Awesome First Drafts

I understood last week one of the main reasons why I dislike the insistence many people put upon the notion that “the first draft is crap,” and that one must always just get everything down first, and polish it later. Especially the firmness with which those people insist one must never, ever go back and edit in one’s first draft, that once one does that one will never finish.

One of the reasons, of course, that I dislike those statements is that I’m not a huge fan of dogmatism about a process that is deeply personal and individualistic. No two people write the same way, so why would you insist that everybody’s first drafts must all look alike?

The other, more personal, reason is that I am actually more likely to leave a story unfinished if I have a terrible first draft than if I’ve been tweaking it and polishing it as I go.

I had realized, while working on Magic in Disguise, that I was going to need to come up with another plot twist, that the story as it stood was both too straightforward (i.e. boring) and would not be long enough. Now, conventional wisdom would tell me to keep writing the first draft, and add in the plot twist/extra scenes in the second draft. But the more I kept trying to work on it that way, the more frustrated I got.

Why? Because every time I looked at how much I had already written, I grew discouraged. “Why get excited about hitting 30,000 words?” I muttered to myself (while sitting on a lawn chair outside the tent set up at my mother-in-law’s house, while we were camping there – I know, I lead a really rough life). “Even once I get to the end, there’s still going to be so much work to be done on this to get it in decent shape.” And then I started to get overwhelmed about how much still needed to be done on the book that I didn’t want to work on it at all.

Then an idea for the needed plot twist came to me, and first I started just writing it, then when I saw that it was working I took a quick break from the writing to adapt my outline to it, just to make sure it would fit, and then I went back to adapting my first draft, and suddenly feeling much more cheerful about the whole thing. Because now the second draft was looking like much less work, and so whatever progress I made on the first draft counted.

More work first, less work later. That’s my writing process, and I’m owning it. My first drafts are as close to the finished product as I can get them, and subsequent drafts just polish them and polish them until they’re ready. That’s how my brain works, and I don’t care if anyone tells me it’s the “wrong” way to craft a story.

It’s the right way for me.

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6 thoughts on “Awesome First Drafts

  1. You said it nicely. We all work differently. I, too, do not care for the first draft is crap. Not that I don’t have rewriting or cutting or adding and then polishing to do, b/c I do. I think that mantra is for the writers who get paralyzed and can’t move forward because they want it to be perfect and/or for writers who just have that burning desire to get the story out before their muse fades. So glad you’re writing the sequel!!

    • I’ve certainly had times – like with the novella that I recently wrote – where I’ve just needed to *get the words down NOW*, but even then, I allowed myself to go back occasionally and check & change things that needed it, or fix up a passage that I’d had a chance to mull over in my backbrain and come up with a better way to work it. So I guess that I am just never, ever going to be a “first draft is crap” person!

      But I do recognize the worth of that mantra for those who struggle with paralysis over lack of perfection, or those who work best at a feverish pace at first. To each their own!

  2. We all work differently, and we all write differently. There is no set rule for really writing. We’re told not to use passive voice – EVER, yet I find that I like using it at times in my style of writing. It’s like telling E.E. Cummings to correctly use punctuation, in my opinion.

    As to first drafts, I’m learning that I am one of those people who just needs to get the story out, then polish it later. However, to each her own. To try and fit your writing style into a box would mean to stifle it and make it less than what it could be.

    • Yeah, if you try to hold too closely to The Rules, you’ll find, I think, that you’ve ended up stifling all creativity and uniqueness in your writing – suddenly you have a story that might be textbook-perfect, but has no life or character to it at all. And who wants to read that?

  3. You know, I agree with you: we all have different styles, and there is no “right” way to do it. I’m one who lives by the “shitty first drafts” mantra, because it keeps me from being discouraged *while* I write – and that’s for fiction or academics both. In fact, I’ve needed it for my academic writing far more than for my fiction. I’m a “big picture” writer, I need to get the underlying sketch on the canvas first and then progressively refine it. I have a painter friend who paints in chunks – she once did a 4×8′ painting in 1×1′ canvases, one per day – and I have a grad school friend who writes in chunks – study, write a piece, study more, write another piece – sort of like a mosaic. They perfect each piece before they go on to the next. I study, study, study, then write, write, write, just like my paintings, general to specific. Neither of us could work in the others’ style, but our own style works for us. As yours obviously does for you!

    • Very interesting! I confess, just reading about your preferred style, of big-picture-then-refined, makes me shudder, because I would get discouraged and give up in weeping dismay within a day.

      Which is probably also while I’m more of a soap bubble world builder, rather than the iceberg type, come to think of it. Too much “come up with an entire world before even writing your story” leaves me frustrated and wondering why I’m even bothering, while the delicate balance of “come up with details as you go, and make sure all the pieces fit together, and hold it all lightly together” is challenging and exciting, and keeps me from getting bored.

      Although I did just have to write down some details of the way magic works for the Intelligent Magic series, for fear that I was going to trip myself up at some point. BUT – that’s after publishing one book and halfway into writing the second. So I guess that’s reinforcing the soap bubble with something solid behind it after the fact?

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