The First Is Never The Last

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

When I was young, I thought all writers did was write. Someone like Heinlein, Niven or King just sat down, wrote out a masterpiece and bam, instant cash prizes. I probably don’t have to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Good writers go through a lot more than that. There are quite a few steps between a nascent author and the bookstore shelf or e-market. The environment is changing and some of those routes diverge, but they all start with good writing, and that means more than your first draft.

It’s shit, by the way.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Writing a first draft from beginning to end with something substantive in the middle is not an achievement to sneeze at. Plenty of people don’t get that far. I’m just saying don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. The first draft is just the first step, which is how journeys of a thousand miles begin. And trust me, if you seek an audience for your writing outside of your mother, it’s going to be a long haul.

The proofreading and editing follow the first draft immediately. When I say ‘immediately’, though, I don’t mean in terms of time. Don’t finish your draft and then begin tearing it to shreds. Give it time. Like a fresh-baked loaf of bread, you’ll want to let it set for a bit to firm up, then start carving it up while it’s still warm – while the work is still fresh in your head.

At this point you might even want to pass it off to someone else. Maybe you have a friend who knows their grammar. Or you can hire someone to rake your work over the coals. It’s a harrowing thought, your newly-formed creation in uncaring hands. It can feel that way, sure, but if you do enough research, maybe shop around a little, you’ll find someone to work with who is not uncaring, who wants your work to succeed as much as you do, and is interested in making it the best it can be, even if it means telling you how bad it is in places.

This won’t be your last editorial experience, either. Boxers go for rounds with one another until one of them is knocked out. College baskeetball teams take the month of March to put themselves through a grueling tournament, the winner having played at least six games in very short succession before being crowned champion. So it is with editing. You need to keep hammering at the work, the way a smith does with the heated metal under his care, to make something more useful, more profitable, perhaps even elegant. Eventually, after several drafts, you’ll come to a point where you look at the work and, while you might still see some flaws, it feels like something a stranger would actually enjoy reading.

You still aren’t done.

Now you need to get it out to the public. You need to query an agent. Follow up on a pitch. Respond to a request. You might even be putting it up in a Kindle store or on iTunes. However you want to get it in front of strange eyeballs, that’s what you need to do now.

Before we move on to that, though, take a look back at that first draft. Let yourself laugh at the circumstances of the changes – how the dynamics shifted due to an edit, how much better the work is without a certain line, etc – and how they came to be. Again, you’ve gotten a lot further than most, and now you have a better chance of making something happen just by virtue of your writing. Your work is out there, waiting to be discovered.

It’s when the work gets picked up by someone with interest and enthusiasm that your next step, your true test, begins.

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