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?