First draft hangover. What have we learnt?

After four years mulling and a year writing, I have now finished the first draft of my steampunk novel.

Whew! I have mixed feelings on it all. It most certainly isn’t a masterpiece. There are plot holes, too much telling than showing and a lack of cohesiveness which makes it feel more like a string of scenes than a complete novel.

I know there’s a great deal of work still to do, but I cling to a small sense of pride that I’ve finally managed to get to the end of the first draft.

As Terry Pratchett says:

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

I’ve now put the steampunk story away for a few months. This is suggested by many writers and something I entirely agree with. Sometimes, it’s impossible to see the problems with your own work. Giving yourself time to look at it with fresh eyes, as a reader, not a writer, will let you see where it needs to be improved. It’s also important for proofreading if you’re not overly familiar with what you wrote the first time, you’ll see the grammar and spelling issues.

It’s also important for proofreading if you’re not overly familiar with what you wrote the first time, you’ll see the grammar and spelling issues.

Even if the steampunk story never sees the light of day again, I feel proud for having written it. And for what I’ve learned from it. Because even now, as I start planning my sci-fi story, I know the steampunk draft has taught me a lot.

Here are just three things.

  • Planning

If the steampunk draft has taught me anything, it’s that I’m a planner, not a pantser. There’s a popular idea among writers that you’re either a planner (you plan your novel from start to finish in vivid detail) or a pantser (literally, you write ‘by the seat of your pants with no planning). While these are two quite deep routed camps, I think the truth for most writers is somewhere in the middle.

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No spoilers!

But I at least know now that starting with a premise and going gun-ho for it doesn’t work for me. Some people want the end to be a surprise, or why would they want to write it? For me, not knowing where I was going caused more panic than productivity.

Therefore, my plan for my next novel has gone from a one-page spider diagram of vaguely what’s going to happen, to half a dozen docs and a fully laid out plan on my corridor wall. Already, I feel better about this novel than I have done about any other.

  • Write

Yes, yes, we all know ‘if you want to be a writer, write.’ But I’m actually talking about something different.

While I was writing the first draft, I would finish a sentence, then go back and re-read. I wanted it to be perfect first time round. Or if not perfect, then shooting for greatness. And often it was an excuse. If I was on a roll, I would write six hundred words without realizing.

But on days where the magic wasn’t happening, then I’d become pedantic over every little word. What I didn’t realize until too late is it messed up the flow. Forcing myself to keep going was the only way to regain the magic and I was hampering myself.

In future, I’m going to forgive myself the little errors along the way because there’s nothing that can’t be ironed out in the end.

  • Amnesty in proofreading 

This is an odd one and I hope there’s someone else out there who know what I’m talking about. I rarely read something I’ve written and think ‘man, I’m a genius.’ I think I can count the times on one hand and it includes a short story I submitted for a competition and one of the posts on this blog.

Otherwise, re-reading my work is always a painful procedure. I can’t think objectively or see it as a reader would. I’m too busy criticising that my eyes skim over my work. I think it’s one of the reasons my proofreading is so bad – I actually don’t want to read it!

In many ways, this blog has helped a lot with that. My anxiety that a reader may notice a mistake in my post is balanced against the discomfort of proofreading. I’m sure it’ll be a similar feeling when I start looking for an agent!

Slowly, I’m starting to forgive myself for my mistakes during the proofread and edit because if I don’t, I won’t ever be able to improve. No one writes perfectly the first time round. Second drafts, third drafts, edits and proofreads are the only way.

Anyway, it’s safe to say I’ve still got a long road ahead of me. In a couple of months, I’ll start the first edit of the steampunk novel and discover the horrors that await me. Meanwhile, my research has moved from Victorian etiquette and H.G. Wells to time travel, meteorites, and cellists. By the way, if anyone out there does study or know anything about meteors, let me know! 

If any of you are at the end of a draft or perhaps even just completing a novel, comment, and share! No one should suffer or celebrate alone! 

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