WRITING ADVICE FROM THE TRENCHES: FINISHING THAT DRAFT
By Britta Jensen
I’ve received a lot of inquiries for advice on finishing that first novel (or how to approach a collection of unfinished works). Several individuals at readings and signings have expressed dismay at labouring over the same 60 or so pages for several years without ever crossing the finish line. A few have received conflicting advice about whether or not their work needs to be complete before querying agents and editors.
I hope to answer as many of your questions as possible about that first draft here and give a little background that might contextualise my advice.
I started my “writing journey” as a playwright/poet in Japan/NYC. It was when I started teaching full-time that I realised I had to follow the same advice I was giving my students. Being a real writer meant finishing that novel you’ve been working on. Even when you have plays in production and papers to grade. Obviously, it took a while for this advice to sink in. Though I had my first poem published in third grade, I didn’t publish my first collection of poems until 2013.
From 2007-2012 I kept re-working the same 40-60 pages of my first novel, Noimead/Guardians of Time. I finally realised in 2011, when I received a job transfer to move from Korea to Germany, that I might have a work schedule that would allow me to write more fiction. Before I left my student, Jacob, said “Miss J you’re going to be teaching sixth grade, you might as well finish that novel you’ve been working on forever.” My mom sent me Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and it was kismet. I had to be okay with that crappy first draft.
Ah ha! That was my problem. I couldn’t stand for every word not to count on the page in that first draft. The processing of editing as I drafted was making it impossible to finish!
Summer of 2012 I took Jacob’s advice and gifted myself a block of time in which to finish my novel. I turned off the internet, silenced my phone and told everyone I knew I was in hibernation while I finished my novel. I refused to leave my desk, except for bathroom and meal breaks, if I didn’t finish a certain block of drafting. After tinkering on the novel for the 2011/2012 school year, it took me a month to finish the rest. It was a whopping 140,000 words. When I printed it, it was 400+ pages. I carried that thing with me everywhere to show everyone what I’d done. I was so proud. Then a friend, who is a professional editor, took a look and tore it apart. (Lesson learned: don’t let anyone read your rough draft). However, I’m glad that I let her rip it apart because it needed it. And, I understood early on that I wasn’t brilliant, my story was not yet clever, and revision was required.
From 2013 until my debut novel was published this year, I’ve written five novels and over twenty short stories. Only three of the novels are publishable, and maybe fifteen of the short stories. (Two have already been published in anthologies). That stretch from my first publishing conference in 2013– until 2018 when I found out Eloia Born was going to be published– was a prime learning era in my writing life. I learned what to abandon, what to finish, and how to establish a writing routine. Unlike many other pro writers, I’m the type of artist who needs a routine and has to write everyday (even if it’s only in my journal).
The game-changer in the meandering from grade 3 to 2012 was finishing that first novel and taking it to a publishing conference, then getting loads of advice, spending money (yes, gasp!) on courses, going to more conferences, meeting with agents and editors, and switching my focus from industry focused conferences to taking courses and focused my limited funds and vacation time on classes that concentrated on craft, offered one-on-one as well as peer feedback and helped me to grow as a writer.
In 2017, after labouring really hard for four years (amidst two huge health crisis, a financial/job crisis, and a healthy dose of heartbreak) I was long and short listed for three writing prizes in the UK. I was selected for the Gold Dust Mentoring scheme with Shelley Weiner (whose short story course I took at Faber Academy) and I kept working, learning and listening to pros who knew a lot more than me! I learned that writers have to have great teachers to progress. You can’t take one course and know everything. No art works that way.
Because I performed as a singer/actor since childhood I understood the value of continuing to have great coaches and mentors. Sadly, I see a lot of writers balk at paying for instruction. Actors and dancers, who make no more money than we do (and probably less), don’t have a problem shelling out money for a class every month, if their budget allows. Why are authors different?
That brings me back to the game-changers in finishing. Having great mentors and teachers (Shelley Weiner, Adam Marek, Debi Alper, Shaun Levin=thank you!) really helped me to see the drafting and editing process required a variety of steps and techniques that always include editing in stages. Drafting is just that, drafting. You’re filling in the pencil marks and getting the ideas onto paper (or screen) and telling yourself the story.
You’re creating a world, not a masterpiece. Masterpieces are born in the cauldron of revision!
Advice on finishing that first draft:
- Get a sense of how much time it takes you to write a block of text (word count). Then, give yourself a deadline (working backwards from your typical work flow) to finish that draft. Remember, it’s a crappy first draft! Set a deadline and total word count target, then move heaven and earth to stick to it.
- Use a program like Scrivener that helps with revising in ways Microsoft wished it were so savvy.
- Have a place either in your house/apartment or outside your home where you are always safe to write.
- When planning your deadline for finishing your rough draft, try to make it a more narrow timespan. Depending on how onerous your work /family schedule following my 30-60 day rough draft timeline might not work for you. It’s possible to finish a rough draft of 50,000 words in 30 days. But, you need the time everyday to devote to that timeline. Whereas, a sixty day rough draft timeline allows me to have “breathing space” to think about where I’m taking the story next (even with an outline you’ll discover your characters have other plans). I also tend to write big worlds that require a lot of prior thinking and note-taking before I sit down to draft. Other stories may not require this.
- A shorter timeline for finishing helps you to keep the forward momentum. You remember your story better, and you’re telling your body, spirit and the universe that you are a writer. You’re setting up a memory bank that says “oh, this is how I write a rough draft” so that every time you do it, it becomes less terrifying.
- Yes, I do have moments where I hate every word I’ve written. Do I go back and revise at that point? No! Not until I’m finished with the draft!
- Deadlines are hard for you? Good, welcome to the world of being a writer. However, it doesn’t mean you ignore them or let them pass by without doing anything. I’ve had to extend deadlines plenty of times. (All my editors will tell you). I have a muscular disorder that likes to hijack my body from time to time. I follow Allie Pleiter’s advice and ask myself, “what can I do right now?” when I am headed for a health semi-disaster. I always tell people what my deadlines are to help me stay accountable. You’d be amazed at how many friends will say, “I know you’ve got that big deadline, want to go out and celebrate after?” If I’m falling behind, I try to make sure I finish within a few weeks of the deadline I’ve set for myself.
- Find at least one writing ally who is also a writer. (No, your spouse, significant other, teacher, etc.. doesn’t count). You need someone who is in the trenches like you are.
- Join an organisation like SCBWI (if you write for kids), Romance Writers of America, Writer’s League of Texas, etc…that will help you feel connected to other writers, even if you only go out once a month to events.
- Attend the book launches of authors, even if you don’t know them. It’s important to see finishers and visualize yourself there in a few years or more. (It’s not IF you get published, it is WHEN).
- Life will happen. It always does. You have to be okay with imperfection, looking dumb, making mistakes, and understanding you’re on a learning curve. Hardly anyone publishes a book based on the rough draft they sent to an agent after completing NaNoWriMo. Yes, there are exceptions. But, it’s best to plan not to be the exception. It will help you to be a better writer.
- Do you hate your current novel? Finish it. Then, decide how much you want to revise it after a week away from it.
- Should you query an agent before you finish? Not, unless you’re a non-fiction writer with an amazing book proposal. (Memoir is treated like fiction).
What do you do when you’ve finished that manuscript? Celebrate! I mean it. Print it up, carry it around and show it to everyone who loves you. (Just don’t ask them to read it until you’ve been through at least three drafts!) If your friends could care less about you finishing your book, you need new friends. I’m serious.
When do you revise? (Give yourself anywhere from three days to a week’s break.) I don’t like to take too long a break, except when my book is with my editor. When the break is too long I forget the story world.
Do you want to talk more about your draft and are tired of traversing this road alone? Book a 30-minute free consultation with me via phone or skype/facetime/google hangout. You can reach me via the contact form on this website.
Writing is way more enjoyable when you have other people to share the journey with!
If you liked this plethora of free advice, please help support a fellow artist by clicking the link below or purchasing my book Eloia Born. Thanks for your support!