Writing Wednesdays: How to tell when you've finished your first draft

November 29, 2017
Do you struggle to know when you've finished the first draft of your novel? I share a few tips in this post

As we're coming to the end of NaNoWriMo, I figured it made sense to make this week's post about finishing your first draft. 

I wrote a few weeks ago about how to end your story. This post won't be about that, but if you'd like to read up on some ideas on ending your novel, check out the post here.

Writing is brilliant and passionate and it can be messy as hell. There's so much rewriting and editing and cutting and changing and it can be hard to recognise when you've hit a milestone, sometimes. Particularly a milestone as important as completing your first draft. So how do you know when you've finished your first draft?

First things first... what is the first draft?

The first draft of your novel is raw and unedited. It's the completed book only in the sense of having written the story beginning to end. It's by no means completed in the sense of 'ready to be published'. The first draft is typically one you've not edited, even copy-edited. It's just the story that's finished.

Okay, great - so how do you know when it's finished?

This might be a stage that's easy for some people. It might be that you know exactly where and how you want your book to end, and you've drawn it to a neat conclusion, or maybe led it to a brilliantly thought-out cliffhanger to lead onto the sequel you're planning.

Or maybe you'll just know. You'll knock out those last few sentences, hit the full-stop, and sit back with a satisfied smile, knowing it's done and this is where you want to leave your characters.

One thing I would say is that if you haven't planned out your ending or thought about how you want it to end - it's not a big deal. Don't stress. Like I've said a thousand times in Writing Wednesday posts before: writing is an incredibly personal thing, and everyone has different methods of writing. Maybe this is just how you work.

But it can help to at least draft out some ideas for your ending.

This can be as detailed or as vague as you want it to be, but step back from your story for ten minutes and just have a think. Jot down a few ideas, maybe. Consider your storyline, the climax it's been building up to - where's that leading? What's the outcome? Do they get together at the end? Does she get the dream job? Does he defeat the villain and have to pick up the pieces from the fallout?

Obviously, if you're a plotter, you probably have a very good idea when you start writing where things will end up. You might not. And that's okay, too.

Having an idea of how you want the story to end can help you work towards that - but it can also help you recognise when you've reached the ending, and don't need to keep going with the story. 

I struggled a couple of times when I was first writing (especially with short stories, at school) to know when to stop writing, and recognise when it was just done - and part of this was that I never was able to plot out the story and work to that plan. 

And I still don't plan out my stories now, but I work to a rough framework. I have an idea of the main plot point for the story, which helps me get an idea of where I want it to end. And in all honesty, I usually have no idea how it's going to end until at least halfway through my book. 

But by about halfway, I've got more of an idea where the story's going and at that point, I can think more about where I want it to end and how I want to wrap things up. That's what works for me. And if you're someone who also can't work to a detailed plot, that might work for you, too.

Recognise when you're drawing things out.

If you feel like you've got most of the story, you've hit all the big points you wanted to, and now things are feeling strained and it's hard to keep pushing on with the story, it's time to step back and consider if you've already finished, and if you're just writing now for the sake of writing.

Maybe you're only 30k words in and you've not got to the Big Dramatic Reveal yet - that's cool. You're not finished with the story yet. You need to work through this block and keep going.

(And you can read this post for 7 quick fixes for writers' block, if that's what position you're in with your story.)

But if you're at 93k words, and you've ticked all the boxes for the storyline that you wanted to, then maybe you're done. Maybe you need to work back through those last few chapters and work out where you want to end things, or where the story starts to read like you're not quite as driven anymore, and the writing falls a bit flat. Rework it a little, delete what you need to, and craft your ending.

Celebrate before you start editing.

One trap it's so easy to fall into is to start rewriting and editing before you even really realise you've finished your first draft. I've said before that I think it's best to leave the majority or your editing until after you have a first draft (and you can read more about how to edit your novel in this post, or how to deal with rewriting your Work in Progress in this post).

Hang fire! Don't crack on with your edits until you've recognised if you've finished your first draft - this means you actually have to think if you've finished, too.

Try a post-story plot.

Bear with me here. This is just something that's helped me before now, and might help you.

Skim through your story and make some notes, or a timeline, of the key plot points so far. Maybe split it up into the four sections of Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Conclusion and make bullet points in each section. Whatever feels right for you.

Don't reread the whole story. You know it pretty well - you wrote it, after all - but just spend something like half an hour skimming through, noting down the main plot development points and how the story develops. This will help you work out if you've reached the conclusion stage at all, or if your conclusion covers everything it needs to. If it does - brilliant, because that means you've probably finished your first draft! If not - maybe a little more work to tie up those loose ends before you've finished.

Think you've finished? Let's make sure...

Look at the last bit of the story. your final chapter or your epilogue.. Does it tie up everything you want it to, conclude your storyline(s) properly? Does it read and feel like an ending? If it doesn't, you need to work on that first. 

If it helps, pick up a couple of books you're familiar with. Read the last chapters. Then read your last chapter. What's missing? What's not there in yours that needs to be? Or maybe yours works out just as well as any other ending, and you decide you're happy with it. (Yay!)

Do you struggle with knowing when you've finished your first draft? What are some tips you have for this? Share in the comments below!

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