Why My First Draft Needed a Road Map

On January 29, 2017, I finished the first draft of my first novel. And it felt AMAZING! I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, blazon it on the walls, and throw a party! None of those things happened. I did go out and get a bottle of wine, but I’ve apparently adopted the social life of a cat lady, minus the cats.

I was ready to get started revising right then and there, but on the advice of my mentor, I put the manuscript away and didn’t look at it for the prescribed seven days.

By day six, I was nearly bursting with the excitement to get to work on perfecting it, so I started looking into the steps of the revision process. And that’s when my brain shut down altogether for another week. The sheer amount of work to be done and things to think about sent me into the writing equivalent of sticker shock. There was just so much that I knew I hadn’t even thought about, never mind included.

Okay, so first step, get over that hurdle. Some free writing gave me a better feel for my characters, and their purpose in the story. From there, I felt ready. I was going to go in with my red pen and hack and slash and burn until I was satisfied. I knew it was going to be messy. I had written most of the draft NaNoWriMo-style – without looking back or rereading until it was finished.

It felt a bit like a special occasion, so I decided I wanted to do something special to mark it appropriately. I went down to Staples and printed the whole thing, just to make it feel a little more real. 150 single-sided, double-spaced pages later, it was too big to be practical in a binder, so I splurged a little more to get it bound in coils. I grabbed some pretty red gel pens while I was there to add to the celebration.

Back at my desk at home, I opened to the first page, took a deep breath, then slashed and burned through the whole manuscript, as promised. By the time I was done, I’d marked up just about every single page in that book. Most pages had a big red X through them. The whole thing was complete junk.

When you express that your writing is complete junk, people like to reassure you: “Oh, it can’t have been that bad,” they say, “Surely you can fix it.” While I appreciate the blind faith and encouragement, I can say without a shadow of doubt that there is very little that is salvageable out of that first draft. I’d started out on a road trip knowing where I wanted to start and end, but I didn’t stop to figure out what route I should take. I just started driving and figured I’d get there eventually.

Image by Georg Nietsch https://unsplash.com/@bartondawes

While the laws of probability say that’s probably true, there’d be a lot of loops, zig zags, and dead ends before I got there. My fantastic sense of direction would probably have me in the Yukon instead of Texas, and I’d have to turn around and try again. My manuscript had pretty much the same problem. I didn’t consult a map, I didn’t bother to learn about “proper” novel structure, and as a result made a great big mess.

However, I don’t really see this as a bad thing. I still wrote 50,000 words. I still finished a first draft. I learned a lot about who I am as a writer and I learned a lot about my story and its characters. In a sense, I’m feeling liberated. Yes, I’m going to have to write another 50,000 words for the second draft, but this time I know who the characters are and what my world looks like. There were rules in the story that I had to figure out, plot holes I needed to fill, and apparently I had to find out the hard way that I am most definitely not a “pantser”.

Writing without an outline just isn’t working for me. The manuscript I created had no structure or logic except the connect-the-dots happening in my brain. Very little of that had made it onto the page. In my defence, the story did change genres halfway through, but it also had characters that weren’t serving a purpose and scenes that rambled on for ages without actually doing anything. All of the no-no’s that I was aware of, but somehow had not actually managed to avoid.

So. This is me starting over from scratch. And this time, I’m using my corkboard and markers to make a map first.

Featured image by delfi de la Rua https://unsplash.com/@delfidelarua7

Writer's Notebook

writerlauramckay View All →

Laura McKay is a speculative fiction writer whose work leaves you wondering and your mind wandering. Inspired by the Dresden Files, her current work-in-progress brings fast-paced, thought-provoking mystery and magic to the streets of Winnipeg.

Laura is also an Assistant Editor at Portage & Main Press and freelances on various writing and editing projects.

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