, I’ve always made it a point to admit when something is beyond my scope of knowledge. If I don’t have much experience with something, I’m honest about that. And when I make mistakes, I call myself out on them and aim to always do better.
So here’s something I’m going to tell you now: I’ve never actually finished the second draft of a book. At least, not technically.
I’ve always struggled with long-term projects. And while I don’t have trouble committing to things, once I check something off my list, I have a really hard time going back to that thing for a second pass.
So every draft I’ve ever finished, I’ve only ever done edits and minor rewrites on. That’s why I have yet to pursue publishing a full-length novel. I’ve just never gotten to the point where I have a polished manuscript to offer anyone.
The good news is, I’m finally sitting down with the draft I wrote last year and pulling it apart to begin a second draft. And now that I’m actually doing that, I’m realizing there are so, so many writers like me out there who have probably never been outright told how important finishing a first draft actually is.
Not just because a first draft is a big accomplishment, but also because if you don’t have a finished first draft in front of you, chances are you’ll never take your story any further. And that’s so many of our biggest fears, isn’t it? Putting so much work into something only to have it sit untouched for the rest of our lives?
Here are a few things you should know, if you’re at this stage or quickly approaching it.
A first draft might take less time to write than a second draft. I admittedly don’t have much experience with this specific idea or the evidence to say it’s a definite truth. But the more I study my manuscript, the more I realize that even though the framework of the story I want to tell is all there, skillfully restructuring and reforming the rest of it isn’t going to be easy. Or quick.
And you know what? That’s OK. Because good stories, the kinds of stories people can relate to and learn from, take time. There is no reason to rush a story. While there does come a point when going back and changing more of it won’t serve you or the story or those it’s intended for, there’s usually a benefit to spending more time with your characters and their collective journey.
A second draft might not be as challenging as a first draft just because you already have your basic “outline” so to speak. But it might take a while to get it right. Give it all the time you think it needs.
You need that foundation. You need a first draft before you can write a good book. If the basic outline for my story wasn’t there fully formed, I honestly think I would just give up. Stories are complex, even the ones that seem simple. There are many moving parts. And writing “real” people with constantly shifting emotions and progressively showcasing their growth from start to finish isn’t as easy as you’d think.
My opinion? You should always have a completed first draft in front of you before you start rewriting. Things will change along the way, you’ll come up with better ideas, better ways to present things and better combinations of words. And you’ll want to take so many things out. Add so many things back in.
Get the basic story out. Have the characters just tell it to you straight, if that’s easiest. There are parts of my work-in-progress that are just journal entries in which each character tells me their backstory in full detail. That’s not how I want their backstories to come out, but until I knew what those backstories were, I couldn’t move forward.
First draft first. Then everything that comes after it.
Moving beyond the first draft might not be a beginner’s task. I’m not ashamed to admit that the first dozen novel-length stories I wrote never got full rewrites. The most I ever did was add and move some things around, copy edit line by line, and rewrite some paragraphs here and there. Not because I didn’t want to do major rewrites, but because I don’t think I knew how, exactly.
I think when you’re a beginner, you’re so excited about the fact that you finished writing something from beginning to end that the thought of redoing even a sizable portion of it is absolutely mortifying. The fact that I’ve been doing this for over 10 years and am just now coming to fully understand this really speaks to the level of patience and discipline it truly takes to go from “I finished a draft” to “I have a manuscript someone might actually want to sell.”
This isn’t to say that you can’t return to a story and try to make it better. But if you’ve read any of The Blank Page series here, you might already know that the most important thing a beginner can do is to just write as many different stories as possible. Because there is so much to learn when you’re new at this, and your time is probably best spent learning through writing. A lot. All the time.
Patience is not an easy thing to learn. I still struggle with it to this day, and probably always will to some extent.
But this, too, can be learned through doing. Through trying, and failing, and trying again.
This journey is not an easy one. But I bet by the end of it you’ll be glad you put in the hours, and the effort, and the love.
I can’t say I love my current manuscript. But I do love the story, and what it means to me. I can’t wait to share it with you someday, hopefully sooner rather than later. I have so much more to learn, and so much more to pass on to you as I do.
What are you working on right now, or what do you hope to work on in the future? Tell me about it. :)
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.