How it feels to finish a draft of your book

June 20, 2018

Writing, Writing Life, Book, Draft, Plot,

I’m done. Sorta.

As of 10:34 a.m. today, I possess a completed draft of my book, Maintenance of Way, a memoir about trying to reunite two people separated by appalling circumstances for almost 60 years.

Lots of writers finish drafts of books, so why am I ready to raise a glass of wine out of a box (hey, it ain’t published yet, so we gotta be frugal)? Why do I feel like celebrating?

Because I’ve never gotten this far. Not once. Sure, large portions of this book have undergone as many as 10 drafts, but after two years trying to breathe life into this book, only today do I have the semblance of a completed project. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The confession I must make here is I struggled mightily to see the complete story, and to, you know, complete it. I knew the story in my own mind, but what lives in our imagination is not easily transferrable to words on the screen or in print.

I would write 10,000 words of a draft, even as many as 80,000 words once, but then I found myself lost in the thickets of plot, and I’d quit. Start over. Try again. Write tens of thousands of words, get lost, quit, try again.

The words “I’m failing” began plaguing my conscious.

What helped me finish the draft

Credit goes to a few people and resources who helped me hack my way out of being lost.

For one thing, I swallowed some serious pride and hired a writing coach. That’s right. A guy who’s spent the last 17 years as a professional writer and journalist hired a writing coach.

If you’re a writer waffling on the idea of hiring someone to look over your shoulder, who can give you a road map to follow, then lemme say this clearly — say yes. Hire someone. You don’t have to do everything they tell you. But they will give you perspective and suggestions to keep you on task.

I also credit an exercise in walking my story backwards, from ending to beginning. Before listing each scene or chapter, I asked myself – How did the story reach this point? What’s it going to take to move the plot to the next chapter?

When I tried the opposite — listing scenes/chapters from beginning to end — it didn’t have quite the same effect. I can’t explain it. Just did.

Praise should also be given to a book called The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. The book’s seven years old now, but Alderson lays down what she calls the “universal story” to help us construct the plot, even when like me you’re writing memoir. Alderons reasons every story has similar plot points, and she offers a blueprint for writers to follow.

it’s a beautiful sensation

The act of writing the last chapter and epilogue of Maintenance of Way reminded me of how finishing a weekend-long backpacking trip felt. The last mile of trail brings on feelings of bittersweet. You’re about to accomplish something most people would find too difficult, but that means the experience of living in the moment will end, too.

Same with finishing a draft of a book.

Safe to say there’s a long way to go before seeing Maintenance of Way for sale on a bookshelf. I’m sure there’s plenty to fix.

Having a completed manuscript, however, means the frame of the book is in place. That’s confidence building. Now to shape the frame into something readers will enjoy, maybe even love, after offering it to an editor and beta readers.

I guess in some ways writing a full manuscript of a book is like learning to ride a bike. Once you’ve done it, you can repeat the skill, and the more you repeat the skill, the better at riding a bike you become.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. You can contact him at dave@writingintheafternoon.com

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