It was mid-January and I was stressed. My publisher had told me to deliver a draft by February 10th and I was feeling overwhelmed, stressed and behind.
"I need more time," I said to my acquiring editor Allison in a panicked state.
"Okay," she replied. "But do you really need it?"
"I'm just not proud of the book yet."
She chuckled slightly. "Remember, Eric, it's not even a book yet. It's a first draft manuscript. It's rarely good at this stage. But I want to see a copy so we can get you feedback on it to make it into something you're proud of."
I didn't really hear what she'd said – I was just relieved I had more time. And so I used that time in my own head, twisting and turning for an extra 78 days until I created a slightly better draft. And I sent it off…
That was when then the real magic happened. She gave me feedback on how to make it WAY better. Nothing I'd done had made the manuscript demonstrably better in those 78 days, but her feedback definitely did. These were things I just didn't quite know or understand as a first-time author, but having feedback on a draft was where the book radically improved.
Assumption: You have to be proud of your first draft.
Authors put a lot of pressure on themselves – especially younger and first-time authors. There are elements of imposter syndrome for sure, but a lot of it comes from how the educational system has trained us to think about writing products:
- You write a term paper.
- You turn it in.
- You get graded (sometimes you complain about the grade).
- You never touch it again.
And that's what I (wrongly) assumed would happen with my manuscript. I was submitting it for approval, not for feedback. And too many times I (and many others) worry about the minor details (spelling, grammar, etc.) and miss the big-picture stuff.
Reality: Be proud that you FINISHED a first draft (but it's mostly to get feedback to make it better).
“Books aren't written – they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it.”Micheal Crichton
The biggest lesson from second-time authors is they know it's going to need to be revised (often a lot of times) and so they push to get a first draft done quickly so they can get started revising it to a second, third and seventh draft.
Here's the thing: Writing your first book is like doing anything for the first time…you haven't done it before so you'll probably make a lot of mistakes. That means it's way better to get something out the door (sooner) to see the mistakes so you can begin fixing them.
Set an Aggressive Target
Most people are shocked that my authors write a first draft in a semester. They're even more shocked when I tell them how the first month of the semester doesn't even involve any writing at a;;. That seems ridiculous, right? How can you possible finish something 'any good' in 4-5 months?
But you really don't need to finish something 'good.' You need to finish something and then get feedback so you can then make it good. I'm a big fan of Parkinson's law; the adage that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." If you give yourself 5 months and the right tools/accountability, then you have a shot at finishing in 5 months. But if you give yourself 12 months, then there is basically zero chance you'll finish in 5. And even if you don't finish in 5, then you extend your time.
Lock Down Alpha and Beta Readers
When you're in the middle of writing a first draft, set a target for it to be 'ready for feedback' (see, I didn't say 'done'). Those target dates are going to be something you start to share 'loosely' with your early readers. In my case, my acquiring editor Allison was my first reader – my Alpha Reader. I just didn't realize that's what I was doing. But she knew what to expect and would give me feedback. Usually when I work with authors I'm their alpha reader – someone close to them, who has been working with them and understands what I'm getting from them.
Once you get a first round of feedback from an editor, coach, professor, then you start to share bigger pieces of the book with Beta Readers. The feedback can at times be tough to hear, but it'll also be the best way to move quickly to a better next version.
My advice is always to lock down your Alpha Reader(s) and your Beta Reader as you're setting those targets. The bi-product of them knowing you're working on a draft for them to read is you also create some added accountability.
Send a 'Notes on the Manuscript' to Alpha/Beta Readers
I ask authors to send me a short document with details on the state of the manuscript. Key things I ask for include the following:
- What 2-3 chapters do you really like and why?
- What 2-3 chapters do you think really need more help and feedback (something feels off)?
- What chapters (if any) aren't done?
- How do you feel about it and what would be most helpful for my feedback?
This effort is all about expectations management. If you say, "Would you read my manuscript?" and send it to me, I have no idea what point or stage it’s at. Set my expectations and guide me where I can help.
Second-time authors know they need to finish a mediocre first draft in order to start the second draft. They move quickly to get their first draft done and recognize how so much improvement happens from first draft to second draft.
If you want my favorite analogy…a few years back I finished a Tough Mudder. You can see in the photo below I was two-thumbs-up proud. But what you don't see is the fact I had to be dragged over the finish line, almost cried twice (more if I'm being honest), and was sore for a whole week afterwards. Am I proud of how I got there, or how I looked at the end, or my time? Heck no. But am I proud I finished? You bet!
The same thing applies to first drafts. You don't have to be proud OF the first-draft manuscript itself; but by all means be proud you finished the first-draft manuscript.
You may be bloodied and bruised and know it isn't ready for mass consumption, but it's finished and the work to make it great can begin.