What happens after the first draft?

Posted on July 5, 2013

On Tuesday I finished the first draft of my latest WIP, the right-now-untitled first book in the upcoming FIREBIRD trilogy. And there was much rejoicing! In celebration I took two days off — and now, the work begins again. 


What happens after the first draft of a novel is probably different for every single novelist out there, and, honestly, for every single novel. For me, because of my outlining process, I tend to wind up with a relatively clean first draft. By this I mean it has a coherent story in there, with characters who are behaving more or less like themselves. It’s a book at this point, just not the book it’s going to be … and probably not yet the book I want it to be.

(Disclaimer: I don’t always wind up with a clean first draft. STARGAZER memorably lost a middle chunk about 20K words long. The whole middle was wrong. It was a dark time.)

So where do you start taking a first draft to where it needs to be? Well, those two days I took off weren’t only for celebration; taking a short break is honestly one of the best things you can do at this point, IMO. It’s important to come into revisions with a fresh viewpoint, to be able to look at the book as a whole more comprehensively and objectively. No writer can ever be wholly objective about her own work — this is why we have beta readers, and why mine are now reading through this book as well. (Love you, Ruth and Skylar!) Still, a few days away from the manuscript is usually refreshing and helpful.

Normally I would begin by rereading the book and taking notes about what jumps out at me. These notes work with the ones I take while writing, because sometimes I know even as I’m putting the words down that this is not quite right. Although I work hard to fix most issues while I’m writing it the first time, it’s important to strike a balance between “getting it right” and “continually moving forward.” Otherwise a particularly thorny section can derail you for weeks. Also, sometimes you know there’s a problem with a scene but you don’t yet know the solution, and that solution may present itself more readily when you can look at the work as a whole.

And yes, I’m going to do all that, starting tomorrow or perhaps tonight. But I’m actually doing something else first thing today: I’m letting one of the characters speak to me, and free writing in his voice for a while. Already I know that one of the book’s issues is that this character isn’t coming across as clearly as I want him to, and it’s not because I don’t understand him. He’s the strong, silent type — and a little shy — and you know, he was shy about presenting himself in the book, too! (I know that sounds like author-mysticism crap, but it’s uncanny how sometimes the characters have their personalities so strongly that they can even get to your writing. Once I wrote something set in the Roman Empire during the reign of the emperor Caligula, who was meant to be a more minor player in the drama. Immediately he wanted to take the whole thing over, and I realized I had a lot of nerve being surprised by this. Of course he wanted it all. He’s CALIGULA.) So, basically, I’m spending some private time with this character and coaxing him out of his shell a bit. Once I’ve done that, and have more that I can work into the story at the right moments, I’ll dive into the book overall.

Happily, I think this first draft is closer to my final than usual. Apart from the reserved character I discussed, the other problems are things I think I’m aware of and already have a decent idea how to fix.

But sometimes there are problems you aren’t aware of. And sometimes the solutions you imagine don’t work as well as you’d hope.

In other words — wish me luck, guys. I’m headed in.