Friday, February 22, 2013

The Truth About First Drafts

by Scott Rhoades

"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." --Terry Pratchett
The first draft is the most dangerous part of the writing process. It's dangerous for a number of reasons. Among them are that the first draft can become the catalyst for you hating your writing. It's also dangerous because it could make you fall in love with your writing.
Most first drafts are never finished. Writers become discouraged when the brilliant idea in their head lands on the page with all the beauty of (crap) on toast. This almost always surprises new writers, and sometimes it surprises experienced writers. How can something that was so engaging and exciting when it was in your brain be so boring and stupid when it comes out?

If we are to finish the first draft, we have to realize that this is normal. Books don't escape the mind fully fledged and ready to fly. They come out all scraggly with more pink, bumpy skin than feathers, and even the feathers that are there are useless and ugly.

Believe it or not, the picture to the right is a newly hatched bald eagle. If it survives, it will become one of the most beautiful, graceful, and powerful animals on the planet. But if it's not nourished and allowed to develop, it won't. Just like your story.
It's so easy to look at all the problems in that first draft and decide you cannot write, that you are obviously a hack, or worse than a hack. Your characters lack depth. Your plot is full of holes. Brilliantly conceived scenes work as well as a tricycle on a freeway. So you quit. Your eagle dies.

Another danger of the first draft is that you will fall so in love with it that you can't see its flaws. You love your characters and your prose and your plot and everything as perfect. The moment you finish that beautiful draft, you rush out a query or you self-publish your work before its ready, mainly because you don't want it to be messed with by editors and others who you see as negative and critical because all they do is suggest things that can be improved.

You bounce from critique group to critique group, looking for the group that appreciates your genius rather than pointing out all of the imagined flaws. Don't they see how each change destroys the rhythm of your perfectly crafted sentences? Are they too stupid to recognize the symbolism of your images? OK, maybe some things could be changed, but then the work is no longer pure, like it was when it flowed forth from your brain.

The truth about your first draft is this: it is not finished, no matter how proud of it you are. And, it might be terrible, but it can be fixed.
Going public with your first draft is like moving into your new house after it has been framed. If you understand this, you can get past the first problem. So what if your characters lack emotion in the first draft? It doesn't matter if the plot twist you couldn't wait to write fell flat. Your new house isn't very useful when all it is is a frame. But if you keep working at it, it will become not only useful but something that you enjoy for many years, and that becomes an important part of your family and the memories that are created as you grow up together.

I'm struggling, as I always do, with the feeling that my first draft is pointless and useless, that it's a disaster, and that I'd be better off abandoning it and moving on to one of the brilliant ideas bouncing around in my head. Fortunately, I know that those ideas will also come out like crap on toast. And that I can fix my current draft. I've surrounded myself with supportive people, including a writing group that sometimes seems to have more faith in me than I do.

I understand that revision is, for me at least, a long, drawn-out process. For me, it works better to fix one issue, and then the next, and on down the list of things I always do wrong until it's time to do it again. It's not as much fun as that euphoria you get as you're enjoying that creative energy of letting the story pour out through you. But if you work hard, and listen to supportive critics (and ignore your own rather less supportive inner critic), your story will, eventually, after a long period of development, grow up to become this:


Erin Shakespear said...

Brilliant post, Scott. Love this line, "They come out all scraggly with more pink, bumpy skin than feathers, and even the feathers that are there are useless and ugly."

So so true!

Julie Daines said...

Rough drafts are like a pile of garbage.

That is all.

Bruce Luck said...

Thanks, Scott. I needed that. I've been struggling with mine. It really is me telling myself the story. Once I know what's going on with it, then I can work it to share it with others.