Having Your Way with the First Draft

In Craft, Fiction Writing on October 1, 2010 at 6:59 pm

I will admit there are many days I prefer the feeling of having written to actually writing…And those days tend to come most for me at the beginning of a new project when I’m trying to squeeze the Big Perfect Vision in my head down through the funnel of reality onto the blank, unforgiving page. Right now I’ve got 20 pages of Shiny New Thing. Not a lot of pages. Just enough to make me feel as though a real story is taking shape, but not enough to convince me that there will be any harm in walking away.

The reason for this cavalier attitude is that in a first draft you (and I) don’t know your characters yet. Oh sure, maybe you did sketches and used a workbook, an outline process, whatever, but the fact is that characters don’t become real until you take them for the lengthy test drive that is the first draft of your novel. And the more I think about this, as my still fairly one-dimensional characters stare back at me from those twenty pages, the more free it makes me feel.

How wonderful that I get to spend an entire draft just throwing down ideas on who these people will be. Putting my characters in and out of events and situations like dolls in a dollhouse. Trying out the feel of a setting, the tone of my language. Your first draft can be an exhilarating place of freedom because you don’t have to get it right yet.  It’s like parenthood in the extreme: I get to grow my characters up in a relatively short period of time. First, I find out who they are by writing them down in all their messiness, and then, after a break to come up for air, I get to go in and do the really interesting work of understanding and then transforming them.

I hope this might help free some of you up, too, to remember that a first draft is not supposed to be perfect. Nowhere near it. It is simply the moment when the Big Perfect Idea in your head gets mapped onto paper for you to finally have your way with it.

  1. Now that I have *generally* accepted the fact that rough drafts are a gathering and excavaction process for me, they’ve become more enjoyable and not nearly as painful (occasionally they are pure inspiration but I no longer sit around waiting for those moments).

  2. ignore the typos. kids, no coffee, typos reign

  3. I’m working on this feeling (and working on it) on my WIP. I have never written such an exploratory draft in my life, and at times it’s driving me nutso. But I’m making myself push through to the end–although when I get there, I know I’m going to be looking around for some magical plot device to help bring it all together!

    • Well, I’ve suffered through a lot of first drafts, Becky, so I can say that this is honestly the FIRST time I’ve really come to look at it this way. But I sure wish I had this attitude back in the first few novels I wrote. I think it might actually have made further revisions come easier.

  4. For me the foundation work of the building the story will be is an arduous task. I know who my characters are, but making them flesh and blood for my characters is hard work. I agree with the first draft “blood-letting” phase. However, for me it’s a battle between “blood-letting” and an all out “hemmorhage”. Good subject!

    • Karen, there is definitely so much more to a first draft than character building. Plot building IS an arduous task. But that, too, I’m learning, does not have to be perfect in first draft. I also think it depends upon the way one looks at a first draft. I’m giving myself much more permission to be a truly messy draft writer, because otherwise I’ll freeze.

  5. So glad you wrote this. I’ve been labouring with the first 20 pages of my “hope-to-be” breakthrough novel, writing and rewriting the words until they seem perfec,t so I move forward. Your take on this approach has made me feel as though I have every right to make as many mistakes, grammatical or otherwise, as my heart and mind will allow to flow freely onto the word-processing screen.

    I can do this.
    I will do this.
    Here I go…

    Thanks again.

  6. Ha… in my joyous attempt to communicate the liberating sense of enthusiasm you’ve given me I made lots of mistakes.

    …and I’m not completely embarassed about it.

    Yes. There’s hope!

    • Victoria, thanks for writing! You get that same freedom to make mistakes in posts on blogs, I promise. At least on mine. I’m glad to be liberating people 🙂

  7. Thank you for this post. Aside from a few short stories written in college, I’ve mostly dabbled in poetry. It’s not like I chose for it to come out that way but every time I sat down to write, that’s the form it took. I never thought I was built for the world of fiction. Then, on a sticky summer’s day, a character popped into my head after a woman dashed in front of my speeding car. The woman is fine and the character has since blossomed but the story’s unfolding, well, in spurts. So today I went to peruse the bookshelves at my local library and fell upon your book. Kismet. Exactly what the doctor ordered. And now, this post. Thank you for jarring me awake and making me realize I have permission to falter and fumble. Hopefully, within the beautiful mess of this first draft will emerge a story worth telling. This is, by the way, my very first post ever!

    • Layla, thank YOU for visiting and sharing your story. I think that many writers, at many stages of the game, need to be reminded to let go of a little control. Keep in touch. Keep coming around.

  8. I’m at a loss. Can’t seem to get my steam going. It’s not writer’s block. I don’t have that. It’s lethargy. Much worse than writer’s block, in my opinion. I’ve got a great story. Really great. Maybe I’m afraid though… afraid of failing… afraid of not accomplishing my dream, that dream that urges me to see my words in print, to see my name on a cover, to share my fears, my joys, my strengths and weaknesses on paper, with outsiders. I’ve often heard it said, “write for yourself” and when I do, I pour out like a sieve. But, when I don’t, something deeper holds me back. No. It’s not writer’s block, it has more to do with the idea that I have to perfect every word, grammatically, psychologically, melodically, even emotionally.

    I came back to your site to re-read my message to you and yours to me. I’m thankful for your opinion. Now if I could just put it to use.


    • Yes, Victoria, I know how hard it is to let the story out when you’re hampered by the belief that you can do it perfectly. It’s why I’m doing National Novel Writing Month this year–because I need permission to write that shitty first draft.

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