I’m writing a new novel and blogging through the process so that you can learn along with me. This week I want to talk about my previous experiences writing first drafts and what I’ve learned from them.
If you’d rather just jump right into my weekly writing update, you can check out the scenes that I added to the Google drive folder here.
If you missed last week’s post about where to start when you have an idea for a novel, you can get that right here.
I wrote my first novel when I was 12, and it was a mess. Character arcs were all over the place, the plot was full of holes. There were long stretches of boring description, confusing action, and dialogue that dragged because nothing much happened during the conversations.
I had a habit of using the dialogue as a way for me to learn things about my characters or the world they lived in. I didn’t understand that most readers wouldn’t want to slog through 14 pages of conversation where nothing happened.
My next attempts at writing a novel were progressively better but still plagued with a lot of the same problems. I started to recognize the weaknesses in my writing, but I didn’t know enough to fix them, so my first drafts started to go around in circles, endlessly rehashing the first half or so of the book, but never getting close to the end.
In my 20s, I received a lot of advice about how “perfectionism” was getting in my way and about how I needed to “just write.” In retrospect, there was truth to it, but it was completely unhelpful because it didn’t address the underlying problems. It didn’t give me a framework to deal with my own frustrations, fear, and overwhelm, when this fantastic idea in my head started to go haywire on the page.
In my 30s, I started to realize that the way I wrote my first drafts was fine. It was just part of my creative process and most of it could be fixed or edited out. I had been frustrated because I recognized my own weaknesses as a writer and wanted to improve, but I was so focused on making my stories “work better” that I ended up sabotaging myself. I didn’t understand that a first draft is basically a rehearsal or a practice session for writing a book, or that most of the problems I recognized in my drafts could be fixed in revision.
Writing had been presented to me as a completely linear process. In school, I wrote papers. I went from idea to pre-writing to a first draft that was a pretty well formed version of the paper. Then I cleaned it up a little, tightened up the wording, maybe added a few details here and there, and then turned it in.
I assumed that writing a book would work the same way. It didn’t, and so my early first drafts made me feel frustrated and embarrassed because I couldn’t get it right. This got even worse when I started to publish short stories and articles in local magazines. I used basically the same process for writing a short story that I had been taught to use when writing papers, and it worked, except that my short stories required a lot of cutting and revising from first draft to final.
But, when I went to write a novel or any longer work of fiction, I would get stuck, derail, go off on tangents and then panic. I’d start re-writing the first third of the book to fix all of that so the second part of the book would still “work.”
It didn’t matter if I outlined or planned everything in advance. It didn’t matter if I wrote by the seat of my pants. The outlines became Swiss cheese. The “pantsing” felt more organic but the problems persisted.
The only advice I ever got was about perfectionism or needing to be more “disciplined,” but perfectionism and discipline weren’t the problem at all. The problem was a combination of fear and the fact that nobody told me you could have ginormous plot-holes and big tangential sections in a first draft. Nobody said it was okay if parts of the story didn’t “work” or make sense because you could fix that in revision. So I was afraid of my own process.
I’d like to say I had some grand realization where I figured everything out and it changed my whole approach to first drafts, but that’s not what happened. Over time, I just realized that it’s easier to fix problems in a story when you have a complete draft to work from rather than a partial one that you’ve rewritten 1200 times.
These are my best tips for enjoying the experience of your first draft and getting to the end of it.
- Your first draft is a practice game or a dress rehearsal. It’s okay for there to be problems, mistakes, and plot holes. There’s a growing camp of “your first draft is always crap”in the online writing communities that have been part of. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it’s important to be okay with an imperfect and messy first draft.
- It’s okay to ramble. It’s also okay to be terse. Some passages of my rough drafts are full of rambling prose and scenes that would put me to sleep if I read them in someone else’s book. Other parts are so lacking in emotion that it’s more like I’m a court reporter typing out what I see. All of that can be fixed.
- Expect tangents and plot problems. Go with the tangents if you feel like it, see what happens, but try not to lose sight of your overall objectives for your plot.
- If you’re noticing a problem or an area that you need to research, switch to a different color, put a note to yourself in parentheses, or use Word’ s commenting feature and then keep going.
- At the end of every writing session, skip a few lines, and put some notes to yourself about where you’re going next, and any major changes that you made during this session. (Or use the commenting feature again.)
Above all, remember that drafting is a process, and it’s okay for your ideas to shift as you go.
Think of your pre-writing and planning stages as creating a roadmap from where you start to the destination.
Drafting is more like a road trip, and you can trek all over the place as long as you know where you’re heading. (And, if you get lost along the way, no worries, because you can make a new roadmap anytime you want.)
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