Creative Writing Advice # 14: Defeat the First Draft Blues, Part 102:50
National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) ended November 30, but for the 21,683 writers who successfully completed a 50,000-word (or longer) draft of a novel, the work has just begun. If you're one of them -- or if you've ever stared at a first draft of a novel, wondering, "What's next?" -- WEbook Writing Secrets are here to help.
This is the first in a series of practical tips for writers facing the first draft blues.
It's Not Over!
Unless you're Jack Kerouac, chances are good that the work you create in a white-hot frenzy is nowhere near publishable quality. (Frankly, I've always had my doubts about old Jack, too.) Even if you're not sure you want to publish your novel, you can learn just as much -- and perhaps more -- about telling a story from editing and revision as you can from writing a first draft. Here's how it's done.
(Note: These tips come from my experience working with writers to get their first -- or second, or third, or fifteenth -- draft of a novel in shape for publication. None of these steps are compulsory. Plenty of people write, revise, and publish novels without following my advice. If you have work habits that work for you, keep working 'em!)
Step 1: Take Five
A first draft of a novel is a lot like a really, really dense forest. There may be a path in there, but if you're lost in the trees, you'll never find it. Get out of the forest. In fact, go far enough for long enough that you completely forget what the forest is like. Then, rent a helicopter and fly over the forest, making a map of what you see from a distance. When you get back into the trees, you'll be less likely to get lost.
What does this mean in non-metaphorical terms? Quite simply: Take a break, then come back and read your entire first draft with fresh eyes, making notes before you start changing anything. Your break should be long enough that you forget a lot of the details of what you wrote. The length of this break will vary depending on how much your mind resembles a steel trap. There are a few things you can do to speed up the process. Choose one of these cross-training activities, or combine a few.
1) Read one great book. Pick something long and difficult that you've been meaning to tackle since high school. Anything written by a 19th-century Russian writer or an early modernist European should do the trick. Spend a week or two on War and Peace or The Magic Mountain, and you'll have no idea what you were working on before. Beware! Reading dense old books can infect your writing style. This is more of a danger during the composition process, but you should be on guard for accidental overdose nonetheless.
2) Read three silly books. The books should be reasonably well-written (you don't want to rot your writer's brain), but light and fast. It's best to steer clear of your novel's genre -- if you wrote a horror novel, don't read Stephen King. For all writers, I recommend anything by P.G. Wodehouse.
3) Complete a physical challenge. Train for a 5K, a 10K, a marathon, or a triathlon. Hike a segment of the Appalachian trail. Climb a literal mountain.
4) Become an art enthusiast. Take two weeks, and see as many plays, dance performances, concerts, and museum exhibits as your schedule and your town's cultural offerings will permit. Don't go to literary readings -- they lead to nothing but pointless, poisonous fantasies about what you'll wear to your first book signing.
5) Don't stop writing -- but don't work on your novel, and don't start anything that can't be finished in a day. Your goal is not to start new projects during this time -- you just need to keep the old writing muscles in decent shape. Think of yourself as an athlete in the off-season, or an opera singer between shows. You want to run drills and sing some light scales, but you also need to rest. Commit to a few weeks of free-writing for an hour or so a day, or write some 200-word short short stories. File the stories away for later. When you're done with your novel, you can pull them out and use them for inspiration for your next project.
Coming Soon: Step 2: Embrace the Mess
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