Monday, March 9, 2015

The Six-Week-Wait, AKA How I Read a First Draft

I finished the first draft of a new book this week. Placing the words "first draft" before "new book" is important, because in the publishing world you're not even close to finished at this point.

It's also my turn to blog for the Fall Fifteeners -- perfect timing to talk about a writing philosophy I call the "six-week-wait."

I did not invent this by any means. Lot's of writers use similar strategies, and I truly believe it works. My creative writing teacher planted the seeds when I was an undergrad, and Stephen King's ON WRITING (a good book on craft, even if you're not a fan of his fiction) sprouted a plant and provided a time frame.

In my experience, reading through a first draft right after it's finished is a bad idea. It's tempting, because you're anxious to enjoy your opus, but you must resist and move on to something else for a while. You need distance -- time and space between you and the words you've written, which at this point are probably terrible. That's not an insult -- first drafts are always terrible, and need to be put away for a while so you can read them with objective eyes later on.

The first thing I do when I finish a first draft is open my phone calendar and set an alarm to go off in exactly six weeks. I am forbidden from looking at that steaming pile of poop until my phone chimes that it's okay. If I wait longer, that's totally cool -- six weeks really should be a minimum. The longer you wait to read the mess you've created, the more prepared you will be to read it the way an actual reader might. You can edit it with objective eyes.

I find it fascinating to read my own words with measured distance. It's surreal, like I'm listening to a past self speak in my voice, saying things I do and don't remember saying.

It's painful to do this, to be certain, but writing is painful sometimes. Editing especially so. You're shifting a separate reality in order to make events gel and voices connect, and the six-week-wait puts you outside the circle of influence and almost (but not quite) lets you read your work the way a stranger might. A stranger has no problem slashing and burning because he's not on his home turf.

That's why I'm not reading my new first draft until April 17th at the earliest. I want to read it right now -- I'm dying to see how bad it is. But the alarm in my phone is set, and I cannot break the six-week-wait rule, no matter how tempting it might be.

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