You Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

by James Scott Bell



Sis boom bah!

The first draft of my next Mike Romeo thriller is finished!

Completing a novel is such a great feeling, don’t you agree?

Be ye plotter or pantser, plodder or pounder—whether you write like the Santa Ana winds or like the groundskeeper at the La Brea Tar Pits—typing that last page is always a lovely moment.

How could it not be? You’ve done something only a few people on earth ever do: You’ve transposed a fictive dream in your head to the pages of a completed manuscript so it can be shared with others.

Sure, your novel may be dreck, but by gum it’s your dreck! You labored over it and brought it forth into the world. The good news is dreck can be improved. As Nora Roberts once said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”

So the first thing you should do when you finish a draft is this:

Luxuriate in the moment. Enjoy it. You earned it. Take the rest of the day off.

On the other hand, you could be like Anthony Trollope, the legendary quota man. If he wrote “The End” and saw that he needed another five hundred words for his quota, he’d sigh, take out a fresh sheet of paper, and write “Chapter One.”

Me, I like to take a full, one-day break and do something fun. Like drive to the ocean with Mrs. B after picking up a couple of world-famous fish tacos at Spencer Mackenzie’s. We have a favorite spot on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway for you out-of-towners) where we can park and listen to the waves as we munch.

Or pop some champagne at home and watch a classic movie.

Or anything else that springs to mind. The main thing is to do something to celebrate. Writers need rituals, too.

Then it’s time to get back to work, which means two things: revising your draft and working on your next project.

I’ve always counseled getting some distance (4-6 weeks) from a first draft, then sitting down and reading it through in hard copy, taking minimal notes. You’re trying to come at it like a reader, not the author. You want to analyze the big picture: plot, characters, scenes. Are they working? Are there holes that need patching? Are you sufficiently bonded to the characters? Is it page-turning?

I then fix—or strengthen—those elements.

Then I give the manuscript to a trusted editor for the first pass—Mrs. B. She has been the first reader on every one of my manuscripts and always improves them. She’s especially adept at picking up plot inconsistencies or confusions.

And she puts up with me. When she’s reading quietly in her nook I’ll sometimes walk by, casting her a glance, wondering what she thinks.

“Reading!” she’ll say.

“Oh, sorry. I was just on my way to get a glass of water.”

Cindy’s cop voice: “Move along now. Nothing to see.”

After I incorporate her notes and fixes, I submit to my beta readers.

Then final fixes.

Then a polish. I primarily look at dialogue and scene endings. I find that cutting is an almost foolproof technique. Cutting flab words in dialogue gives it extra verisimilitude. Cutting the last line or two of a scene almost instantly creates more forward momentum.

Then I get a proofread.

Then I’m ready to publish.

Launch day for me is more sedate, but still a time to enjoy the moment.

So let me ask you: Do you have a “ritual” for when you’ve typed that last page? Do you celebrate?

Do you have system (a series of steps) that you follow after your first draft?

52 thoughts on “You Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

  1. Jim, thanks for sharing your ritual. I hadn’t heard of Spencer Makenzie’s. I saw that its hot sauce was on sale — two for one — but I missed it by ten years or so.

    I also loved the Nora Roberts quote.

    My ritual? What Truant Librarian does, though I’m afraid that ritual is starting to occur on a daily basis. I pretend I’m back in kindergarten.

    Have a great day, Jim, and enjoy those tacos.

  2. I’ll celebrate “the end”, then “the end” of my first editing pass, then sending it to my editor, then sending back the edited version, then uploading it for sale, then release day. Can never have too many celebrations, although the bubbly is usually reserved for release day. But there’s the distillery reserve Jameson, the locally distilled bourbon, the liquor gifts the kids give us as gifts to fill in the rest.

  3. Good morning, Jim. Thanks for sharing your process.

    My “ritual” after finishing the first draft is to take off time from writing for about a week and catch up on fix-it, or clean-up jobs, which have always stacked up.
    I then do initial editing on Scrivener, including having Scrivener read the manuscript to me. I compile and export to Word with another couple rounds of editing and have Word read the manuscript to me. Next, it’s off to the beta readers for about two months (middle school and high school students). During that time I’m working on the outline for the next book and meeting with the cover design artist. After the book returns from the beta readers is when I can really look at it with fresh eyes. I address the issues the beta readers have identified and, then it’s final edits, proof reader, and publish.

    I have found (for me) the reading of the manuscript back to me by Scrivener, then Word, are two of the most helpful parts of the process.

    Have a great day!

  4. Thank you, James!

    ” I find that cutting is an almost foolproof technique. Cutting flab words in dialogue gives it extra verisimilitude. Cutting the last line or two of a scene almost instantly creates more forward momentum.”

    Ditto! The delete button is the writer’s best friend. Period.

  5. How long does it take you to write that first draft? Do you write from an outline? If so, how much time do you put into that outline?

    • 3-4 months for the first draft, Nancy.

      I do develop an outline, but I do so even as I’m working on my WIP, so I don’t really have an “average” time. Some projects flow more quickly than others.

      My outline is a series of “signpost scenes” (I use the index card method via Scrivener). Writing the draft is filling in between those scenes.

  6. “I’ve always counseled getting some distance (4-6 weeks) from a first draft, then sitting down and reading it through in hard copy”

    That’s the best strategy for all writers, new or seasoned. For me, there’s nothing like sleeping on it to make you realize the plot holes and clumsy phrasing you overlooked.

  7. I’ve often wondered why I can’t listen to books and your comment about not being patient enough for it explains it! As for when I finish a first draft, I clean house. 🙂

    • Right, Patricia. I am a “speed reader” (esp. with nonfiction).

      “I took a course in speed reading and was able to get through War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen

  8. I usually take a day or two away from it and then begin at the beginning and read it out loud, making small cuts and changes as I go. Then it is handed off to beta reader and finally to publisher who, amazingly, catches errors in what I believed was a perfectly clean manuscript.

    Aside: your mention of the PCH made me rather nostalgic for Santa Rosa where we lived for four years until the noisiest neighbor on the entire planet and home prices out of reasonable reach drove us north to Oregon where we live currently. You are so lucky to be near enough to visit the ocean. Just one of the things I miss living down there.

  9. Congratulations, Jim! Would you please Fedex me an order of those tacos and a jar full of ocean air? Wildfire smoke here in Montana.

    I do rolling edits along the way. My critique group gives input during the process so they’ve already fixed many problems. My first draft is pretty clean since it’s actually about the 57th draft by the time I type “The End.”

    The first real break I take is when the ms. goes to beta readers. That lasts 1-4 weeks.

    During that time, I don’t work on fiction. Instead, I focus on nonfiction articles and blog posts, which change the brain settings.

    The celebrations occur when I “pay” my terrific betas by taking them to lunch. Some folks here at TKZ have IOUs that I look forward to paying when we finally meet in person.

    • Glad you mentioned the “57th draft,” Debbie. I also do lots of editing. I must be on about the ninety-something draft now. It becomes known as the “first draft” when I turn it loose.

    • Debbie, you remind me that there are some pretty successful authors who do the rolling edit thing, and thus turn in only one draft, which is really many, many mini drafts. Mr. Lee Child is one of these. He’s good. He may break out soon.

  10. Good morning, Jim.
    I’ve usually just sat back and felt the glow of satisfaction of completing that first draft. It’s always a thrill. I love the rituals you and the other KZBers are sharing here and want to come up with one of my own.

    As for the next steps, that’s really changed for me with the library mystery. With my previous fantasy novels, I’d pretty turn right around and begin a fix-everything-pass and then send it off to my beta readers. They’d return it two weeks later, I’d go over their notes, make fixes, then send it off to my copy editor. My revision process was very deadline driven.

    With the mystery, I’ve slowed down. I’ve done several read throughs, amassed too many notes, and worked a lot on the revision outline. I took an online revision workshop from Jennifer Brozek on revision, and also read screenwriter Jack Epps’s Screenwriting is Rewriting a throughout examination of a multiples revision process. After all this, which lasted the spring, I finally put my heavily annotated first draft aside for a month while I work on an urban fantasy novella for an anthology I’ll be come fall.

    A dear writer friend of mine, a fellow published novelist as well as fiction magazine editor, observed encouragingly that I’ve done a self-study course in a writing a mystery novel this past year, and she’s right.

    Next time I’ll take the break right off the bat, and have a better handle on the mystery elements and what I need to fix. For this book, my plan now is to make a mystery pass, then a scene/character pass, a description/voice pass, and finally a copy edit (for practice) and then send it to my cozy beta readers for their feedback. As we say in tabletop roleplaying games, I’m working on “leveling up”as a mystery writer, and not once, but several times 🙂

    Thanks for a post today that’s not only insightful, but encouraging. Have a wonderful Sunday!

      • Oh man, these are the best. Spencer Mackenzie’s has a Sweet Chili Fire sauce that is perfection on wheels. They also make great, fresh tortilla chips which we get on the side.

    • You said it, Dale: “Glow of satisfaction.” I like glowing for a day!

      Your improvements and self-studies are indicative of a true writer. Well done, sir, and long may you type.

  11. Congrats on finishing another thriller, Jim! *happy dancing for you*

    Like you, I take the rest of the day off. We usually dine out and I have one celebratory sombrero. We’re not drinkers, per se. I have one when I finish the 1st draft and one when I sign the pub contract. That’s it for the year. So, I look forward to my celebratory drink with lobster (in season) or filet mignon. It’s always a fun time, and of course my husband needs to tell everyone within ear shot to expect the new book baby soon. 😀 Then back to work the next morning.

  12. Congratulations on finishing the first draft, Jim. I’m looking forward to reading the next Romeo book! (Hope Sophie makes an appearance in this one 🙂

    I’m close to finishing the first draft of my WIP. When it’s done, I’ll send it off to my developmental editor, and I’ll also give a copy to my husband. Both of them are reliably honest (*very* honest) in their feedback and I like to have both opinions before moving on to the next phase.

    Ritual? First, I put a big chick mark on the task on my to-do list. What a satisfying moment! Now that we’re able to eat out again, we’ll go to dinner alone or have a meal with friends. A short break, then back to that to-do list.

    • Sounds good, Kay. And putting that big mark on your to-do list gave me a vision of the prisoner in his cell x-ing out the calendar. Ha!

      Then again, we writers are prisoners to our craft, but definitely “prisoners of love.”

  13. I always get an urge to clean something…anything. Sometimes I listen and respond, sometimes I tell the urge to scram.

    When scram wins, I go outside and stroll our five acres with Hoka, the human German shepherd, and breathe real air. Can’t get any better than that… 🙂

    • That’s funny, Deb. I get the urge to clean my desk, too. Then I tell myself it’s a creativity booster. Don’t you love the little lies we tell ourselves?

    • House cleaning has always been my go-to when I’m at a dead stop from a writing problem. My very worst problem, ever, was the horrifying discovery that my research source was wrong about a publication date of one of Poe’s poems which utterly and totally destroyed the back story and motive of my bad guy. So the whole book would implode if I couldn’t figure out a solution.

      I decided this problem was so hard that I needed to clean out the fridge from top to freezer. By the time I finished, I not only had a work around for the problem, but it made the novel better and fit the thematic elements perfectly. To heck with vacuuming, fridge cleaning fixes almost everything.

  14. Hi Jim! Great to hear we have another wonderful novel coming out. I never miss them. I tend to over-edit while writing, so by the time the end comes, it’s pretty well edited–or that’s what I’ve been told by editors. Then I trade edits with other writers who have been working with me online. They will tell me where the story needs to be reshaped while I do their grammar and punctuation and characterization. Since we’ve been working together for a while, and talk about our work together often, they know the direction I’ve wanted to take, and they can tell me if I’ve achieved my goal.

  15. Congratulations. Can’t wait to see what happens to Mike Romeo. You wrote a cringe worthy scene where M.R. was shot in the second book. I like that as an example of a good show vs. tell moment. It all happened really quick on the page (or my Kindle App), but you made my iron stomach flip.

    I’ve only had a first draft completed a few times in my life. I get anxious and start doing rewrites. As I get better, I hope to walk away and come back fresh.

    I’m still learning, but drafting and redrafting is part of my process. I’m no perfectionist but I like the feeling of working on my WIP through several drafts or edits before I hand it over. Could be OCD and I need that confidence before someone else reads it. I can’t leave it alone, knowing that my writing needs lots of attention to help the reader smoothly pass, (as you put it), the speedbumps.

    I also get caught up on my day job stuff after I make my milestones. I make sure my staff are all still alive and that they remember I’m the man who approves their timesheets.

  16. Congrats, Jim! If I were still in L.A., I’d go surfing. But here in the Virginia countryside, I go swimming. Or chop down some dead trees on my property.

    Then I’ll do the print-out-hard-copy thing (at Staples) and sit down for a good read-through (with PostIts). And then… and then… 😉

    • Perfect, Harald. I’ve been always been a body surfer. In a way, that’s what successful Indie writers are. We ride the waves, we don’t get buried by them!

  17. I tend to write “The End” in the middle of the night because I wasn’t going to stop until I finished that puppy. Then I crash. I agree with putting it away for a while, but, the next day, I’ll go back and fix important things that would bug me otherwise because I’m afraid I’ll forget. Then I put it away for a bit. Crash some more and catch up on stuff, then, in a few weeks, I’ll start the rewrite.

    Isaac Asimov is the totem animal for those of us who are addicted to writing. He couldn’t stop writing, ever. He’d type “The End,” pull the page out of the typewriter, then insert a blank page in and begin his next novel, short story, or nonfiction piece. That’s obsession/addiction.

    • Ah yes, Isaac. I dubbed his methodology “The Asimov” in a TKZ post some time ago. Of course, it didn’t do much for his personal life, but then again, for him, writing WAS life. I’m for a bit of The Asimov, balanced with good friends and family.

  18. Great process, Jim. You don’t need a developmental editor or line/copy editor, but I get hundreds and hundreds of submissions for editing, at least a quarter of which are multi-published authors, and they ALL benefit from a detailed line/copy edit before the proofread, even when they’ve used beta readers. Some editors like me do both line editing and proofreading, as well as flagging plot holes, characters reacting out of character, time discrepancies, and other inconsistencies. And of course good fiction editors will check for convoluted sentences, wordiness and repetition, viewpoint gaffes, too much telling instead of showing, author intrusions, stilted dialogue, etc. I could go on. But just wanted to mention that pretty much all new authors (and even many who have self-published several books) need a thorough professional copyedit and proofread.
    Love your Sunday posts!

      • Yes, I’ve been told that my all-encompassing editing process is very unusual. I also edit in sections and each section goes back and forth several times before moving on to the next section. I gather a lot of editors just do one pass all the way through. I much prefer an interactive process, with more input from the author as we go along.

  19. I’m in the throw-it-to-the-boys-in-the-basement crowd, Jim. I think sitting on the ms for a week or three after hitting The End is some of the best writing advice out there. Changing the subject – Kill Zoners – I’ve just absorbed three of Jim’s craft books; Pulp Fiction, Voice, and Making a Living as a Writer. Now starting Marketing for Writers Who Hate Marketing. If you folks are serious writers, and I know most of you are, and if you haven’t read these great works by JSB, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Highly recommend them!

  20. I’m in afterglow mode after whipping “Sorcerer of Deathbird Mountain” into shape and uploading it to Vella. After emailing a m/s to myself, I don’t write for a few days. I tell friends I’ve finished a book, maybe mention it in my blog or anti-social media on the Internerd.

    I lived in Ventura County for 15 years. Spencer Makenzie’s was one of our 2009 meet-up places when casting “Midnight in the Temple of Isis.”

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