Reasons to Hurry Up with that First Draft
Writing a novel takes time. Between writing the opening line on the first draft to typing END on its last page, months and usually years have elapsed. For most of us writers, planners or pants-ers and those in between, the first draft involves false starts, trial and error, writing and rejecting. When we type END, we know it’s not the real end. Revision lies ahead.
Getting to revision is Reason #1 to hurry toward that first END. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, you will have come to the end of your exploring and arrive from where you started “and know it for the first time.” You can look at the whole and see it in a new light: re-vision. You may decide to make huge changes, change the point of view, change your major characters, change voice, add or subtract events and their consequences, or you might make only small adjustments. In revision, your novel grows into itself.Reason #2—Taking a very long time to complete your first draft means that the world of your novel ages. If you started out writing a contemporary novel, it will have become historical fiction. Maybe not by the official definition of “historical fiction,” which is usually “set in a period of time fifty years before the present moment,” but you may have to explain what didn’t needed explaining before.
This happened to me. I wrote my first novel right before the millennium, landed an agent, who sent out my manuscript in late August 2001. Two weeks later, from her high rise office, she watched the planes hit the Twin Towers. She quit the agenting business, left NYC, and I put my manuscript in a box. The country was depressed. I was depressed. A dozen years later, I retrieved the manuscript, liked the story and the characters, but realized that some elements specific to that era made no sense: cellphones were uncommon, email was for business only, texting didn’t exist; little social media; the persistent Doomsday thinking; the Y2K worries, including all computers going haywire and planes falling from the skies. All this had to be fixed in my aged manuscript. After I updated, I found a publisher, Fomite. Principles of Navigation came out in 2015.
Reason #3—If you take a very long time to complete your first draft, the you who is looking back at what you wrote isn’t the same you who wrote that first sentence. The world and your culture have changed.
If you started your novel on January 1, 2020—this isn’t that long ago in novel-writing time—here are some of the things that have changed in the world: the pandemic and worldwide shutdown, the political landscape in the US, inflation, war in Ukraine, tensions in Asia, climate hardships on every continent. What happens in the world around can change your attitude, your mood, your hopes and fears. And there’s the changes that you live through in your personal life. Inevitably, things happen that will change you. And so does the process of writing. The words you write and reject, the ones you choose to save, these shape you. When you complete your first draft, you’ve forged a narrative that didn’t exist before. You gained insights. The you who began didn’t know as much as you do after you conclude. You’ve become a more experienced writer.
I have a friend who’s been working on a novel for twenty-five years. Her novel is set at the turn of the last century. Right from the start she had historical distance and she’d done her research. Her focus was on the young bride. After a while, my friend decided she needed to know more about the groom and shifted her focus to him and his aspirations. Which led her to his father’s story, which was complicated and needed expanding. Maybe the novel should begin with the groom’s father. But wanting to get back to the bride—by now, more than fifteen years had gone by in real life—my friend wrote a scene involving the bride’s maid that interested her. Who is this maid? Which led to … . Maybe the novel should have multiple narratives and chronicle the social milieu of the era. Writing this over twenty-five years has made my friend happy—being in the grip of your story is wonderful—but she is nowhere near completing her first draft. This brings me to Reason #4.
Reason #4—If you want your work to be published, you have to finish it. Begin by completing that first draft.