Salvaging The Wreckage

So, you wrote a novel, and it sucks. You suck. The whole thing is pointless. Why did you push yourself through the hell of a first draft when all that you’ve got at the end of it is a mess? Why did you think you were cut out to be a writer anyway?

Examine those feelings for a minute. Get familiar with them. This won’t be the last time you see them.

take off mask

Post-first-draft blues, aka the ‘my novel sucks and I should never have written it’ phase are totally normal. It can make editing seem overwhelming, because what you’ve got in front of you is an unsalvageable wreckage from which you somehow need to extract the good parts and make them better. Yeah, I know, it’s daunting.

But if I can drag myself to write this post with an excruciating migraine, you can do this.


Step 1: Recognition.

The books on your shelves are not first drafts. They are probably not first novels, which your manuscript might be. They’re the product of a lot of editing, rewriting, cutting, expanding; the feedback of beta readers and critique partners and editors; the line editing and proof-reading of a dozen drafts. That book might have been where yours is now three years ago, but it’s been through a lot since then. Yours doesn’t have to match up. And let’s face it, it’s never going to live up to the standards I’m setting. Sorry, babe.

Step 2: Acceptance.

Your book is, at the moment, not very good. You need to admit that. It will make it so much easier to edit it brutally if you’ve fully come to terms with the idea that what you’re starting with is something that’s not very good: you won’t fixate on trying to preserve bits of it.

Step 3: Distance.

Take some time away from your project. A week. A month. Six months. Write another book. Write poetry. Blog. Build your craft, and get far away from that novel.

where do you think i've been for 3 hours

Step 4: Perspective.

Read that book as though it were written by one of your close writing friends. If you don’t have any writing friends (loser) imagine you do, and pretend one of them wrote it. But seriously, get some friends. Even Coulson has friends. If you were reading your friend’s work, how would you give them feedback? You’d focus on the positives, but suggest key areas that are weak. Work out what those positives might be, even if your novel is a train wreck. Is it the character development? The plot? Maybe your structure is a mess, but your prose is beautiful. Unlikely, but hey, weirder things have happened.

Step 5: Salvage.

Take those good parts, and strip them out of the shell. Write them down if they’re plot points. Develop them if they’re characters. Good prose is harder to preserve at this stage, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s really rare for that to be your first draft produce, so… we probably shouldn’t worry too much about that.

Step 6: Design.

Design the second draft of your novel around those good points. Plot it. Draw squiggly lines from index card to index card across a board that covers three walls of that very lenient Starbucks nearby because hey, isn’t that what writers do? Yeah, right. I’ve never used index cards to plot in my life and Starbucks is overrated. Working out structure is my first stage, then I write down major plot points. That’s about it. I figure out how to join them up as I go along.

Hopefully by this stage you’ve worked out what’s good about your novel, and what to jettison as soon as possible. You’ve worked out which plot points allow you to take off and which ones will cause you to ice up as soon as you get close to the atmosphere. And you feel slightly less awful about yourself.



As for me I feel considerably more awful because hey, turns out migraines and computer screens aren’t a good combination. Please excuse me while I go and lie in a darkened room for about six months.

-- Iron Man


  1. Ooh, I needed this today. Fourth draft blues are totally a thing, I'm discovering >.< Great post!

    1. Oh yes they are. I once wrote nine drafts of the same novel (and one day it will be rewritten again to fit with major changes to the rest of the series), and I went through the same phases with every draft.

  2. This was a good post, and something I need to hear right now :)

  3. These are absolutely good points—and things I definitely have to think about right now as I am trying to distance myself from a currently struggling along novel. We'll see how the rest of it goes, though. Excellent post!