The biggest question for any writer who wishes to become an author is …

Am I done?

Please answer the following questions:

Question 1 – Is this your first draft?
Answer: Yes – You are not done
Answer : No – please proceed to Question 2.

My best advice to those writing their first draft is this:

Write write write, til your fingers are bloodied stumps and your eyes roll upward and back into your head through the sheer force of pressing your imagination word by word through the keyboard and onto the page.

In the words of the mighty Chuck Wendig (whom I strongly recommend you follow … warning: strong language and rambling); “Write as much as you can, as fast as you can, try not to suck.”

There is no special ingredient here folks, just make a schedule and stick to it. Aim for 1,000 words a day and you will soon be strapped to the front of a locomotive knitted from your own thoughts hurtling toward the magic moment when you type THE END.

No one prepares you for the extraordinary sense of exorcism when you type those words. The angry bee that has buzzed about in your brain growing larger and larger is suddenly gone. Safely captured in the white space around the words.

Now that you are done with the first draft, make a backup and mark a date in your calendar six weeks in the future.

Until this date arrives, do not touch the first draft. Allow it to grow stale in your mind. This allows you to take out your writer eyes and put in your editing eyes. The six week confinement period creates the sense of separation required to engage your inner editor.

Question 2 – Is this your second draft?
Answer: Yes – You are not done.
Answer: No – please proceed to Question 3.

Ernest Hemingway had a characteristically pithy statement about the first draft of anything. Sadly, he was absolutely right.

However, I do not advocate the Patrick White treatment of the first draft (he would throw it in the fire and start again).

If you haven’t already, now is the best time to apply a structure to the story.

I found this structure on the site of Karen Woodward and it helped me get from first draft to second draft.

For each chapter, create an index card including the following:

Location: London, Kalahari Desert, in a plane at 30,000 feet.
Season and weather: a wet Spring day, a cold grey November day etc
Timeframe: scene starts at dawn and the action takes place over the course of a day. A lunch break. Midnight.

List each character present in the scene.
For each character:

  • List their goal for the scene (acceptance into a confidence, solving a puzzle, gently enquiring after the health of someone’s mother aware that the answer may not be good)
  • List their stakes or what they fear to lose if they do not achieve that goal (the confidence is a step to meeting a major player later on in the story, the puzzle contains a crucial clue, offending the other party)
  • Make a brief description of the elements of the scene.

During this evaluation process, ask yourself the hard question; is this scene necessary? There is no point polishing a scene that might be cut.

Review all the index cards and make sure all plot threads are coherent, all red herrings are in place and all elements later crucial to the plot are subtly seeded in earlier scenes.

Tip: The middle of a paragraph is the best place to place your herrings. The first and last lines of a paragraph are the most memorable to the reader. The centre of the paragraph can be used to form subtle suggestions upon which you can later draw.

When writing your second draft, I recommend you use a separate file to rewrite the whole story instead of editing the first draft.

Do not worry about economy of language just yet. Just ensure that your index cards are close to hand when writing the second draft. Keep each character motivation present in your mind as you write.

Question 3 – Is this your first draft?
Answer: Yes – You are not done.
Answer: No – please proceed to Question 4.

The purpose of the third draft is to reduce the overall size of the piece by 10%.

For each scene, note the word count and review each paragraph.

Is it necessary? Is it as concise as possible? Play close attention to unnecessary adverbs, adjectives and wordy turns of phrase.

Question 4 – Do you need an editor?

The only answer to this is Yes.

Even the finest traditionally published authors work with editors.

A good editor will objectively view your manuscript, identify your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, identify plot holes and overused words and phrases.

An excellent editor will not just cut things out, but identify any elements that need to be added to the story.

Just as a soccer team is only as good as its goalie, your editor is your most powerful ally in this game.