Ahh… how satisfying; how fulfilling; how triumphant! I’ve just finished my book. This isn’t a theoretical scenario – my name is Bennett R. Coles and I just recently finished writing my latest novel Casualties of War. Or, to be more specific, I just finished getting the whole story down on the page. And this is what I want to talk about today. It’s a very common error that first-time authors make: thinking you’ve finished your book when in fact what you’ve done is finish the first draft.
Some context. Casualties of War is my fifth completed novel. Along with the other novels, a brace of novellas and dozens of short stories, I’ve finished a lot of writing projects over the past 27 years. And each time I realize just how far I am from finishing when I finish that first draft. Most of my early work – which was never published, thank goodness – was declared by me complete (indeed, sovereign and untouchable) as soon as I typed those two little words THE END. I had this strange notion that it would somehow offend the purity of the story if I were to go back and fiddle with it after the fact, as if my inherent creative genius could only be reduced if I returned with sober second thoughts of editing. Part of this I chalk up to immaturity – I was only a teenager – but most of it just comes down to inexperience. Now that I’m a publisher as well as an author I get the chance to read quite a few submissions from first-time authors, and I can say with authority that many of these submitted manuscripts are little more than spell-checked first drafts.
When you finish typing your story, even if you’ve been going back and revising the whole way along, please trust me that your book is not finished. By completing the first draft, you’ve definitely accomplished by far the biggest part of your project – the first draft is an exercise in sheer creativity, producing from nothing an entire world of characters, scenarios and drama. But without doubt some of your ideas have changed during the writing process, with climatic moments added spontaneously with no foreshadowing, early characters that didn’t prove as pivotal as envisaged, and sections of the story perhaps not quite as gripping or relevant as your outline said they would be. In short, your first draft is the initial push to get the ideas down. Now you have to turn your attention to making those ideas tie together brilliantly.
When you start the next phase of the writing project, turning the first draft into the second draft, you have to switch hats for a while. You have to stop being a writer and start being an editor. You have to pull back from these characters you love, these scenes that made you weep, these situations that made you proud. You have to, almost, pretend you didn’t write this book, and examine it very closely for all the things that are wrong with it. It’s in transforming the first draft into the second draft that you will add that foreshadowing of the climax in the early chapters, delete those characters that serve no real purpose, and re-write or replace those sections that drag down the pace of the story. You have to be ruthless, knowing that in this creative destruction you are making your book better.
Editing the prose is certainly a big part of transforming the first draft – some pros say that you should be able to cut 10% of your word count without taking anything substantive out of the story – but what I’m really talking about here is higher-level than that. I’m talking about the structure of the story: the way it ebbs and flows through dramatic peaks; the way it balances action-packed and thought-provoking scenes; the way it carries the main characters through their arcs of personal growth while always tying their actions to the main plot.
Casualties of War is, quite frankly, a mess right now. The opening chapter has a very dramatic scene which includes characters that don’t appear in the story again even once. The climax relies on science that I don’t introduce to the reader until the final few chapters. Some of the main characters exist in orphaned story lines that have little if anything to do with the main thrust of the novel. And I’m just not happy that I’m properly getting across either the conflicted relationships between main characters or their own personal dramatic journeys.
I’m lucky that I have Virtues of War to compare this to – I can remind myself how much draft work I had to do on that first novel in this series – and I’d never let Casualties go to my editor in this condition. And now that I’ve finished pounding out the first draft, I can sit back, take a deep sigh of relief that the hardest part is over, and ruthlessly tear that first draft apart. And I actually quite enjoy doing this because I recognize it as part of the process and know that the book will be far, far better once the second draft is done.
This is what I think many first-time authors don’t understand: tearing your first draft apart will not ruin the story – it will make it so much better. The first draft is NOT the book. The first draft is just the basic idea of the book captured in print. The real book is still hiding in there somewhere, and as the author you have to keep working to find out which parts of the real book you’ve already discovered and which parts are still hidden under the rubble of your first attempt.
And by the way, once I finish the second draft of Casualties of War it still isn’t ready for the editor. The next step will be to send it out to half a dozen “beta testers” who are a mix of people I know and don’t know whom I trust to give me honest feedback as a reader. And because Casualties is a sequel, I’ll make sure at least two of the beta testers have never read Virtues of War. Then, once I’ve been able to take in all of their feedback, I’ll finally send it to my editor, knowing full well that I’ll have a lot more work to do once she makes her professional opinion known.
To paraphrase Nobel Laureate for Literature Winston Churchill: “Completing the first draft is not The End. It is not even the beginning of The End. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
All photos Creative Commons – Courtesy of Wikipedia
Recent Bennett R. Coles Articles:
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part 4 – The traditional industry: the bookstores (and distributors)
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part III – The Traditional Industry: The Publishers
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part II – Making sense of the lingo
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part I – Author Motivations
- Star Wars: The Next Generation