Practice Makes Perfect–Or At Least Closer to Perfect

It’s been more than a month since my cupcake celebration for finishing my latest first draft. It took great self-control to let the draft sit for that long, but I filled the time with critiques for other writers, a major contest, and a revision to DUET. But finally, this week it was time to start revising.

I decided to take a different approach to revision with this manuscript. Instead of jumping right in with changes from the first page, I read through the whole thing and made notes on the side. It’s so easy to do with Scrivener, a program that has made my writing so much easier, but that’s a topic for another day.

It took me two and a half days to read through approximately 45,000 words, and the last half I did in one. I didn’t want to stop reading! Since I let it sit, I didn’t remember exactly how I’d executed everything, and I was surprised it was in such good shape in first draft form. Of course it’s by no means ready even for beta readers, but it’s decent. Here are the factors that contributed to a much more polished first draft.

Practice. This WIP is my fourth novel. The first shelved manuscript really only got to a third draft or so, and I never had anyone else read it before I queried 20 or so agents–a rookie mistake I can’t say I skipped. The second (CAVEBOY) and third (DUET) I’ve talked about here before. CAVEBOY took forever to draft because I kept revising as I went. I completed DUET during NaNoWriMo last year. My planning for DUET consisted of laying out the alternate realities, so when I wrote the first draft, it was only 29,000 words that consisted mainly of her trips into the music. Fortunately that was only two weeks into NaNoWriMo, so I went back and filled in the character’s emotional journey. Not the best way to draft, but I did end up with a complete draft by the end of the month. As I explained here, for this WIP I took a similar approach with daily word goals, aiming to complete it in a month. The actual drafting wasn’t any easier–I just hate that part–but I knew what I was doing. I knew how to structure the story, how to develop the characters, etc., from the beginning instead of getting those notes from critique partners.

Critiquing. Many new writers think of the benefits of critiquing in the sense of what they receive from another critiquer, not what they learn from critiquing someone else’s work. I’ve come to see it both ways. I had an amazing CP for CAVEBOY who taught me a lot about my weaknesses as a writer, and I’m super-aware of those issues as I write now. At the same time, I’ve learned so much from reading other writers’ work. Often I’ll see something consistently in someone else’s work and then think, I need to fix that in mine. That translates into the initial draft, too, as I’m aware of not only my own weaknesses, but the things I’ve seen when I critique.

Contests. I’ve talked about contests before, here and here, so I’m not going to go into detail again, but whether you enter them or not, reading through a batch of entries gives great insight into what to do with your own work.

Reading. I started reading middle grade later than I should have, but once I made an effort to read it regularly, it made a huge impact on my writing. Now I have even more incentive to read MG since I started participating in Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. It forces me to have an MG ready to review every week. I think this is particularly important when you’re writing for an age group that isn’t your own. Especially for middle grade, agents say it’s hard to master the voice. Through reading, I’ve honed my middle grade voice and also been reassured that it wasn’t too off to start with. The other thing is that often in contest/conference critiques, people focus on things that they think MG readers won’t know (in mine, Bugs Bunny or Psycho). I’ve read books that have characters fixated on everything from a ’70s game show to an ’80s movie to a classic book. The key is to make sure it’s clear why the character knows about those things. As long as they have a base of reference for it, they can be an expert in anything. Maybe you just don’t mention it in the query or first page :).

So where is everyone else on this first draft issue? Do you notice each first draft is better, or is that just me?

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About Michelle I. Mason

I'm a full-time writer, focusing mainly on middle grade and young adult fiction with some freelance PR writing and editing on the side. I'm also a wife, mom, Christian, violinist, avid reader and St. Louis Cardinals fan. And I watch way too much TV.
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6 Responses to Practice Makes Perfect–Or At Least Closer to Perfect

  1. Andrea says:

    I agree with you on the importance of reading many books written for the age group that you’re writing for. Since I started reading more middle grade books, my own writing has become so much stronger and I have a much better sense of character for that age group.

    It’s been so long since I wrote a first draft and I’m just planning a new story now, but I think this time I’ll be able to get into my character’s perspective more quickly. I used to not feel I got to know the character until the draft was near completion, but as I get more practice, I get a better feel for the kinds of things I need to know before I start, and how to show the world from my character’s perspective.

    • I know what you mean about the character. For this particular novel, I’m doing alternating viewpoints. I had a very strong feel for one but didn’t really understand the other until I got into her. As a result, many of my notes in the early chapters are to play up the things I discovered about her later. Good luck with your new project!

  2. Yes! I do think every draft is better (though it doesn’t feel like it right now, since I’m in the middle of my first set of major revisions.) A few months ago I actually pulled out my first book to look at, just to see if my writing had changed. It had, though it was cool to see notes of my current writing in that first book. I highly recommend doing that!

    Thanks for the reminder of how helpful it can be to judge contests. I’m a hard grader – just ask my CPs – so I’m reluctant to judge contests because I don’t want to discourage anyone or sound mean. Still, it would be nice to give back to the writing community, and it sounds like it would be a learning experience for me as well.

    Good luck with revisions!

    • I haven’t looked back at that first one in quite a while. Maybe I should, just to see what skills I had to begin with.

      As for the contests, I haven’t been an official judge, but often when you enter you’re asked to give feedback on other entries as well. It’s helpful on the technique side, but also just in seeing what’s already out there. That way I know I shouldn’t write that story that five other people already have.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I have always enjoyed MG books- but as soon as I started working on my MG book with my co-author I started reading even more. Because Stephanie is a 5th grade teacher she reads a lot of books in this genre and she was able to recommend a lot of books to me. MG books are such fun and it helped me to see what other books my target audience is reading. What a great post and I am glad your draft was in better shape than you expected. 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jess! I think reading in your genre is one of the best pieces of advice, and it’s funny because I actually attended an author panel where an author said she doesn’t because she’s afraid what she’s reading will sneak into her work. I guess I can see that argument, but I haven’t noticed it being a problem for me.

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