Set That First Draft Aside

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of indie published books lately (or, if you’re a stickler for terminology, self-published books, but terminology adapts, by the way). I have a list of eight of them I’m going to review, and, unfortunately, it’s been a mixed bag of quality. Oh, the stories have been decent; getting to the story through the morass of bad grammar and punctuation has been the hard part. Part of the problem is I’ve been both an English teacher and a magazine editor. What, to some apparently, may be unimportant details, to me are essentials of language. If those fine details–commas, word usage, grammar–aren’t present, I get distracted–and frustrated–by what I consider elementary school-level errors.

It’s too easy to attribute this to lack of education, but the authors involved–on their blogs or on social media–seem to have had a decent education. Then, it hit me, as I was helping a friend with a manuscript, these works read as if the authors had published their first drafts.

That’s the seduction of indie publishing. It is very empowering, on one level, to eliminate all those filters (agents, editors) who don’t get your fiction, who don’t see you as a money-maker, who have to take a cut of your royalties, etc. I believe publishing is evolving, but for indie publishing to get any sort of professional acknowledgement from traditionally published authors, you can’t publish your first draft.

First drafts, of course, are necessary. First drafts are the place where you finally get on the page that story that’s been rattling around in your head for a long time. It is an accomplishment in and of itself to do that–one of the reasons I like National Novel Writing Month. I can come up with something completely new at least once a year. Have I published any of the manuscripts I wrote the past four Novembers? No. They’re first drafts of what will be good works later. After proofreading and editing. When I finish a NaNoWriMo project, I set that draft aside for a good six months or more before I pick it up again. In the meantime, it’s never far from my thoughts, but I’d never, ever see the holes in the plot or the un-obvious typos if I started the edit immediately after finishing the first draft.

Whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or indie publishing, the process is to set the first draft aside for the amount of time it takes to make it fresh when you look at it again. When you publish your first draft and start seeing those five stars on Amazon (which your mother and all her friends have put there) and read the comments like, “We need more of [insert character name here]!” resist the temptation to write a sequel in a weekend and publish it raw.

Cultivate a friendship with a local high school English teacher or newspaper editor or even a friend from school you know got good grades in English. Let them proofread your work for the typos, punctuation problems, grammar, etc. You can accomplish some of this yourself by reading your work out loud–at home, preferably, unless you like people at Starbucks staring at you and wondering if they should call the cops. (In reading this post aloud, to this point I’ve found a half dozen typos, now fixed.) But nothing beats a “fresh” set of eyes.

Then–and this has been something hard for a lot of indie authors to accept–hire a developmental editor. Yes, you get a higher percentage of royalties if you self-publish without all that traditional publishing detritus, but you’ll get better reviews and more sales if a reader/reviewer can’t tell the difference between your book and a traditionally published one. That takes work. That takes commitment not just to telling a good story but presenting a good story.

I have an indie writer friend who consistently produces a good first draft–in the sense of proper punctuation, grammar, and usage–and the story is decent as well. Recently, she sent a copy of her first draft of a new novel to her editor, and now she’s in the midst of a total rewrite. You may say, “See, that’s what’s wrong with editors, and that’s why I don’t want one.” However, this writer understands the editor’s purpose–to make it better–and she’s excited about the major revision because she knows she’ll have something beyond a good, first draft. She’ll have an outstanding novel.

So, set that first draft aside for a while. Resist the temptation to publish it until it’s polished. Get a tougher skin when your proofreader/editor suggests changes (being part of a critique group helps with this). Don’t be suckered in by seeing your words in print until what you’re trying to say is in its best shape.

Be a writer, not a hack.

I set out my writerly resolutions for the new year in a recent post: So, periodically, I’ll provide an update because I know you’re just dying to know.

Writer Work Schedule Update:

  • Sunday: Started reading one book to review (which inspired this post) and finished another
  • Monday morning: Blogged on writing (see above)
  • To do Monday afternoon: Edit/Revise a review of Linkage: The Narrows of Time Series (Volume 1) by Jay J. Falconer and get it ready for submission to eFiction Magazine

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