From First Draft to Finished Brilliance – Thar Be No Shortcuts


I never thought I’d get the hang of making a really good margarita. Some batches were too sweet, others too sour. Some got the entire household looped after mere whiffs of the fumes, others had people demanding to know where I’d hidden the booze. Oh, the drama.

But I realized that creating the perfect margarita was a process of trial and error. And so it is with writing. One does not bangeth out a perfect book in the first draft. It’s a process. So I thought I’d talk a little about characteristics that can help take the writer from first draft to finished brilliance.


Can’t have an amazing book without amazing characters, right? One of the biggest reasons I reject manuscripts is due to lack of fleshed out characters. Yes, I realize I only publish nonfiction, but I see a lot of manuscripts where the characters are as rigid and dry as the last batch of cupcakes I made.

Your characters are the heart and soul of your story. They are what make us care. They are the vehicles that propel the plot. If you don’t pay special attention to them, then you got nuthin’. My bud, Annette Dashofy, suggests writing a journal in the character’s point of view…and I happen to think that’s a fabulous idea. It forces you to be your character. We will learn amazing things about our characters if we take the time to get into their heads.


Whether you outline or storyboard, do anything that helps you flesh out the depths of your story is a good idea. We may think we have a great idea stashed in our cerebral hard drive, but getting it out of our heads and on to paper is the perfect aid to going deeper.

Good buddy, Canadian funnyman, and recent liver transplant, Gordon Kirkland, told me he storyboards. He writes sticky notes and posts them on the wall. This enables him to move the stickies around and make sure he reveals the right plot points at the right time. I like this idea a lot more than outlining because I tend to be a visual writer. If I can see plot points on the wall, then I can see it better in my head.

The important thing is to feel prepared before you actually sit down to bang out your story. I read a lot of manuscripts that are poorly organized. Either authors reveal information that isn’t pertinent until much further into the book, or information is lacking. Conversely, I know a number of writers who are stuck at this point. The ideas take residence in their heads and never make it to cyber paper. Maybe if they storyboarded or outlined, they’d feel like their books were easier to manage because they’re organized. This would give them the confidence to write that very first sentence.

First Draft

Armed with your juicy characters and organized story, you being to write. The first draft is you telling yourself your story, so respect the first draft. Even though you may have an outline or storyboard, you’ll still be amazed at the things that come out from that first draft. Who of us hasn’t experienced the “Holy crap, I so didn’t see that coming”? That first draft may alter your book’s direction, and you may find you need to storyboard all over again. And that’s fine because you’re telling yourself the story.

Don’t freak out at the exploding word count, missing turns of phrases, or literary smorgasbord. You need to get the story from your head to paper. Think of it as a free writing with a specific intent.

This will be rough. Very rough. Don’t be discouraged. No one barks out a perfect first draft. Not even the Cosmic Muffin…just ask Mrs. Cosmic Muffin. She’d tell he He can’t spell his way out of paper bag.

Walk Away

After you’ve finished that first draft, walk away for a week or two. This is the marination process. You need time away from your manuscript so when you go back to it, you can easily see the warts. Do not skip this step. If you do, it’ll be the equivalent to my attempts at making the perfect margarita. If I kept making new batches, one after the other, my taste buds dulled – along with my brain.

You need a fresh brain to create brilliance.

The Parsing Process

You have your first draft, and you’ve given yourself some space from your writing, so now it’s time to begin the parsing process – what stays, what goes. Since your first draft was you telling yourself your story, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t need to be there.

This is a huge job, so don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. It’s a process, and your first revision is still you telling yourself the story. Your story is still fluid, and it’s changing and tweaking.

Walk away, repeat the parsing process as many times as it takes for you to feel comfortable that you have a solid story.

Review Each Scene

I’ve read manuscripts that nearly drove me to Straight Jacket City because it was obvious the authors hadn’t asked one of the most important questions of all: “Does this belong here? What purpose does it serve?” The result were scenes and chapters that had no relation to the plot.

This is key to helping parse down what stays and what goes…but it isn’t bulletproof because authors are experts at justifying why a scene, or a chapter, should stay. Recently, I wiped out an entire chapter of an author’s manuscript. He was bereft because it was his favorite chapter.  This isn’t a compelling justification to keeping it in.

You need to ask whether each line, paragraph, scene, and chapter furthers the plot. This applies to giving too much detail. Does the reader really need to know the intricate process of making the perfect margarita, or is it enough to simply gloss over the fact that a margarita was made, and move on with the main action? It’s a judgement call, and one you need to make consciously.

You also need to divorce yourself from your story. If you’re too close, you can justify everything staying in, and what should be a 82,000 word manuscript remains at a whopping 140,000 words.

If you’re properly organized and working off an outline or storyboard, you’ll stay focused on the main points that each chapter is meant to accomplish. This will make it easier to see the fluff through the meat.

Again, walk away for a week.

The Technical Process

Once you’re at the point where you feel you have a solid revision, you need to pay attention to the technical process. This includes fine tuning the structure, like paragraph/scene transitions, dialog tags, ratio of dialog vs. narrative, pacing, flow. You can’t make a good margarita without tequila, and you can’t have a winning manuscript with poor technical skills.

And speaking of great margaritas, I’ve perfected this recipe that has people begging for more:

1/2 can limeade
jigger or two good quality tequila
jigger or two grand marnier
1/2 can beer
ice to fill the blender

Blast off the blender until margarita is smooth, then pour into glasses. Or mainline directly into artery.

One Response to From First Draft to Finished Brilliance – Thar Be No Shortcuts

  1. Really great points and since I love a great Margarita it’s all good 🙂

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