NaNoWriMo is officially over. And you’re probably officially wiped out. And officially the owner of a very new, very messy, but very finished first draft. Or not. Maybe you’re the owner of 50,000 words, and you still have a ways to go before you bump into the words “THE END.” But if you’re a writer, at some point, and probably several more times, you’re going to finish a draft. And then, if you’re like most of us, you’re going to feel a little lost.
I certainly did. At the beginning of November, I wrote THE END on the last page of a manuscript I’d been working on for a year. When I shut the computer, I didn’t know whether to break into a smile or burst into tears. I felt a little like my main character, who spends most of the book trying to break out of an oppressive family situation; when he actually does, his first feeling is a burst of chaotic energy. His daughter asks where they are, and he says, “We’re free.”
I’m free, he thinks, tasting the alien word. Free.
Then he looks around himself, holding his daughter with one arm, a single bag hoisted on the other, and wonders, What do I do now?
I’ve finished five books and still, always, I come to the end with that same feeling. A brief moment of euphoria, followed by a question: What do I do now?
When you work toward a goal, it becomes a center, a lodestar; when you reach it, you are cut adrift. The book’s done. It’s not perfect. It needs work. But you might not know where to start. Instead of immediately asking what the book needs, maybe this is a good time to ask yourself: what do you need? At this point, I think writers need four things. These will help you celebrate this moment, then build a strategy so you’re refreshed and ready to rock your re-write.
When you finish your first draft, the first thing you need is:
You’ve accomplished something huge! Don’t lose sight of that. As writers, we feel most comfortable working, and it’s tempting to just keep right at it. You know you’re not finished (well, you’re a writer, so you’re never really finished!), but, still, you are at a milestone. Before you dive right back into work, give yourself a chance to celebrate where you are now.
One thing I do is print a draft and have it spiral-bound. So much of writing now is staring at a screen. Your manuscript can start to feel like an amorphous blob you’re constantly re-working. Having a concrete picture of this first draft is a practical way of celebrating that you’ve made it this far. I also got a friend to take a picture of me with it, so I could share my accomplishment on social media. It’s a great way to build your community and keep friends and family updated on your progress. They want to cheer you on. And, let’s face it, we spend a lot of time alone. Having a moment where other people can see what you’ve accomplished can feel pretty darn awesome.
But we don’t celebrate for long. We’re writers, and we’re going to want to get back to work. The next thing you need, once you’ve finished your first draft and taken a moment to celebrate, is to gain a little:
One of the reasons we feel cut adrift when we finish a draft is that it’s all that’s been on our minds for weeks, months or years. Especially toward the end, the story starts to take over everything else. You’re working longer hours on it. You’re immersed in the world. And you can barely even see it any more.
At the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2012, I heard Donald Maase speak about revision. At the beginning of his talk, he said he was going to give his most valuable piece of advice first. “And I know most of you will not take this advice,” he said, “I wish more writers would. But I know they won’t.” We all leaned in, determined and curious. And then he said, “Put your manuscript away for a month.”
I leaned back, and I thought, Oh, hell no.
A month? Ridiculous! What would I do if I didn’t work on my manuscript for a month? Maybe a week, at most. But even that seemed crazily indulgent. Who takes a week off from writing? I can’t. I won’t. And I didn’t. Until a year later, when I was at my wit’s end with my manuscript, and finally took his advice.
And you know what happened? I gained perspective on my manuscript. I saw huge plot problems, glaring inconsistencies I never would have seen before because I was too deep in my world, too invested in my characters, to even see what I was talking about anymore. At some point, the story in your head can cease to be the one that’s on the page. And the only way to see that is to read your book as if you were reading it for the first time.
You can’t do that without a break. But you can’t take a break from your manuscript without having:
Donald Masse wasn’t suggesting any of us stop writing altogether. He was suggesting we stop working on one book. He knew we were not one book. We had other stories to tell. So while you’re taking a break from your first draft, letting the ideas and plot threads percolate in the back of your mind, work on something else.
This can be a great way to push yourself. Maybe you don’t want to start an entirely new book–try a short story, a poem or an essay. Take a look at the Writer Igniter and see what it inspires. There are so many resources out there for writers. A break from your manuscript can be an opportunity for you to grow in the other areas of your writing life. Make a reading list. Find ways to build your community. Offer to Beta-Read for someone. Write a blog post, or a guest post. When you come back to your manuscript, you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes. And be able to give yourself the last thing you need:
This is where I fouled up this time around. I took a break–a whole month. And then I sat down and read my manuscript. Because I had taken the time off, I could see some glaring character problems. I could also see that my setting wasn’t well-developed. I could see which subplots weren’t developed. I could see where a twist didn’t make sense.
During the read-through, I tried my best not to take notes. To just read and think about what I was reading. When I was finished, I made a list. It was extensive. All in stickers in the back of my print-out draft. Then, having figured out all the problems I needed to fix, I sat down at my computer, opened up chapter one . . . and stared at it.
I knew what I needed to do; I just had no idea how to do it. I needed a plan.
Instead of just diving right back in, I took a week to outline the entire story. I made a list of every chapter, and wrote a few sentences to describe it, taking note of the main character’s arc, where the secondary characters were, and how the plot advanced. Then I took out my list of problems. By looking at the story as a whole, I was able to see where I could fix the issues. Where I needed to add a chapter, or a scene. Where I needed to cut one. Then I lined up these tasks with a calendar, setting out a plan to get this re-write finished in six weeks. It’s been five weeks since I finished my first draft. In some ways, that feels like an eternity. A wasted time. But now I’m ready to re-write.
When we finish a first draft, it’s normal to feel a little lost even as we’re feeling very excited. But with a little perspective, positive reinforcement and another project, you can give yourself the time and tools to make a plan. You won’t be thinking, What do I do now? You’ll know.
You’re going to get back to work.