After I finished the first draft of my first novel, I announced to some of my friends and readers online that I had completed my “vomit” draft. Did I get a few strange comments?
One good friend asked what the heck a vomit draft was, what purpose did it serve, and what was the big deal in finishing it. Here I was, drinking a celebratory martini, and she wanted to know what the big deal was!
Simply put, finishing a vomit draft is a huge deal for a writer and is the first crucial step in an author being able to complete their book.
What the heck is a vomit draft?
A vomit draft is another name for a writer’s first draft.
Many writers call it a vomit draft because, well, it isn’t pretty. First drafts are often full of plot holes, boring characters, and incomplete research. Vomit drafts often contain big marked off blank sections with a note to go back and add something later or to do more research.
Sometimes a character’s name will change midway through a vomit draft. Sometimes characters disappear altogether. Or the setting could begin in New York, but along the way, the writer changes his mind, decides he wants to write sci-fi, and moves the whole thing to Pluto halfway through.
Rarely does the finished written product resemble the first draft. So why go through the process at all?
What purpose does the vomit draft serve?
The vomit draft provides a sacred space for the writer to spew ideas onto the page without fear of negative feedback from others or self-censorship from himself. No one sees this part of the process except the writer. NO ONE!
Rewriting is where the magic happens, where the writer fills in the holes, plays with word order, and solidifies the themes that run through the work. The thing is, you can’t rewrite something that doesn’t exist.
So, the purpose of the first draft is to provide the writer material he can work with, can make better, can mold into something he is proud of and, hopefully, others will want to read.
What’s the big deal in finishing a vomit draft?
The important word here is finish.
Authors are notorious for dragging their feet. I know writers who have five projects going at once but can’t seem to complete any of them. And I get it, it’s not easy.
But this is why finishing anything is a win. It’s a good practice run, a way for us to prove to ourselves that we can actually see a project through by completing something, even if it is the pukey first draft.
Because I finished my vomit draft, I had confidence that I could finish the first revision and rewrite.
I set a precedent for myself. I am a finisher.
After I finished the vomit draft of my novel, I had a celebratory martini (with blue cheese stuffed olives…yum!), and then I put the manuscript aside like a good little author. I knew it needed to “sit” a while before I went back to it so that, presumably, I could see it with fresh eyes.
So, while I was letting my putrid first draft sit, I began researching how to revise a novel so that I could prepare for the process. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much.
I found a lot of material and advice online about writing a first draft. People who write about first drafts are like cheerleaders, providing support and inspiration, because, let’s face it, the first draft doesn’t have to be good, pretty, or even organized. It just needs to be done. It can be gosh awful and you can still celebrate (martini, anyone?).
Heck, once you accept the whole first draft can be crap it becomes kind of fun because you know you can “fix” things later.
But then it’s later.
And reality hits. Hard.
You realize you’ve got to do something with this big pile of coagulated vomit.
So you go looking for help but find the cheerleaders have vanished. Poof!
The revision process isn’t sexy or particularly fun to talk about. Tough decisions have to be made. Characters have to be cut. Whole sections need to be deleted. This is when the real writing begins.
I’m talking revision here, not editing. Revision deals with your work globally and addresses problems with plot, characters, themes, and also things like foreshadowing, symbolism, etc.. Editing is what makes everything a pretty, marketable package once you’ve finished banging your head against the revision wall.
The Sinking of Bethany Ann Crane was my first novel. I’d written short fiction and several nonfiction books, but writing a novel is different. I was thrilled when I completed the vomit draft because a lot of writers never make it that far. But I knew I would need some guidance in the revision department because writing and rewriting are two separate beasts, and I had never revised a large fiction work before.
Just because you’re a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean you automatically know how to revise your own work. Revision requires a different skill set. A skill set that is not often discussed in writing circles.
I’ll admit, I was disappointed with most of the advice I found online about the revision process. There was some good stuff about problems to look for, but not how to fix them. And, how do you objectively identify the problems in the first place?
Much of the information I found about revision said for writers to expect many revisions and rewrites (up to a dozen in one article I read). I wanted to revise my novel quickly. I had already invested a lot of time in the outline and first draft stages, and I was eager to finish so that I could move on to my next project.
I was looking for a concise plan, not a pep talk! I wanted a guideline to follow. An organized approach to help me take my pile of upchuck and turn it into something to be proud of.
I mean, come on, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Hadn’t someone else already figured out how to be efficient in revision?
I kept researching and eventually came across a course by Holly Lisle called ***How to Revise Your Novel. Yay! Finally, I found someone who specifically addressed this stage of the novel writing process. I examined her course further.
The course looked…daunting. It contained twenty-two fat weekly lessons with piles of worksheets and detailed demos.
Wait. You mean it could take me five months to revise the manuscript I spewed out in several? That’s a long time for an anxious author. But that was the suggested timetable in the material, at least for a first-time novelist.
And the course wasn’t cheap; I had never spent hundreds of dollars on a course before.
But after more research, I realized I would spend way more than that for a developmental editor to help me clean up the mess I’d made of my vomit draft. And besides, I planned on writing more books, so I really wanted to know how to do this stuff myself.
So, what did I do? I took the plunge. I bought the course.
Would there be lumps along the way? Of course. Would I resort to gnashing my teeth and banging my head against the wall on occasion? Yep. Would I revise my novel? Damn straight I would.
This book is not a rehashing of Holly Lisle’s course, rather it is an example of how a weary and flummoxed writer can be spurred into action with a detailed plan in place. In Surviving Revision, I document week by week how I turned my crappy vomit draft into a fully revised novel ready for publication.
***I am not an affiliate of Holly Lisle’s course and receive no compensation by mentioning it. All the examples provided in this book are mine and do not come from the course. I provide a full and honest review of the course at the end of this book.
K. Kris Loomis is the author of the new nonfiction book, Surviving Revision: How One Writer Finished What She Started. She has also written several books on yoga and meditation, as well as a travel memoir about the time she, her husband, and their handicapped cat moved to Ecuador.
When Kris isn’t writing at her standing desk, she can be found playing chess, folding an origami crane, or practicing a Bach French Suite on the piano. She lives in Rock Hill, SC with her husband and two cats.