What to do when your first draft is a huge dumpster fire

With the release of Family Binds just 16 days away, it’s time to start working on book 3 in The Journey Missions series, Thicker Than Blood. In book 3 Crystal, Desi, Justin, Grady, and Tyler are sent to Earth to speak in a military hearing on the benefits of the officer exchange program to try to get the program extended. While on Earth they are faced with growing fear and prejudice as a result of a terrorist organization committing terrible acts of violence in the name of Neophian equality. I was excited to get back into this story after writing the first draft during National Novel Writing Month last year.

I started reading through the first draft and quickly realized it was one giant dumpster fire of a story. My first clue should have been the error message that popped up when I first opened the document “too many errors to display”. I mean Word had even given up on me. The issues were much bigger than that though. The plot holes were more like craters with several things being set up in the first two chapters that were never mentioned again. Several of the new characters didn’t even have names and the ones that did were so shallow and stiff that it was tough to read. It was easily the worst thing I had ever written. There was so much work that needed to be done that it was hard not to get discouraged.

Since I wasn’t about to abandon the story there was only one thing left to do, I had to fix it. It’s a daunting task but I have some strategies to make it a little easier.

Accept the fact that you’ll probably have to rewrite the whole thing

I’ve always been a fan of the complete rewrite but I know that most people aren’t. I get that it’s hard to wrap your head around starting over when you already have a completed draft. Trust me when I tell you if the story is a huge mess it’s going to be easy to start over. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use what you’ve already written but I do suggest starting with a fresh document and retyping everything. You’ll be amazing at how many little changes you make as you go and how the story will start to flush itself out as you rewrite it.

Plan it out

Now that you’ve come to terms with the rewrite it’s time to develop a plan. I make a detailed scene list for everything in the first draft making notes as I go. This first pass at the scene list I’m just trying to capture everything that’s actually written. Once that’s done, I’ll use it as a road map to create a scene list for the second draft. This makes it easy to see what scenes need to be scrapped, moved, or added. This will be the road map for the second draft. Making the scene list can be time consuming but if you do it right it will make the rewrite so much easier. You can find my scene list template on the resource page.

Change the starting point

One of the hardest parts of any story is trying to decide the right point to actually start it. After writing Family Binds I was sure I had this mastered. It starts with the team right in the middle of a rescue mission with high stakes right off the bat. It had been so easy to write that I was sure I could do it for every book I wrote. Oh how wrong I was. Looking at the first draft of Thicker Than Blood I’m going to have to delete the first chapter and half of what I wrote in order to actually get to the start of the story. Any time you have to cut large chunks of your story its hard, but ultimately it will make the story better.

Don’t waste time trying to edit the first draft

Since you’re going to have to rewrite it anyway, don’t waste time fixing spelling, grammar, or even terrible sentences. Getting stuck in the weeds is going to cause you to burn out faster and you’ll be more likely to give up. You’ll naturally fix a lot of those when you do your rewrite anyway.

It’s ok to walk away from a project

If you have a draft of a story that is going to take a huge amount of effort to fix and you don’t have a passion for the story or the characters it’s ok to walk away. Fixing a well written first draft is a lot of work, trying to fix the dumper fire first draft is ten times harder. Sometimes it’s better to divert your creative energy to a new project. The worst thing you could do is to lose your passion for writing while trying to fix a story you no longer care about. So if you need permission to abandon a story and move on to something new here it is. Not everything can be a winner and that’s ok. You learn something from everything you write no matter how good or bad it is. But if you still care about the story then it’s worth it to put in the work to make it shine.


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How a Story Changes: A Look Back at the First Draft of Crystal and Flint

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