A Letter to My Former Self: The Truth About First Drafts

Last year, on February 29th, I finished the first draft of my novel. If I could send a note back in time, a congratulatory letter to my first-draft-finishing self, here's what it would say...
Dear Amy,

Well done! You have finished the first draft of your novel. I know, right? Amazing. You feel quite good about yourself. I've been there. I'm right there with you. You feel it's quite fitting that this should happen on a Leap Day, don't you? Because a completed first draft is a rare enough thing. You are imagining the sheer and unprecedented scope of the publishing contract headed your way. You're narrating a version of the phone call to come from Steven Spielberg who simply *must* buy the film rights to this novel and any future ones you write.

Fun, isn't it? It's a fun time.

I really do want you to be happy. Of course I mean to congratulate you. But I am also the Ghost of Writerly Future hoping to shed some light on what's to come. Calibrate expectations, if you will. A reality check. Let's call it: The Truth About First Drafts.

For you, the journey begins tomorrow. Tomorrow, you will have the draft printed and bound and you will pick it up at the printing place and it will sit heavy and book-like in your hands. This will feel glorious. A Life Moment. You will pass it to your husband at the dinner table and he will weigh it on open palms, and he will do that slow nod thing he does when he's absorbing something momentous.

And after the kids are in bed, you will cozy up on the couch with your printed first draft and glass of Pinot Grigio, and you will open it to a random page and read a sentence out loud. Not bad, you'll think. Then you'll flip to another page and read another sentence, but this time it will make you shudder. You might even groan. Eleven more flips and eleven more shudder/groans later, you'll snap the book closed and chug the Pinot. A deep dread will try to well up inside you, but you'll jam it back down. You'll decide to put the book in a drawer for a while... you know, to give yourself some time to bask.

Over the next few weeks, your sense of accomplishment will be slowly replaced by a gnawing sense of impending doom. People will hear of your feat - you wrote a novel? - and congratulate you profusely. When can I read it? they'll ask. Soon! You'll say, but really you'll be thinking never, you'll NEVER read it, as those horrible sentences you spied in that first flip through churn in your gut like bile. You'll resist the frequent urge to pull it from the drawer and burn it ceremoniously in a roaring bonfire of some sort.

Eventually, you'll feel ready to have a go at it again. The experience of starting a second draft will be on par with looking at your naked body in the mirror right after giving birth; that bit of pride at what you've done overpowered by the dawning horror of all the work yet to come. You'll find yourself craving wine and chocolate then looking over at the clock to see it's only 9:38am. This will not be a good time. The early days of the second draft are a dark time. Know that now. Accept it.

The second draft will take three months. Upon completion, it will be incrementally better than the first. The third draft will take two months. The mathematics, at this point, will look promising. Each draft gets faster! Easier! Then you'll give that third draft to a professional, who will outline between 165-286 changes you need to make. And so, the fourth draft will take five months. Two spent sitting at your computer, often just staring, sometimes playing online Scrabble against other writers working on their fourth drafts, sometimes crafting witty emails to famous people you'll never meet. The last three months of those five, you'll actually write.

Today is February 28th. Today, I am almost done the fourth draft. I can't say happy anniversary to you, because there is no February 29th this year. Also, I see now that a first draft, while certainly an accomplishment, amounts to half the work at best. I'm sure you feel differently. Of course you do. You still want me to congratulate you. It's still February 29th for you, that magical day, the first draft of your first novel finally written. And since you haven't read it over yet, you're still blissfully unaware that it's a complete pile of shit.

Please don't be discouraged. By the end of the fourth draft, you will feel the book is pretty good. You'll actually consider showing it to others. You'll have shed all illusions about what it takes to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, which is a good thing. You'll no longer be picturing Steven Spielberg showing up at your door with a bouquet of daisies and a cheque for $4.5 million. But you will feel like you persevered.