Fret No More: Here’s What to Do When You Finish a First Draft

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Sandra Scofield is the author of seven novels, including Beyond Deserving, a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Chance to See Egypt, winner of a Jesse H. Jones Award for Fiction. She is on the faculty of the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College.

When you put down the last period on the last page, when you realize, I have written a novel!, you will experience bliss just before the question pierces you like a dart: What do I do now?

You should start with some kind of celebration: a glass of bubbly, a long cheerful walk, lunch at a favorite café. You should call a friend or two. You have taken an idea – something lighter than air – and written a novel.

What you don’t want to do is rush to revision. Take time away from the manuscript. Let the sound of it fade. Attend to the rest of your life for a while. Come back to the novel as an eager but somewhat distant reader.

Take the manuscript somewhere you don’t usually work:  a library, a coffee shop, a friend’s study. Don’t take notes. Read it in a few sittings, close together. Follow the story. If it stumbles, gulp and go on to the end, for then you can consider: What do I have here? Is it what I meant to tell? You can’t know what your response will be: perhaps buoyant optimism; perhaps disappointment and doubt; maybe, even, a feeling that you are off the mark by a lot. Be sure it isn’t clumsy prose that brings you down, because you can rewrite. Think about story.

Sometimes this is the place where a writer says, I have a lot more to do before I can revise. I have more to learn, more to think about, more questions to answer. The first draft isn’t really done. I know writers who have put a novel aside and picked it up a year later, and others who have spent months or years on fresh research. Manuscripts get abandoned, sometimes out of sheer irresolution. Some get rewritten with breakthrough vision and confidence.

Though I think you should be honest about your reaction to the story, I urge you to undertake at least the first stage of revision, which is describing what you have produced in the first draft (structure, especially). A good story can be lost in muddle and ellipses, but you can find it in analysis. A good story can be muffled by wrong turns in the telling, or it can be too “thin,” or overly complicated, but those problems can be ameliorated in revision. Besides, you can’t be sure the manuscript’s not better than you think, while you can be pretty sure you can improve it, once you understand what it is you have written.

You might start by choosing an event from the novel and exploring it from a different angle. Summarize the novel over and over, making subtle shifts. Talk the story through with a writer friend and answer questions about it. You need a strong sense of what your novel is about, what the protagonist’s big dilemma is, what the major events are. You need a sense of vision and an urgency-to-tell: not just I can do this, but I have to do it.

How do you do it? How do you move on from the first draft? Revision is about analyzing what you have now and considering ways to make it better. The first draft is done, and now you start at a new beginning, your pages on the table, your heart in your throat, writing your novel again.