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Finished My First Draft, Now What?

Finished My First Draft, Now What?

book editing Nov 27, 2023

After a lot of struggle, I finished my first draft. And you know what? It absolutely sucks. It's nothing like I imagined it would be, descriptions aren't strong, cities have no names, there are a lot of plot holes–silly choices that I kept postponing, villains fall flat, some reactions are absurd and my magical system is yet to be determined. 

But despite it all, I'm still in love with it.  

My characters feel real, they are kind, brave or bold. They have a story to tell, the relationships between them are strong. They are unique and kind of quirky. They experience pain in levels no one should be able to support, but still, they continue. And most importantly, it has dragons! 

So, I know this is a story worth telling. But the problem is, no matter how strong my intentions are, the novel keeps sucking. I can't find a way to do justice to what's in my head. I look at it and I just can't believe how bad it is.


But, why is that?


This is a story that I started to imagine when I was fifteen, now I am twenty two. Six intense years happen in the process of imagining something, believing it could never be made, then making it, and having to face that the result –and my abilities to create– were not quite as good as I would like them to be. 

I've spent almost three years writing it, from which only one was full of compromise and dedication. Abilities, as we know, get better with practice. So I have something like this: 



The beginning is not as strong as the end. But this is only because in three years, I did get better. The prose has changed, improved if I dare. But there are other matters, some decisions I’ve yet to make. The theme has not changed completely, but this story means something different to me now that what it did in the past. 

So yes, I did finish my first novel, but I don't really have a novel in my hands. What I have is a sort of beloved Frankestein, with a lot of work to do.  

ALSO: It Takes a Village to Write a Novel


Going back to it for the first time

Since I finished the draft, I locked it up in a secret compartment and I didn't look at it for months. I was too afraid of the monster I've created. Too afraid it was so bad I might quit. But even though I'm many things, a coward it's not one of them. So eventually, I forced myself to look.

And you know what? It wasn't so bad.

Memory does that sometimes. It turns the subject to something good or bad –actually, to perfect or horrible– depending on what we want to believe. And I guess it's easy to believe we suck, that way, we have an excuse to quit. But enough with the cheap psychology, I want to find a way to pick up a messy project and make it work.

So if you just finished writing a first draft, and you aren't sure of what to do now, this is a guide step by step on how to approach it, to what would become draft number two. Draft number two is not perfect either, but it's much closer to the idea we have in mind. Once we are done drafting, it's time to call an editor. We will get into this –why we need an editor– further below.


Now, let's make this Frankenstein work. 


STEP 1: Reading

Do a first reading of the whole project. But make no changes yet–unless your neurosis is stronger than you and you desperately need it. A lot of people fix their errors while reading because they think it's saving them some time. On some occasions, yes. But in most cases, spending time fixing grammatical errors in a scene that you might delete later is just a waste of time. 

This is a reading you should do as if you were the reader, not the writer. Which is one of the most difficult things to do. I know you’re in love with your story, but love is blind. So try to keep that in mind, when submerged into the reading.

This is not the time to make changes yet, but to dive into your world and try to see it with brand new eyes. Give time between the first draft and the first reading so once you sit down to read you might have forgotten some things and get surprised as if it wasn't you who created the whole thing. This will work of course, if you don't have a deadline. 

So, no editing. Resist the temptation. 

What you can do–and definitely should–is take some notes. Read like a reader, but not a dumb I-believe-everything-I-read kind of reader, more of a critic kind-of snobbish one. Ask yourself questions. Is there something in the story that feels wrong? Some character that falls flat? Is there too much information? Too little? Do I get lost in the description or follow the narrative well? Am I intrigued? Remember that if you get bored, the reader will too. 

This is a moment to question everything, find purpose in what you've been doing these past months and try to connect the dots of the story as a detective.



STEP 2: Plotting (Again!)

This is only for people who struggle with plot and order during the first draft. When I started, I didn't know how to make an outline, so I did it midway. Now, I'm going to do it again. Why? Because I have elephant sized holes in the middle of my story, new ideas, scenes that need to be added–carefully, so it fits right among the others– and scenes that need to go out. There are also some things that I wanna change, and as we know, everything has a consequence. Looking at the outline will allow me to make as many changes as I want, without hurting the story.

ALSO: How I Plan My Novels

If this is your case, you might wanna try it again. There's no shame on making huge, big-impact changes, in fact, that's what first drafts are for. So get messy, and experimental, and make as many changes as you need. There are no amount of changes one is allowed to make in order to get to what's ideal.



STEP 3: Macro editing

Since we already know what we want to do, now it's time to edit. If you have resisted the rule of not changing things just yet, then congratulations, you're better than me!

Editors have a golden rule–actually, they have plenty–that involves separating the process in two sections. The first one is called macro editing

This step is about looking at the whole picture, and editing the major, important things first, such as the characters, the plot, the descriptions, the scenes’ order and the structure. The thing is that the eye tends to go to the detail –that blue line on your drive document that keeps flickering– because it's easier to correct only a word rather than a scene. But we need to focus on these elements first, and the relation between them. See the forest, not the trees.

Macro editing is all about sense and coherence. It's about order and time and purpose. What about the chapters and their continuity? Are the scenes coherent? Do they make sense? Rewrite scenes if you need to, rearrange them until you’re pleased. Reorder and restart, if you must. 

Scenes should have a purpose, whether it's for making the story move forward or for making the characters grow fond of each other. If a scene doesn't have a purpose, it's time to let it go. And if you have doubt, it's possibly a goodbye sweetheart case. 

There must be balance. Always. Balance between the narrative voice and the dialogue, don't smother the reader choosing only one, intercalate them so the story can be seen but also heard. Are dialogues natural enough? Can you actually hear your character saying this? Reading out loud will make a huge difference for your editing. 

ALSO: The 3-step System to Create Well-Written Dialogue

Make sure that descriptions are helpful, but subtle. Descriptions, as we know, paint the scene and show us what it would be like to be inside the story. But too much of it is suffocating for the reader–especially if you are one of those writers who loves to worldbuild–also, we can get bored if the book doesn't have action right away.

These kinds of decisions are always yours to make, but if you have lots of descriptions and you don't want to get rid of them, you should think of a way to spread it across the whole book, and not only in the beginning. Try interlacing them with action, and dialogue. Again, it's always about finding the right balance. 

When it comes to conflict, don't make things easier just because you care about the characters. Build up the tension, make sure it leads somewhere (don't you hate when you are expecting so much because the tension keeps growing but it simply falls in the end?), develop different kinds of conflict at the same time and make them all fall down on your characters in the worst possible moment. Make them struggle. 

Don't solve all those problems right away. 

Make the reader beg for the solution. That's a way to catch them.


STEP 4: Micro editing

Now that you have captivated the reader with your lovely characters, your well-written scenes, and your tasteful but not overwhelming descriptions, can you imagine what a bummer it is when the whole book is misspelled?

Micro editing is phase two for editors, and it's a really important step, because here we edit grammatical and misspelling mistakes. This is a task that is usually underestimated but it's really important–no one wants to read a book that is full of mistakes. 

We already gave a look around the forest, now we stand before every tall tree and try to make it prettier. We take every paragraph, read it out loud, and look for mistakes. Further beyond: we look at every sentence and dissect them.  

Do the metaphors work? Try using ones related to your story and characters. What about the tone you choose? Doesn't matter if it's ironic, tragic, introspective or funny and kind of silly, but it has to be consistent. The narrative voice should persist through the whole novel and be clear. Make sure you use expressions that feel your own, and try to avoid common phrases that we all know. (Is it better to say the sun is shining in the sky rather than the sun is crying above us?)

What about the rhythm of the paragraph? Switching between short sentences and longer ones can do wonders for your cadence. Punctuation is also important. It's. Not. The. Same. Doing. This–See how hard it is to read?–Than using punctuation variations to make it fluid, knowing when to stop, when to breathe, and when to…  

Give it suspense and leave it to the imagination. 

Other questions to ask: adjectives, are the correct ones to use? Do they serve you, master of words, or can you find better ones? Is the verbal time respected throughout the whole story? What about the point of view? Does it serve your purpose? Pay special attention to detail, be tidy and clean, and if you find something you feel incapable of resolving, make comments and take notes to solve later on with your editor. 


 Why do I still need an editor?


There are so many things our eyes can't see. When we’re immersed in a project, it's hard to take distance and see things from another perspective. But that's what other people are for. Working with an editor that really understands you and is committed to the project can add a new fresh air to the story since they understand it from a different point of view.

Some writers are terrified that their work will change until it's unrecognizable to them, but this will not happen. Editors are not your enemies, in the best case, they're your best friends. They will not sabotage your project, but intend to make it even better, with ideas that only suit you. 

ALSO: Ready for an Editor?

We can think of editors as fairy godmothers. They are there to help us resolve stuff and guide us when things get hard. With their bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, they make the story so, so much better.



While writing is a very solitary task, editing can be fun because you play in a team now. Also, two great minds work better than one.

Here in The Plottery we have great editors that you can reach out to any time you want. 

To resume, the worst has happened. If you have survived your writing process, you're fine. The worst part of draft 2 is looking at draft 1 and facing your creation. The worst part is always accepting it's not perfect, not even close. But know you can and will improve, not only with practice but with help. Learning how to edit will help you become a more meticulous, careful and practical writer. 

Ready to start editing your first draft? 


Juliana Palermo
Written for The Plottery

Juliana Palermo lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She's 22 but hasn't learned how to do her taxes yet. She works as a freelance editor and book cover designer, but you will find her drinking coffee and daydreaming during working hours. She is currently writing her first fantasy novel. You can find her as @julippalermo both on Instagram and Twitter. 

If you need her, you can say her name three times in front of a mirror and she will appear with a cynical smile. But let me warn you, her jokes are not as funny as she promised, and if you invited her in, there's a chance she will never leave.



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