On Completing a First Draft

Black and white downy woodpecker on a cage of suet

Keep chipping away, and you’ll get there.

I haven’t written about writing in a while. I’ve been working on a novel since approximately the dawn of written language. Almost three years ago, I wrote about breaking through a block (“The Insecurities of Being a Writer”). Last fall, I waxed enthusiastically in “Writing Is like a Fungus” about the guidebooks I used to help me slog through the dreaded middle of the story.

I’m ready to say I’ve completed my first draft. It came more with a quiet, huh, I guess that’s it, instead of a Yipee! Hooray!

It’s crappier than any “shitty first draft,” but I managed to make it to the end of the story, with some bracketed empty spaces where scenes need to be filled in.

Now I’m…I won’t say stalled…maybe in need of a break before filling in those scenes and proceeding to the next draft where I figure out if it all still makes sense, and then, if I’m lucky, revising again to work on language. Thanks to the groundwork I did earlier (thank you, Story Genius), I anticipate few plot holes and crazy diversions from the main plot.

Again, I’ve reached out to the guidebooks on my shelf for help. Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird; she coined “shitty first draft”) reminded me that writing doesn’t only happen staring at a blank screen, fingers poised over the keyboard. Stephen King (On Writing) believes stories are fossils, just needing to be chipped out of bedrock.

Some takeaways:

I like King’s “Door Shut, Door Open” policy. The first draft is written with the door shut. No one, no one, can come in and interrupt you or comment or edit. Not even your evil internal editor.

I wish I could write fast, like he suggests for the first draft. But he’s more of a pantser than I am, and I’m happy with the Story Genius method, which includes a lot of prep work that makes the actual storytelling less painful. I might keep the door shut, at least literally, for a couple more drafts before seeking feedback.

I also like Anne Lamott’s broccoli suggestion. Broccoli being a stand-in word for intuition. I do some of my best “writing” day dreaming, and I have to remember that is perfectly acceptable. Visualize it until it starts coming in words, then write them down. I couldn’t find where she says it the way I remember, so maybe it was someone else. But whatever…it works and I like it.

King recommends stepping away from a first draft for six weeks before tackling the second. I’ve decided a few days is enough, at least for this draft that is much rougher than his are.

I am overwhelmed by the things needing revision—I have them in a document and keep adding as I think of things. I’m up to four pages.

To keep from being paralyzed by such a list, I’ve decided to dip back into the advice I got at a GrubStreet conference (Muse and the Marketplace) from a session leader who is a writer and project manager. I’ve created a schedule where I spend one week on each chapter. It’s like Lamott’s bird-by-bird advice. Five to seven thousand words is a lot less daunting than 20 chapters all at once. And this way I don’t feel rushed. Should I spend another day staring at that opening paragraph? It’s only Thursday? Sure! Go for it. I have to do it at some point. And if I don’t perfect it this week, I’ll move on and try again with the next revision.

This way, there’s no pressure to peek ahead. It’s too easy to get reading and find yourself skipping along, acknowledging that something needs a fix but not being able to stop. But I have to stop—I only have this chapter, this week. Now is the time to fix these things. It’s fun, too. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

I need to flesh out characters, so I delved into what one of them looks like, right down to the Nigerian gele she’ll be wearing. Now I can see her and sense her personality rising off the screen.

I’ve noticed that a lot of my characters are indistinguishable in their dialogue. That can be fixed this round. I also need more setting and exposition (no, “telling” isn’t always bad). That will be ongoing till I finish the whole thing.

With luck, I might have something ready for feedback by fall.

The best advice, hands down, and I’m not sure where it came from (probably everyone) if I didn’t come up with it myself: Get off the Internet. In these trying times, any form of social media or news surfing is depressing. I’ve banned bringing my phone upstairs in the morning when I write. I will read a book (real paper) if I don’t feel like writing, rather than go online. But now that I know I only have a week for the chapter, I’m pressured to focus on the work. I do well with deadlines. It’s just hard to enforce them on yourself.

Enjoy your day, whether it includes writing or not!


P.S. Can anyone explain the cover image on King’s book? It’s an “illustration” of the side of a house, with a bay window above and the metal basement bulkhead below and some flowers probably photoshopped in. What does it have to do with writing or life? I suppose it’s explained somewhere in the book, but since I didn’t do a cover-to-cover reread, I missed it if it’s there.




GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace is coming up. If you are in the Boston area, it’s worth checking out.



  1. Have these two books on my bookcase, and I assign Shitty First Drafts for my students, at least the one chapter. Gotta ❤ the writing process 🙂

    1. I think if you tried to explain the writing process to a non-writer, they’d look at you and go, “And you do this by choice?” Sigh. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Yes, creating art is a little like imposing pain upon yourself. 🙂

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