On Finishing: What I’ve Learned from Completing a First Draft

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Rounding out at approximately 87,000 words, my novel-in-progress is no longer in-progress. It is done. Well, what I call the “first working draft” of it, anyway. It’s not quite a first draft since I’ve been editing and posting it on Literotica chapter-by-chapter since April 2014, but it’s still a bit rough around the edges—especially those first few chapters. While my ultimate plans for the story are still up in the air, I can say that I’m really, really glad to have finally laid down that last sentence. It took ten months to complete this story and with three anthology projects lined up for February, I’m going to need all the extra headspace I can scrounge up.

I don’t want to wax poetic about the process because, as a rule, I try not to treat my words as though they were precious. Yes, I live and breathe writing and storytelling, but if there’s one quality that I could giftwrap and ship to every budding writer, it would be ruthlessness. By that, I mean: don’t coddle yourself or your work, pledge to finish what you start (and then do that), and if cutting an 8k draft down to 500 words will make the story better, then by all means, snip away.

Having said that, I will concede that the post-I-just-wrote-a-book-high is pretty fantastic in a quiet, “Well, how ‘bout that?” sort of way. I tried really hard not to harbor any expectations as to how it would feel, but a few managed to slip in somewhere between the final chapter and the epilogue. I expected to cry a lot and maybe wind up on the floor for a while. That didn’t happen. In fact, more than anything, what I really want to do is get back to work: the consistent, comforting routine of sitting quietly and meeting the quota.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this story. I love the characters and the smutty romance and the weird little connections that weren’t intended but somehow found themselves lining up all pretty and semi-coherent on the page. I’m happy to have finally given my characters, and hopefully, my readers, a sense of closure and an ending that doesn’t leave them smacking their tongues like they’ve just tasted something cloying.

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Finishing this story has taught me a lot about both myself as a writer and novel-crafting in general. My hope is that these observations might be of some use to you, especially if you’re in the thick of your first big project. So, without further ado, here are five things I’ve learned from completing a first draft:

1. Writing fiction will make you more honest and compassionate. While our stories and characters may be imaginary, what we’re ultimately attempting to accomplish each time we put our words to paper is the tapping of some universal truth, something each of us can relate to. Striving to create authentic characters forces us to look at people—really look at them—and see them as they truly are, prejudices and all. It cultivates compassion. I once heard it argued that the best actors are those who, rather than judge a character’s actions or motivations, pause and take the time to contemplate, “How might I be different if I were subject to these particular circumstances?” Writing requires a similar suspension of cognizance. We pull people out of our brain-muck and then make them do things and sometimes those things aren’t so nice. It’s important that we understand why they do the things they do, not just so that we can make them believable, but so that we can make them sympathetic.

2. Trust the stream-of-consciousness. This one took a while to embrace because, for a long time, I was an “edit as I go” kind of writer. However, while that might work for some, I find it to be crippling. You know that incredible feeling when the words just flow as though the prose was moving through you from some other-worldly source? Well, there’s no better way to quell that stream than to ask it to hold on a second while you perfect this description of a chandelier. It’s tough to look at a line of dialogue and know that it’s crap and leave it there anyway, but that’s the pain and pleasure of revision: don’t worry, you’ll be back…many times over. Just get the words down.

3. The show vs. tell situation is slightly different for Erotica and Romance writers. I wish someone had told me this sooner. Somewhere around chapters four and five of The Cabin, I started to feel like I was writing a technical manual. I was reading a lot of craft books that advised me to show, show, show instead of tell. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that telling is actually an important tool for Romance writers, especially when writing in first-person. Love and sexuality are incredibly personal subjects. If the characters aren’t baring themselves both physically and emotionally, they can come off as cold, stiff, and unrelatable—the kiss of death for a Romance novelist. No, you don’t want to drown your readers in exposition and if I can convey attraction with a shy smile and a head-tilt rather than flat-out stating, “I think you’re dreamy,” I will. But Romance readers expect that inner monologue, and for good reason. It’s a staple of the genre that places the reader inside the protagonist’s head and then guides them throughout the rest of the story, helping them understand why the character might feel or react a certain way. Speaking of which…

4. If the characters are resisting, something might be wrong. I’m not talking about dragging them kicking and screaming into necessary hardships. I’m talking about recognizing a dead end when you see one. For a while I tried really, really hard to convince two of my characters to get friendly, but they wouldn’t have it. That I even needed to “convince” them was a red flag that I wasn’t being faithful to their motivations. Coming up with a great scene is only half the battle. Ensuring that all the pieces align to make said event happen the way you want requires forethought. You need to sow those seeds early so that each action a character takes makes sense.

5. You won’t know how good (or not good) it is until you get some distance. Now, this is another area where a lot of writers differ, but I happen to identify with the camp that needs to tuck a finished piece away for a while before they can effectively edit it. How long this period lasts depends on length. Short stories need maybe a few days to a week, while a novel would require significantly more time to breathe—at least a month. I like to use that in-between time to refresh my brain with shorter projects, like anthology submissions. Each new venture has the potential to stretch you that much further, improving your voice and strengthening your storytelling muscles. By the time you pull that old project out of the digital drawer, you’ll be looking at it with a brand new set of eyes.

Bonus: It really is all about finishing. There are few good reasons not to finish and sucking isn’t one of them. All first drafts suck. We hear it time and time again: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page” (Jodi Picoult). Granted, knowing when to abandon a project is a skill unto itself, but I’d venture to say that you’re better off at least finishing a first draft before making that call. Finishing is about more than just ending a story. It’s about resolve and proving to yourself (and others, but that’s less important) that you are capable of doing what you set out to do. If you can do it once, you can do it again. And again. And again.

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17 thoughts on “On Finishing: What I’ve Learned from Completing a First Draft

          1. I don’t think my small band of followers would have it any other way 🙂 By the way; are you a Twitter user? I have promised a spectacular first tweet today … just got to work on it now!

            Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a little unfocused these days. I threw another thousand words at my nano project, wrote a few poems that may never be read…and a few WordPress prompts? Very unfocused, but still writing:)

        Thank you so much for asking!

        Liked by 1 person

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