Is there anything more instantly jubilant than the pop of a champagne cork? It has been the soundtrack to many special moments in my life – graduations and milestone birthdays, family holidays and wedding events. (And, ok, fine, also just Wednesdays. Sometimes a little mid-week bubbly is a must.)
And finishing the first draft of my novel.
A month ago on a Saturday morning I slept until 9:15, poured a cup of cold day-old coffee for myself, and sat down at my desk to write the last scene of my book. The words bloomed, free of the deep mental freeze of early-draft writing sessions. There was no writer’s block, no head-scratching over plot holes, no looking back to old scenes to figure out where I was going. No second guessing, no grumbling, no drinking, no tears. Just typing. At some point my husband emerged from bed too, and seeing where I was, closed the office door to maintain my quiet, only opening it back up for a moment a little later to hand me a plate of eggs and tell me not to get up.
Finally, after an hour and a half, I paused. My fingers hovered over the keys like they were levitating. There was no fanfare. Balloons didn’t fall from the ceiling. My napping cat didn’t even look up. I hit enter twice, justified center, and then I typed “THE END.”
And then out came the champagne. I had had it in my fridge for weeks, earmarked and prominent like it was reminding me to diet for swimsuit season. Do Not Open Until Finished First Draft. It worked. It motivated me to keep going, if for no other reason than for the satisfying sound of the bottle opening.
Sure, celebrating a first draft with bubbly may seem dramatic or premature. You don’t get sippy cups of Moët when you hit mile five of a marathon. But you know what? Maybe you should. The first draft was Boston’s Heartbreak Hill of novel writing, a slog so challenging I might wrap my brain in a space blanket. On my 275 page manuscript I logged about 260 hours over 159 writing sessions (in a progress spreadsheet, because I am a massive nerd), and that’s only the actual writing time – it doesn’t count early brainstorming and discovery writing, or workshops, or showers when I got a bright idea while I was washing my hair, or long drives that ended with me sitting in the car an extra 15 minutes scribbling thoughts into my notebook. It doesn’t count stress dreams. It doesn’t count the time I spent convincing myself I was on a fool’s errand, or the time I then had to spend talking myself back into my desk chair. Or the trip to the liquor store to buy motivational champagne.
I won’t try to convince you my book is good. It is not. It is the hottest of hot messes, an under-baked cake that looks ready, but out of the pan and under close scrutiny collapses into a gooey heap. There’s a beautiful quote from Shannon Hale:
I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.
This is generous imagery for what others call the “shitty first draft.” It’s a dump. It’s just there to be there. Its foremost job is to simply exist. And this, at least, it does.
The dump is currently chilling during its “novel in the drawer” phase. I’m staying away for a while so I can come back to it with fresh eyes, as soon as I sober up. In the meantime, I’m making headway on my DVR. I’m cleaning the cobwebs that have been collecting in the upper corners of my apartment (sorry, spiders, the real estate boom is over). I’m reading other novels and books on revision, and I attended a writing conference last weekend to soak up as much knowledge as possible before the bell dings on the next round: revision.
That’s when I have to go back and fix all the stuff I told myself was ok to leave a mess because it was just the first draft. It’s the time when my book has to become a book, and not a hurricane of ideas, fragments I’m just trying to batten down before they blow away. I’m intimidated and anxious about how much work is left to do, but excited to get my book to a readable (and maybe even good) place. At which point I will definitely need to drink more.
Before I sit back down in my chair, take my book out, and deal with all of my story’s imperfections, I want to appreciate this: three years ago I started this blog because I wasn’t writing anymore, and I realized that was dumb. I keenly felt the absence of that creative outlet, which I’d enjoyed since childhood but had for a long time obstructed, like a window that would let great light into a room if it didn’t have a stack of boxes in front of it. I started trying to write again. I started actually writing again. I (somewhat) got over my fear of showing my work. I took classes. I joined groups. I received feedback and help and support. And now I have a stack of pages on my desk and it is the most glorious ream of paper that I’ve ever seen.
If that’s not worth a sippy cup of champagne, I don’t know what is.