On National Writing Day, writers can’t help but get a little nostalgic about everything we’ve accomplished….and then develop a complex about all the first drafts that made us cringe.
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” — Octavia E. Butler
Lesson the first for every writer everywhere: the first draft is almost always awful.
There. That pill wasn’t so hard to swallow, now was it?
To be fair, hearing it (or, in your case, reading it) is very different from having the truth nail you in the face like a disembodied steel toe boot. No, that fantastic feeling only comes when you’ve finished an actual first draft, experienced the euphoria of accomplishing something big, sat back to soak in the genius that is your work, and then…read the real, unmitigated, pathetic drivel you spat out onto the page.
In a word: ow.
But, what doesn’t kill you…well, can still hurt like a bitch, but it also leaves you with a lot to consider once the migraine dissipates. And when you do, I can safely say from experience that there’s actually a lot to appreciate in even the suckiest of any and all of your first drafts. You may not see it until the second or third read-through (especially if your words brought you to tears, and not in a good way), but every first draft contains a pearl of wisdom or two.
Better grab a crowbar for the more stubborn oysters, though.
Hey, at least you finished, right?
Okay, so maybe this little victory sounds like the participation trophy of the literary world. But writing isn’t a race; it’s a grueling, soul-crushing, ego-destroying marathon that not everybody finishes. Take any victory you can get and dig in your claws so the tricky little sucker doesn’t pull a fast one and give you the slip. If that just means celebrating reaching the end of the first go-round, don’t hesitate to pop a bottle, do your end zone dance, sing “We Are the Champions,” or whatever else you do to commemorate a win. Half the battle is committing long enough to see the story through. No matter how sucky your first draft is, it is, for the moment, finished.
There’s nowhere to go but up.
So you finished your first draft and it’s…underwhelming. That does indeed suck, but it doesn’t mean that’s the end of the road. In fact, now that you know what you’re working with and can look at it in a more concrete form than just a concept floating around in your brain, it’s time to flip back to the beginning and see where exactly your story went off the rails. If your settings aren’t taking shape, give them richer details in the exposition. If your characters seem flat, put the manuscript away entirely and muse on the backstories that contribute to your WIP before it ever even begins. Think of a first draft as the baseline or the foundation of a story. It doesn’t need to be built, painted, and move-in ready. If you’ve got the bare bones, you’ve got the room to grow. And, as every seasoned editor or writer will tell you, it’s so much easier to add on to a first draft than it is to have to make major cuts.
It’s how we learn.
The best writers are their own toughest critics, and therefore some of their own best instructors. So your first draft is a bust. Dive in and pick out the best and the worst of it all; you can even pretend it’s not your work if that will help you look at it more objectively. And don’t hold back, or the whole exercise is moot. Be brutally honest with yourself, nitpick, and tear everything to shreds: the good, the bad, and the fugly. When you’re surrounded by the tatters and threads, you can examine them one by one and learn from both the mistakes and the triumphs woven into your first draft. You might even find that it’s not all sucky, and that there were fewer darlings to kill than you thought after your initial read.
Timing is everything.
Just like chemistry, timing is one of those things you can’t fake, can’t bend to your will. When everything comes together, it’s fucking gold. But when you don’t got it…you just don’t got it. Timing can also be the death or the saving grace of any story; just because your first draft isn’t cutting it now, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to breathe some life into it later. For all you know, the main reason the words aren’t jumping off the page is because it’s simply not their turn. And there are hundreds of reasons why that might be, but for most writers, timing and headspace go hand in hand. Maybe the topic was relevant when you started writing, but now it’s just not resonating with you in the same way. Ever heard the saying, “what goes around comes around”? Maybe you have the opposite problem and tried tackling a subject that you just weren’t ready to broach. Future you now has a head start whenever the timing is right (lucky bitch).
Whatever it is that makes your first draft seem less than fantastic, the most important thing to remember is that one word: first. No writer has ever stopped at one draft if they actually mean to put something out there in the world. In fact, most of us would happily keep tweaking every little detail we could think of until someone else ripped the pages from our cold, dead hands and published them for better or for worse.
You laugh, but I bet you’re also nodding your head as you read this. And if it makes you feel any better, this very blog post (as well as any others you’ll find with my name on them) underwent its own editing process because the first draft did in fact suck a little. I’ll let you all chime in and tell me if it’s better off for it.
So cheers to the writers this National Writing Day, and cheers to all of your sucky first drafts. May they continue to knock you down a peg (or seventeen) when you need it, even as you strive to write like a boss.