You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

I finally finished the first draft of my novella, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media. This one took only seven months, but it was a novella.

A writer who finishes a first draft may experience a giddy desire to dive right in and begin revising the manuscript. After all, the writer should keep the momentum going, right? No. Writers must resist this urge. Take a break from your first draft. Walk away. Really. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Stephen King advised in his classic craft book, On Writing:

“How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneading—is entirely up to you,” King wrote, “but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.” The layoff gives the writer distance and perspective.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.” For King, the most glaring errors have to do with character motivation. For every writer it will be different.

Here’s what James Scott Bell wrote about first drafts in his classic craft book, Plot & Structure: “Your first draft needs a cooling-off period. So forget all about your novel and do something else…All the while, your first draft is cooling in the recesses of your brain, where a lot of good stuff happens, unnoticed.”

When a writer finishes a first draft, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a milestone. The writer should give himself a round of applause. Have some chocolate or a glass of your favorite beverage. There’s no empirical data to support this, but I would assert that most novice writers never get through the first draft. It’s an achievement.

Here’s what I do after finishing a first draft:

  • Do something nice. Give yourself a reward. Buy a new book or a CD.
  • Work on something completely different for the next four to six weeks. Try a short story. Try something in a different genre. Consult your ideas folder.
  • Read that bestseller you’ve been meaning to check out. Read it again with an attention to how the author told the story.

When the writer comes back to the first draft after an extended break, she will see the work in a new light. The writer will instantly spot all the flaws and the brilliant passages. The writer will see elements of the story that don’t work, scenes that don’t sing, or perhaps characters that don’t come alive. The writer may well discover the story starts in the wrong place. That dramatic scene on page 75 is the real beginning. The stuff that came before is just back story. The writer may see a character she loved when she created her, but after review, this character just gets in the way of the core story.

The good news is that in most cases, a writer will finish the first draft of her next book sooner than the first. Here’s how long it has taken me to finish my first drafts:

First novel: Small Change, 12 months, 126,000 words (final draft was 103,000 words)

Second novel: Color Him Father, 8 months, 117,000 words (still in draft)

Third novel: Bonus Baby (National Novel Writing Month novel), 30 days, 53,000 words (still in draft).

Fourth novel, Life of the Party, 7 months, 56,300 words.

How long does it take you to finish a first draft? Do you gain speed with each novel?

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

  1. “How long does it take you to finish a first draft?” What a great question, Mr.Blake. I honestly can’t answer that, and I feel badly about that fact. I’ve got an idea of how long it took to write Burritos and Gasoline, but it’s a guess at this point. All the various drafts and re-writes run together in my head now. My new novel, Made From Scratch is coming to life in fits and starts. Not due to lack of interest, fortunately. More often my interruptions have to do with more immediately pressing issues. Why just today it involved a sick daughter who needed to be picked up from school early. You can’t just say, “Daddy’s got another 500 words to write before I can take a break, baby.” That’s how you find yourself in the crappy old-folks home later in life, rather than living as a distinguished elder in a posh room at the back of your daughter’s house near the beach.

    Distractions are one thing, interruptions are another. I try to avoid both, but tend to fail miserably on both counts. So I no longer count the days, or the weeks, or the months it takes to put that first draft together. I don’t time my cooling off period, either – although I agree with the need for one, completely.

    These days I take the attitude, I’ll be done when I’m done. It makes little difference to me. There’s always another story to write, and another edit to do, and another book to read. But that’s not a complaint. It’s a celebration of my life and my work. After all, I love what I do. What’s there to complain about? I’m here on the planet anyway. I’ve got to do something with my time – why not write? Why not write some more?

    As the great and always entertaining Emily Litella used to say, “It’s always something.” Oh well, as long as I’m here – I guess I’ll jot down a few lines and see where it takes me. No clock watching here. Just fingertips dancing on the keyboard.

    BTW: I really enjoy your blog.

    • Jamie,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on first drafts. You raise a good point about distractions. There are some things a writer can control, like getting the butt into the chair. But when you have a sick child or other family needs, those must come first. Writing must take a backseat. I’ve tried to set a goal of producing a publishable MS each year. That seems reasonable for me, but everyone is different.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  2. I’m so happy that I read this article. 🙂

  3. It’s never just one draft, with me. Parts will be tenth draft, parts will be first, etc.
    I get obsessed, what can I say?

    • Mary,
      Thanks for your comment. The other side of the coin is you can revise your work do much that you don’t even recognize it. I would say that first pass through after letting the first draft sit is crucial. That’s where a writer really begins shaping the story. I did make two major changes to my first novel just two weeks before publication, deleting and rewriting two entire chapters that just were not working. A writer’s work is never done.

  4. Hi CG, I read “On Writing” over a decade ago and have reread it a couple of times through the years. It helps to keep things in perspective. Who better to teach it than someone who keeps churning out page-turners? 🙂 I think the 6 week-minimum is good if you keep yourself actively doing something else. I like how King says to turn his attention to something entirely different…even creatively.

    • Bryan,
      Thanks for your comment. King’s book is a classic. Every aspiring writer should read it–more than once. There is a real benefit to putting some time and distance between the writer and the first draft. You also raise a good point about working on something completely different. Thanks again.

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  7. Hello there.
    I’m an aspiring writer and have just written the 1st draft of a novel called ‘The Defeatist.’ It’s just over 94,000 words long at the moment, and I finished it 3 days ago. I guess I should wait for at least 5 and a half weeks before going back to it.
    -How do I even spot the mistakes in my own work & do you have any tips when it comes to redrafting a novel?

    • Sophie, thanks for stopping by. There are a number of good resources on the web on the topic of revising a first draft. I would check out thee blogs: KM Weiland, Jane Friedman, Writer Unboxed, Jodi Hedlund, James Scott Bell, and Roz Morris. Personally I like to read the entire manuscript and take notes on “big picture” issues, such as problems with the story or character development. You may find yourself cutting entire scenes or characters that don’t support the story, but that’s okay. On the next pass, I would continue to work on the story. I probably go through four revisions before I focus on things like grammar and sentence structure. Good luck to you!

  8. my first novel that wasn’t just for fun, ( I began writing novellas for fun when I was only five years old and fully novels by age 7) but my first novel that I wrote all the way through with the intent of trying to get it publishedーit took me just under a month and was 81,000 words for the first draft. but writing came naturally to me at a very young age.

    • Thanks for your comment. I found writing the first novel a difficult feat, especially since I knew little about the craft of writing. It comes easier now, but the first draft is still a struggle. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Travis

    It takes about two weeks to produce an 85k first draft. Unfortunately, I’ve become something of a first draft junkie. By the time I’ve had my cool off period and should be ready to edit, I’m already working on another story. I’ve got 6 first drafts under my belt in under a year. I’m not afraid to edit, I just can’t stop the ideas. I suppose there are writers who would like to have this problem but at this pace, I’ll never get anything edited. Any advice on slowing down the idea train?

    • Thanks for your comment, Travis. That’s an incredible output–85,000 words in two weeks. I would suggest slowing your pace on the first draft and then after a short break, get back to it and revise, revise, revise. Try to get that first draft into shape and then show it to critique partners. When it is as good as you can make it, send your manuscript to a professional book editor. I hope this is helpful. Good luck!

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