From Pathetic to Professional: 8 Ways to Beat the First Draft Blues

by Ruth Harris

You’re happy, even delirious. You’ve finished your first draft!

Then you read it.

OMG, you think, did I write that?

Yes, you did. :-)

It stinks. It sucks. It’s so rancid it threatens to warp the time-space continuum.

Think you’re alone? Here’s Hugh Howey in a blog post: “I suck at writing. Watching a rough draft emerge from my fingertips in realtime would induce nausea.”

So remember, it’s not just you.

The first draft is just that—a first step.

As a long-time editor and author, I’ve found 8 strategies that can help you shape, refine and improve your draft. (Actually it’s called editing and, yes, you can do quite a bit of it yourself.)

1. Embrace the power of the delete button.

Elmore Leonard advised taking out all the unnecessary words. Cutting almost always makes a book better, more readable, more exciting.

Specifically, that means delete all the spongy, weasely, namby-pamby words—the ones that aren’t crisp and precise, the ones that drag out a scene or a description without adding anything except length.

Get rid of the windy digressions, the pointless descriptions, the info dumps, the meandering philosophical musings.

Duplicate your document before you begin in case you get too enthusiastic but, with a safe back-up on hand, go ahead and hack away. Take out everything that doesn’t advance your story or define your characters. See if the resulting clarity doesn’t vastly improve the pace of your book.

Don’t just kill your darlings. Kill everything that doesn’t move the story forward. Save your gems in a “future” file and use them in another book where they pull their weight.

2. Sharpen dialogue.

Just as you leave out the um’s and ah’s of real life, leave out chitchat about the weather, the local gossip, the “warming up” before you get to the point.

 Condense long speeches that have nothing to do with your story or characters. Ernest Hemingway wrote narrative in long hand but used the typewriter for dialogue—the rat-tat-tat, he thought, was similar to speed of talk.

Dialogue should be short, sharp and speedy. A scene with dialogue should have lots of white space. Allow your characters to speechify at your own peril!

FREE dialogue tips from Nanowrimo here. More dialogue tips here.

3. Spot and solve plot problems.

Plot problems in a first draft?

I’m shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

A powerful technique called reverse outlining will help ferret them out. A reverse outline will also help you track character arcs and/or rein in wandering POV dilemmas.

Reverse outlining—basically a list plus some first-grade arithmetic—can also bail you out of glitches and blocks, aka those dreaded now-what-happens? moments.

The difference between an outline and a reverse outline is that you compose your reverse outline after you finish your first draft (or as you’re in the process of writing it). Even pantsers like me find the reverse outline invaluable.

You will find FREE directions and demonstrations of the power of reverse outlining here, here, here, and here.

4. Naming names.

Names are powerful—Hannibal Lector, Miss Marple, Mr. Darcy, Scarlett O’Hara, Rosa Kleb—and can even define character. Choose names carefully in order to make things easy for the reader.

Example: The hero is Kevin Barnett. The heroine is Kathy Blanchard. The villain is Keith Barron. The names are similar and the initials are identical.

Do you really want to drive your reader crazy, as s/he tries to remember which of the K’s are OK and which aren’t?

Make a list of all the character names in your book and see to it they are individual, even memorable, and, if possible, convey something about the character. Change names and initials that are too bland, too similar or easily confusable. Use a name generator if you run out of ideas or need ethnically or genre-correct names.

Scrivener, the go-to app for many writers offers a generous FREE trial and comes with a name generator. Find it in the edit > writing tools menu.

There’s a FREE standalone name generator offering everything from Finnish and Maori names to Biblical, witch, and rapper names here.

5. Cliffhanging.

The cliffhanger is the professional writer’s secret. Pros use the cliffhanger to compel the reader to turn the page so they end every chapter on a note of anxiety, suspense or irresolution.

The reader, dying to know what happens next, will turn the page, stay up till three AM to finish your book and the next day tell her/his friends “you have to read it!”

The cliffhanger worked for Shakespeare and probably back in the days when writers lived in caves and used chisels and clay tablets to tell their stories. It worked in soap operas, on sitcoms, and in commercial bestsellers. The cliffhanger is eternal: right now, today, tonight, you will find the little buggers on every show right before the commercial break.

Embrace the cliffhanger.

Respect its power.

Learn to use it.

6. Crutch words.

Many writers have them. Anne fesses up to “just.” Mine is “begin.”

Example: “She began to run for the bus” becomes “She ran for the bus.”

Simpler, more direct and more powerful and yet another example of the power of the delete button.

Do you abuse adverbs? A search for ly will ferret them out.

Scrivener provides an easy way to nail those crutch words. Go to Project > text statistics > word frequency and Scriv turns up a list (with numbers + bar chart!) of how many times you used a word in that particular project. Now that you have the evidence, go into hunt-and-kill mode and mow them down!

ID your own crutch words and be on the lookout for better, more expressive ways to convey what you want to describe.

7. Know your genre.

No football team is going to draft you as a receiver if you didn’t know how to run a route. Ditto, genre. Romance, thrillers, horror, romcom—all have conventions and readers expect those conventions to be honored.

Study the genre(s) you work in. Read widely. Keep up with shifts and changes in the genre. Be aware of what your readers are looking for and, when you revise that first draft, be sure you are giving your readers exactly what they are looking for.

Focus on thrills in a thriller, sexual tension in a romance, scares in horror. Make sure those scenes deliver the goods or you will lose your reader.

Find FREE expert advice on genre at the following sites:

8. Once is enough.

A common first-draft problem and not always a quick or easy one to fix because it involves actual thinking. Sorry about that, guys—but be on the lookout for places where you convey the same thought two (or more) times in different words.

Usually, this kind of repetition means the writer—that would be you—hasn’t quite thought through what he/she is trying to say. If you find yourself falling into this trap, you need to do the hard work of clarifying your thoughts and then conveying them clearly.

Decide exactly what you want to say and then say it. Do it right once and you don’t have to do it again.

Now you are ready to expose your book to your editor, crit group, beta readers.

If you show your work before you address the glitches and flaws you perceive, you risk getting stepped on and deflated. It’s not worth it.

Don’t ask me how I know.

What about you, scriveners? Do you edit before you show your work to other people? Have you learned to do that the hard way? What other self-editing tricks can you add?

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Lanky, dark-haired Renny Kudrow, Director of the Kihali Animal Orphanage in Kenya, is a brilliant scientist, a noted television personality, and an expert in animal communication. But human communication? Not so much, thinks Starlite Higgins, the talented young vet he has hired over the objection of others. He is prickly, remote, critical, and Starlite, anxious to please and accustomed to success, is unable to win his approval.

When Renny and Starlite set out on a dangerous mission, they rescue a severely injured baby rhino whose mother has been killed by poachers. Upon their return to Kihali, they must work together to save the little orphan, now named Zuri. Zuri's courage and determination and the idyllic beauty of Kihali, gradually break down Renny's and Starlite's emotional walls. Little by little, they each confront their own painful, invisible wounds.

But how can Starlite know the secret Renny guards is as shocking as the past she conceals?


This just in: HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE: A Self Help Guide is back in e-print!! 
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The 11th Yeovil International Literary Prize now open for entries  Prize categories for novels, short fiction, poetry. Entry fee £11 for novels. 1st prize £1000. Deadline May 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN FAMILY MATTERS CONTEST $1500 prize, plus publication in Glimmer Train Stories, plus 20 copies. $15 ENTRY FEE. They're looking for stories about families of all configurations. It's fine to draw on real experiences, but the work must read like fiction. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome. Deadline March 31.

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