Finish that Draft: Tips and Tricks from an Editor in the Trenches

We’ve all heard of the stereotypical drunk and depressed writer as an ill-romanticized icon. Writers are taught that struggle is inherent to the job. We expect to “bleed on the page” to complete a publishable manuscript. But what if extended periods, effort, and pain are negotiable, possible to mitigate? What if finishing that first draft could be simple, if not easy?

While editing and re-writes are required after a first draft, I have some tips and tricks that will help you overcome the blocks of a first draft (and move onto your second draft) by clearing a path toward a great story. These tips and tricks, rooted in the Story Grid methodology, have assisted many of my editing clients through what would otherwise be some pretty miserable times. Sure, they might not work for everyone, but if you’re stuck, what have you got to lose? 

Let’s get that first draft done together.

Tip One is to Engage Speed.

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, suggests we get our story out of our heads and into text as if the devil were on our ass. Our job is to get the heart and soul of the story down as fast as we can.

Tip Two is to Allow Shitty Writing.

We accept that there is no judgment day for our first draft. We allow for a shitty draft. All we must do is create a beginning, middle, and end as quickly as possible.

We don’t belittle the muse or creative work. We write. The first draft is an exploration of ideas and a learning opportunity. Not everything we write will work, but it doesn’t matter in a first draft. Be shitty.

Tip Three is to Cut the Critic.

In this first draft, we’ll push the creative side of our brain harder and reel back the analytical side. Why? Because we can’t be open to the muse and the editor’s mind at the same time. Our little human brains just don’t have that capacity. Sigh.

Steven Pressfield writes on his blog, “Logic and rationality rarely jibe with the unknowable intangibles of creativity.”

That editor brain screws up the first draft and will bring you to a halt. Let freedom ring.

We’ll have all the tools, techniques, and support you’ll need to make our great, one draft at a time, on the other side of this draft. But without it, we have nothing to work with. We must create the cloth we’ll cut from.

Tip Four is to Write Like a Reader.

What does that mean? We’ll start by thinking like a reader instead of a writer.

Imagine that you can read your story into existence.

Sound weird?

Yes, it does. So how do we do it?

We’re not going to dwell on what happens next. With an idea, maybe even a title, we start writing. With the muse as our guide, allow the keyboard and the pen to navigate as if you are opening and reading it your story already written.

Like the techniques used in improv theater, we’re not thinking about what happens next. We think, “Yes and then…”

By doing so, we can begin to anticipate the story  rather than get bogged down in directing it. 

Tip Five is to Be Prepared for Evil to Alter Your Plans.

Let’s say we get about 7,000 words in, and we start to feel we are repeating complications and “bobbing boats.” Evil, Steven Pressfield calls this Resistance, will step in and tell us to go back over what we wrote and to edit it to the new story level we imagine. “I’ll just fix that, and I’ll be ready to move forward.”

This is a sure way to prevent us from getting to the end of a first draft. Remember to allow the work to be shitty and to keep moving forward. Momentum is critical, and if we enable Evil to backtrack our story, Evil will do it again and again with a little more strength each time.

We’ve all heard it, keep your butt in the chair and your hands on the keyboard. This is the work of a professional author, not just a hobby writer. Which are you going to be?

Tip Six is to Be Prepared for Evil to Intervene Again and Again.

Every day, when we sit down to write, we’ll want to go back through yesterday’s pages. We’ll crave a launchpad, want to make changes, and write through the story from beginning to where we are now. But guess what? That’s going to take up our entire day, then our full week, and we’ll never get farther than we were when we first “got stuck.”

What do we do if we know we need to go back and add a set-up, remove a subplot, or introduce a character earlier in our plot?

Trick One:

We simply make a note of it for our second draft and proceed as if we have already made that change. Ooooh, that might hurt. Those loops are very seductive. Evil knows us well. But ignoring the seduction is necessary if we ever want to make it to a second draft.

Trick Two:

Rather than outline before we write, we take notes as we write. In a separate computer file or notebook, we jot down a couple of points about each scene as we go. This allows us to track that seduction above and save it for the editor, the part of ourselves that can actually benefit from this early intervention. Maybe we’re tracking character arcs, locations, subplots, needed changes, whatever isn’t pushing the story toward the end but will need addressing later. This becomes a reference for our outline of a second draft. And, if we must, we can use these as the backtrack references to prevent us from reading through entire earlier scenes.

Trick Three:

Once we’ve reached the end, we read the entire first draft, make additional notes in our folder or notebook, and then put it down for a week or more. We allow the story to work in the back of our minds as we go about our daily activities, the more physical those activities are, the better. Let the story simmer.

Trick Four:

Once we’ve let the story rest, we pick up our previous notes and create an outline for draft number two. We integrate all those ideas, set-ups, arc inconsistencies, etc. But we generate that outline to structure the story as best we can. We’re not preparing for line edits or focusing on our prose. We’re writing a plan to make sure we have every scene we need, remove the scenes we don’t need and fill in the story gaps we know we missed in the first draft. We’re ready for draft two.

“Now what? It sounds too simple,” you say.

The first draft process is simple but not always easy. And, of course, we have to educate ourselves on the elements of story structure. There’s no way around the need for studying our genre, the craft of storytelling, and for reading for both depth and breadth. We do have to know the foundations of our profession so that those principles and ideas seem to come naturally as we write.

This takes practice.

Now, you have your idea and everything you need to finish your first draft. Allow for the muse, engage speed, ignore seductions, and allow for mistakes. Remember, our subconscious minds create the best ideas, and it’s our job not to get in the way.

Get to work. Butt in chair. No looking back.

And if you find you need assistance along the way, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Professionals don’t finish a story alone. Grab a spot on my calendar and I’ll call you for a free thirty-minute consultation on your work. I’ll equip you with the tools to get you unstuck.

About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on merit scholarship. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Certified Story Grid Editor. She is honored to have edited the award winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and memoir writers. She is easily bribed with promises of iced coffee drinks, piles of puppies, and long walks in thunderstorms. She is currently on contract, writing a Story Grid guide to a masterwork. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30-minute consultation on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
Comments (4)
Author Rachelle Ramirez

4 Comments

Daniel J Stutzman says:

Excellent article! I’ve been doing something similar to this, but I’ve added “dotser” methodology to it. I got the term (versus plotter/pantser) from Victoria Schwab, and it means that she at least likes to know the final climax as well as a few dots along the way. We try to connect the dots to get to the end so that we don’t go off too far in any wrong direction.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Daniel. Thank you. I really like that idea. That allows a lot of freedom in the creation of the draft. Of course, one would need to know their climactic event to get started there, which most writers do. I didn’t know what mine was when for my first draft and had to write my way into a genre and then examine for what that climactic event needed to be. Sometimes we work backward and that isn’t a lot of fun. Your suggestion reminds me of Larry Brooks’ tentpoles. Best of luck with your work in progress.

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Lewis says:

Great, great article Rachelle. I was kind of wondering if you’d ever write a post out here. I met you briefly at the Nashville thing, and your presentation was like literary stand-up comedy. Really good stuff. Your #3 Cut the Critic is a big one for me. My inner-critic is my own antagonist, but I win when I finish the novel. When I look at the actual stuff and the 5 commandments, I’m proud of it, down to the sentence. I’ve finished my rough draft and am going through with a fine-tooth Storygrid comb now toward the finished version. You’ve got some really good suggestions here for my next time around. My inner critic is big enough to kick both of our butts, and then go looking for Shawn and Tim 🙂 Keep up the good work, girl!…and share some more blog posts.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello Lewis, I remember meeting you. I was so nervous about that presentation that most of the weekend was a blur but I do remember chatting with you briefly. What are you working on? Was it War and Fantasy? I know what you mean about that inner critic. It’s easy to start hating our own work. Here is a link to a post on write on that: https://www.pagesandplatforms.com/blog/dealing-with-writing-rejection-without-rejecting-yourself Have you seen my other posts on this site? Are you going to any of the upcoming Story Grid Live events? I’ll be in Nashville in February for the Non-fiction workshop. You can also reach me at [email protected]. Know that you are not alone in your battle.

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