What happens after the first draft?

An interview with my other self

What happens after you’ve written your very first draft?

To start with I look at the MESS OF WORDS that hit the page. Why, I ask, did they roll from  the tips of my fingers through the keys onto the page with such blind ignorance of forming a story that flows?

Really? You want the perfect final draft on your first effort?

Well, yes, of course! Don’t we all?!

I’m not so sure. It seems like a bit too much to ask. Tell me why you think like that.

It goes back to when I sat up in my childhood bed and read the whole Anne of Green Gables series and then came Pollyanna (not Polly – you know the movie).

Stop side-tracking

Uh, okay. I’m glad (get it!) I read all those books and many more as a child. The thing is, I never gave the how of writing much thought. It just seemed to be there. Words on pages. Stories that made sense. Characters that brimmed with life and energy. Settings I could visualize. All evoked by that wonderful wordsmith, the author, who I now realise must have known her craft so well, she wrote so beautifully.

But you had to write stories in school, you know compositions. Surely they helped.

We did what they call creative writing, or story writing, as an in-school exercise. It is very simplistic compared to what I’m seeking to write now.

So what you’re saying is that early training is negligible and that there’s a huge leap in writing a novel.

Yes, chasms and gulfs of difference.

Tell us what you’ve learnt so far.

I realise that writing what’s inside to just get it out is good advice. I’ve listened to a few podcasts, especially So you want to be a writer. What I hear is  ‘just get it  out’ – get what’s inside down on paper.

Then what?

Once it’s on paper, it’s time for the first edit, a structural edit. I look at the whole of what has tumbled – or a better word – spewed forth – and sort it.

Gahh! I’ve written a few shopping lists and by the time I’ve double checked what’s actually in the pantry, I’ve altered pretty much the whole list – added bits here and there and scrubbed off other items I thought were ‘must haves’!

It’s much more than writing a list – of course – I see you nod and agree – but yes, it’s sort of like going to that well stocked pantry filled with words and finding holes and gaps that need filling. Then – this bit is tougher – I find I’ve duplicated my words, like having two brands of the same item, such as tomato sauce. I find I’ve two scenes about the same action! I have a dilemma. With sauce I know I can use both bottles eventually. Maybe one will taste better than the other. With my writing, though, I have to choose. I can’t say the same thing twice!

So how do you choose which scene or scenes to keep, supposing you’ve done this more than once?

I’m never sure. Sometimes I ditch one simply because it’s better written, in my opinion of course. Other times I merge two scenes. That’s sometimes harder than the next option in which I read all variations of my scene and then write a fresh one. That’s often easier to do, as it’s a fresh palette with wonderful ideas flowing.

Uh huh. So you’ve sorted scene duplication. What’s next? You’ve still got this pantry full of words.

The next bit is tricky. It’s getting my story line happening. When I start to write I only have a seed of an idea. From that grows a whole lot of new ideas like shoots sprouting. These ideas take me in all different directions. I find myself wishing my seed grew a singular stem, but I have to find that stem and order the leaves that emerged. I have to rearrange those scenes, sometimes in bulk, sometimes just a few, it’s so random.

Well, yes I like that analogy. We’ve left the pantry and we are in the garden now.

I have so many holes where I chopped out huge pieces and the action suddenly jumps in time. For example, my protagonist was suddenly in the middle of her life experiences in her new setting where she’d barely actually set foot because I chopped a few scenes out. I was a bit heavy handed. Thank goodness I’d saved my scenes. I seldom discard them completely.

What do you do with the scenes you give the chop?

Chopped scenes are plonked into a document clearly labelled ready to be resurrected if needed. I can’t bear to throw away my scraps of writing because they might be useful. Like the last bit of sauce in the bottle. It might be good for one more use.

So what are you doing about the mega and not so mega gaps that still exist?

Write! I write to fill them. And I’m hoping my story will come together. And this time, as I write I will edit. I can’t bear the thought of going back – again – reordering my scenes into another ‘structure’, though seeing as this is a first novel I’ve no doubt whatsoever, that will happen.

Yes, I think you might be right. I’ve heard a lot about drafts. I think reality is, while many authors say they write the initial draft and apparently follow a simple number of 4 or 5 redrafts and edits until they are published, there’s actually a lot of mini and not so mini redrafts hidden in the process. 

Perhaps there’s someone out there who has the magic formula and it works like a charm. Or, maybe, after many novels and much experience words do come more easily and the story takes shapes more readily. I’m not sure though, that there’s any escape from the reality of getting the words onto the page the first time and slowly moving forward. I think it’s so important to be ultra-nice to self and take time –  write to fill the gaps and holes, create new scenes – and, most of all, enjoy the journey.

I’ll leave you now to get on with your writing.


More about my journey with the craft of writing might appear in future in blogs. I hope you’ll join me, and exhort me to keep on. I’m sure we all find it a bit tricky at first. I’d love to hear your tales about learning how to write. Drop me a line below.

ES Dunn - Susan is a writer based in Perth's Darling Range, Western Australia. Her love for writing began as a child and is a life-long passion. Susan is also passionate about reading and attributes much of her learning from the wonderful literature she keeps discovering.

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