Finished with Your Sloppy First Draft? Here’s What to Do Next

FriendsIt was 2008 and I had just finished the sloppy first draft of my very first novel. It had taken me two years to write it. Two, long crazy years during which I painstakingly cobbled together the book piece by bloody piece. I felt like I had opened up my heart and vomited out everything it held onto the page.

Needless to say, it was a bit messy. It kind of looked like something that had just crawled out of a moat.

Over those two years I’d told more than a few people I was writing a book. “Really?” They would ask, eyes lighting up, incredulous yet curious. “I want to read it!” I took them at their word and kept a running list in my head of friends and family members who had expressed interest in perusing my monster-baby manuscript. When the time came and I finally typed The End my next move was to email it off to those people.

I gave it a few days before I really started sweating. No one was responding to my email. No one. I didn’t expect people to jump right into it and finish it in 48 hours, but I had thought that maybe I’d get a, “Cool, thanks for sending. Excited to read it!” Or even just a, “Cool, thanks.” But I got nothing. I distinctly heard the sound of crickets.

Weeks went by and still radio silence. Finally I started reaching out and tentatively nudging my readers. I sent the bogus email saying that I wanted to make sure my last email came through. I knew everyone saw through it but I had to try. I needed something. Was I going crazy? Hadn’t these people said they wanted to read my book?

That was when the reviews started trickling in. One person said they started reading but it was “too dark” and they couldn’t keep going. I asked them when they stopped reading. They said Page 4. Another reader said my main character sounded selfish and narcissistic. It was a memoir. I was the main character. A third friend said that the line spacing was hurting her eyes and she couldn’t read anymore. It was my first book. I had no idea I should have double-spaced it.

I’d only talked to three people and already I was in despair. They hated my book. All of my worst fears were confirmed. I sucked as a writer.

Years later I now understand that what happened to me was very, very typical. I didn’t suck as a writer. My book was a sloppy first draft and I gave it to all the wrong people. I gave it to people who were not writers. I gave it to people whose most common experience with a book was going to the bookstore and buying the sleek, polished, revised-a-million-times bestseller marketed toward them.

This is why it’s so important to carefully choose your first readers. We tend to think that the sloppy first draft is closer to “finished” than “WIP”, but the truth is that the rewrites made to a sloppy first draft are still in the realm of creating, fusing, forging, and just plain imagining. Yes, the sloppy first draft is a HUGE step forward but it’s not stepping over the finish line just yet.

A good first reader is not only someone who has seen a few sloppy first drafts, but someone who is also positively encouraging when it comes to giving feedback. Because the sloppy first draft is still in the writing/creating stage (as opposed to the editing/pruning stage) it’s essential that your first readers be people who can see the potential in a project and get excited about it.

The absolute best place to find good first readers is in a writing group. And it should be a writing group you feel comfortable in, made up of people you trust. This also a helpful setup because you’ll probably get to exchange manuscripts with others writers so you can return the favor of being a first reader. The more sloppy first drafts you see, the better you’ll feel about yours.

So when you type those two magic words—The End—keep in mind that no matter how grown up your sloppy first draft might appear to be, it’s still your baby. Only hand it out to people who understand that it needs some loving care.

If you found this article helpful, you might want to check out:

Is It the Right Time for Your Book?

Stop Re-Reading, Start Moving Forward

Who’s In YOUR Writing Sangha?

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  • Reply Hannah 30 July, 2015 at 11:17 am

    This is excellent advice. I’m working on a second novel. I don’t currently have a writing group, but I can tell you one thing: I will not be handing my ugly, little baby to family members when I’ve given birth to it! Not for a while…

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 30 July, 2015 at 1:34 pm

      Way to go Hannah! That’s so exciting. When I’m unable to make it my in-person writing group, I’ve found some pretty great first readers in the pool of my online writer friends. 🙂

  • Reply Catherine North 30 July, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Lauren, your experience of showing your work to friends and family is so similar to mine, it actually made me cringe! I’ve also had either crickets or people who read it but hated my main character ( who isn’t me, but someone I love nevertheless 🙂 I am so glad you’re going to be my first reader for my new book, because it is really quite dark in places, and I need someone who can be okay with that and also be positive and see the potential. Great advice as always!

  • Reply Judith Post 30 July, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    I’m in editing mode now, and it’s so helpful to have lots of red ink on my pages to keep me heading in the right direction. Readers and critique partners are invaluable.

  • Reply JHolmes, author 31 July, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Great advice, Lauren! To this day I cringe when I think of the poor readers I tortured with my early drafts. Luckily, I’ve learned a lot since those days 🙂 ! Lesson 1: Hubby is NOT a discerning reader, and anything less than a published piece should be kept many miles from him. Lesson 2: Remember Lesson 1. I made the mistake once of getting (and adopting) some of his feedback. At least I learned after the first time…

    Writing groups are wonderful, if you can find the right one for your needs. A writer needs to find a group where the goal of the group is mutual improvement. I’ve heard many horror stories from writers who didn’t find a good group right away, and it took a toll on their confidence.

  • Reply Erica 31 July, 2015 at 7:23 am

    Sage advice. I’m still in the process of editing my first draft of my novel and have only exposed, as you put it, the ‘sloppy draft’ to a select few who are invested in improving it versus just absorbing it as it is.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 31 July, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    So true, and you get this wrong at your peril. I gave the first chapters of my first novel-attempt to a friend who read prolifically. She handed them back a few days later saying something like, I don’t think writing is a good idea for you. She has never read any of my published novels or even come to the launch parties.

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 1 August, 2015 at 6:07 am

    Yup, that’s familiar, Lauren. Thanks for the memories! I suspect that’s somewhere most of us who seek to write have been.

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