Note from Liana: Continuing our series of authors who took their NaNo dreams to published books we have guest blogger Sherry D. Ramsey talking about ugly first drafts and beautifully finished books.
One doesn’t have to look very far on the Internet to find complaints that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the initiated) does little but provide a lot of terrible fodder for editors’ and agents’ slush piles. Now, it may be true that a small percentage of “winners” (participants who write 50k+ words of their novel in the month of November) submit those first drafts in the futile hope and expectation that they will be met with open arms. I think, however, that most people—certainly anyone serious about writing & publishing—recognize that the best you can come out of NaNoWriMo with is a first draft that still needs a lot of work.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo every year since 2002. I’ve written 50k+ words every one of those years. I’ve typed “The End” some years; I’ve made it maybe halfway there others (getting to the end is better!). And four of those novels are published—three by traditional publishers and one by myself. So that’s four out of thirteen; what’s wrong with the other eleven? It’s simple: they’re just not done yet. Because when I said “a lot of work,” I meant it.
Let’s just admit it: first drafts are generally terrible. There’s a Karen Joy Fowler quote I keep pasted up near my computer to remind me of this. In an essay about her story “Lily Red” in the anthology Paragons, she said “I do not save my first drafts. They are too stupid to live. My motto: The brain is not a pretty organ. Never show anyone yours.”
I keep this quote handy to remind me that it’s okay—even expected—for first drafts to be terrible. I’m not sure how I’d be able to write anything at all if I didn’t believe this. And I think for most of us, it doesn’t matter if we write those first drafts in thirty days or five years, they’re still going to be, if not terrible, certainly unfinished. They’re raw material. They’re just a start. But the wonderful thing about a first draft is that, no matter what kind of a mess it is, you can make it better.
That’s where the work comes in.
My first published NaNoWriMo novel took ten years from first draft to publication draft. Now, that sounds like a long time, but of course I wasn’t actively working on it all that time. There can be a lot of waiting time in publishing. I wrote a second draft based on feedback from friends and family, and submitted that draft to a regional competition for unpublished manuscripts. After almost a year in that process, it took second place, and with the feedback I received from that, I wrote a third draft. That went to a publisher, for whom I eventually wrote a fourth draft. For another publisher I wrote a fifth draft—and that one was published.
For the self-published novel, I didn’t cut myself any slack. I decided to self-publish because it’s a quirky novel of mashed-up genres, and I thought it would be challenging to find it a niche in the traditional publishing world. But I used the same process: I started with feedback from my trusted readers and wrote a new draft. I asked for input on that and wrote another one. I revised. I line-edited. I let someone else read it. I didn’t let the final version go out without more input from people whose opinions and expertise I trusted.
So that’s the kind of thing I mean when I say “a lot of work,” and it’s gone into every word that I’ve published. Input from trusted readers, other writers, editors and people in the industry. Rewriting. Multiple drafts. Fixing, tweaking, adding, subtracting, refining. Editing. Polishing. A much more significant time investment than the thirty days it took me to write the first draft. No, it doesn’t have to take ten years, and as with anything, you improve with practice. I write much cleaner first drafts now than I did ten years ago. They’re still terrible. But they’re not as terrible. So maybe now I can write three drafts instead of five. The rewrites are simpler. There’s less line-editing.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you in detail how you should do this work. I can only tell you that it’s a necessary part of a good novel. There are as many ways to write a good novel as there are writers. We discover the process and tools that work best for us through a long period of trial and error, and I think it’s essential to be always asking questions that can help us improve. Make an outline or not? Join a local or online writing community? Who makes a good trusted reader? What can we learn from courses and workshops? Can we write more effectively with a particular software? How much can we do ourselves, and where do we need outside help? Whatever the answers, the first step is accepting the work that needs to be done.
But all that comes later. This is the power of NaNoWriMo: first drafts should be fun. They’re where your brain comes out to play, in all its exuberant, messy, imaginative glory. They’re where you create, where you bring something new into the world that wasn’t there before. They may be terrible, but they have potential.
And the work that later goes into realizing that potential? It may be more demanding than that flash of first draft exhilaration, but it’s not all dark drudgery. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it in the end. Because seeing that terrible first draft turn into something that readers will love—well, isn’t that really why we sit down to write in the first place?
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