The First Draft

"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." - Terry Pratchett

I've been thinking a lot about this quote lately and I have come to see the truth in it for me as a writer. When I started my first manuscript almost two years ago, I basically downloaded the contents of my brain into a word document. Every detail, every tiny piece of character history had to be included. During this creative phase I kept a notebook with me everywhere so I could capture that one thought, plot twist, or bit of dialogue before it disappeared into the ether.

I wrote at strange hours. I sometimes forgot to eat. I ignored my husband and kids. But by the time I came up for air, I had a story. A full-length novel actually. And I knew it intimately. I understood my characters, the inner workings of their hearts, the things that challenged them, the things that made them laugh. I knew the complete history of the worlds I’d created. I could smell the air, taste the food, and walk through the forests and city blocks. I dreamed of my creations.

When I wrote the final sentence I breathed a huge sigh of relief (and I’m sure my family did as well). It was out! But it wasn’t even close to finished.

Now I am editing. Editing is mostly not fun. It requires you to take huge chunks of painstakingly crafted writing, writing that may have taken hours to perfect, and delete it. It demands you view the adverb, a previously benign and seemingly helpful part of speech, with suspicion and hostility. It demands you chase your spouse around the house reading bits of dialogue from your manuscript asking, “Does this sound natural?” 

What's fun though, or at least what's satisfying, is transforming your story from a rambling, exhaustive, stream of consciousness draft, to a work that has structure, flow, and even some artistry. I am learning when to reveal a detail and when to let it unfold. I am learning how to create authentic dialogue. I am learning the difference between telling myself the story and showing others the story. I am learning to be patient.

I'm now on my third and hopefully final round of editing this manuscript. Sometimes the process makes me cranky. Often it makes me frustrated. When that happens, I come back to Mr. Pratchett’s quote and I'm reminded that telling myself the story was part of the process, but only the first part. Now, I have to continue the work for it to become both a good story and a good piece of writing. 

The Trouble With First Drafts - Ron Delaney

This blog is written by a friend I met at a writing conference. He is currently writing high concept, middle grade fantasy. Good stuff. We regularly read and critique each other's work, and his input makes my writing better, no question. (I hope he feels the same!) When I read his post about writing a first draft, it resonated immediately. I am currently writing the first draft of my second book and, while some things have gotten easier, it is still a labor of love. Emphasis on labor. It's nice to know I'm not alone in my creative struggle! You can follow Ron on twitter @RonDelaneyJr and check out his blog "Ron Writes Stuff" at www.rdelaneyjr.com. His Friday Morning FYI's are worth the follow! 

I believe with all my heart the most important thing about writing a novel is completing the first draft.

It’s just math. It doesn’t matter how great or original your idea is. A great, original idea does not equal a book. It doesn’t matter how long your outline is. An outline does not equal a book. You have to complete that first draft. A first draft is a book, albeit (for many of us) a bad book, but a book nonetheless. Or manuscript, if you prefer. Then you do a ton of editing to make it a good book, or even a great book. If you’d like to see it spelled out, here are some formulas (to keep the whole math theme going):

no first draft = no book

first draft = book

(first draft + editing) = second draft = better book

(second draft + A LOT of editing) = next draft = good book 

Simple? Good. But that brings me to a unexpected problem…

I assumed (yes, I know) that as I developed as a writer, completing a first draft would get easier. I mean, the more you do something, the better you get at it, right? Writing should be no different.

(more writing) = increased skill = faster, easier first drafts 

But I’ve found the opposite to be true.

I’m currently working on a first draft, and while it’s coming along nicely, I can’t say it’s easier to write than the first drafts for either of my other two books. In fact, I’m finding it more difficult than my first (the other having been done at the speed of crazy during NaNoWriMo). The above formula doesn’t work.

In pondering this, I arrived at several possible answers:

Writing never gets easier – I think this is only partially true. I’m not saying that after a book or two you’ll be able to bang out quality first drafts in a week (though some writers are so gifted), I’m saying you should get to a point where you’ve refined your process enough to be able to work faster and with less stress than when you started writing.

You didn’t learn anything from your earlier efforts – People from all walks of life do this every day. They struggle through something, get it done, and the next time struggle through again rather than analyzing what could be done better. Example: If you’re wrestling with character inconsistencies in your first draft, you’ve probably had that problem before. Did you do anything to address that before you started your new book?

You’ve forgotten what a first draft is – What does that mean? It means you’re too focused on making the first draft as good as an edited version, rather than focusing on getting it written. See, the partner idea to ‘Complete your first draft’ is ‘Don’t focus on making it good–that’s what editing is for’. If you write a paragraph and then spend more than a minute tweaking it, you’re editing. Why is this a problem (at least for me)? Because you’re going to have to edit the first draft later anyway. Why not just get the whole thing written first? (note – I’m not saying you put garbage on the page just to have something there. That’s a different problem.)

After some consideration, I realized I was doing the editing thing. A lot. And I know why: it’s because I jumped right into this project after completing extensive, months-long edits on another book. That one I wrote with little sense of what was good and what was bad, and just put one word down after another. Then I went back and made it better. And better. And… you get the idea. And that book is something I’m quite pleased with. So now, after so much time polishing text instead of writing, when working on the new manuscript my brain doesn’t want to leave an unpolished sentence on the page.

Oh, brain, you wonderful devil!

Since recognizing what I was doing, my productivity is way up (eight-thousand words this week, and it’s only Thursday!), and the extra editing is way down.

What a wonderful thing creativity is. And self-examination, too.

So, to sum up: Finishing your first draft should be you’re number one goal, but that won’t necessarily get easier over time. Awareness of bad habits can help keep you on track, though. (And no, I'm not claiming I'm breaking new ground, here. Just relaying personal experience.)

tl;dnr version: Stop editing and finish that first draft :)

Thanks for reading,


Real Writing Is Revising - Randy Ribay

I met Randy at a Writer's Conference last year (these events are terrific for networking!), and I've been following his journey as a writer ever since. His perspective on the revision process is spot on. As I tackle yet another round of edits, I've learned that most of the work in writing happens after the first draft is complete. And you know what? That's okay! The end result is a much, much better story. So thank you, Randy, for sharing your words of wisdom.
Follow Randy on twitter @randyribay, and check out his website: www.randyribay.com. He is thoughtful, funny, and super talented. His young adult novel, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, will be on shelves this October and I can't wait to read it!

I spoke to a writers’ group the other day, and the most interesting question I received was about how my style/approach to writing has changed since going through the publication process with my first novel. Without hesitation, I answered that it was coming to understand that most of writing is revising. I told them that if I quantified all the hours I spent working on that book, less than a tenth would come from writing the first draft.

I used to equate “writing” with “composing a first draft.” Revising and editing were necessary evils that would be tacked onto the end of that process. But, to me, the meat of the process was just getting that story down. If I could put down a good enough story, then I could be a “writer.”

However, I now understand that that’s just the beginning. The meat of the process is revision. And I no longer view it as requisite tweaking, but rather as the actual place where I take something vaguely shaped like a story and shape it into an actual story. If you were to compare it to baking, writing the first draft is not the baking. It’s not even the mixing. Writing the first draft is like gathering the ingredients in front of you.

“That’s kind of discouraging,” one of the members of the group said. “Thinking of all that work you put into the first draft.”

But I told her that it was actually freeing. Understanding that the first draft doesn’t need to be good (or even kind of remotely good) allows me to write more and more quickly. I no longer stop and torture myself searching for the perfect line of dialogue or clever twist or inspiring description. I just write, and I tell myself, “Yeah, it’s crap, but whatever. I’ll fix it later.”

If you read a lot of writing advice, this probably isn’t new to you. But I didn’t learn this by reading a quote about it on Twitter. I learned it by doing it, by revising the hell out of a story until I sold it. So if you find yourself stuck with a manuscript nobody will buy, maybe you need to write another one. Or maybe you need to actually write that story.