Frustrations of a First Draft

“The first draft of anything is shit.”
― Ernest Hemingway

HemingwayA first draft is just you and your imagination; it’s just you telling yourself a story, and that can be frustrating or even paralyzing. Some aspiring novelists never make through a draft because they can’t allow themselves to write badly.

I am not an outliner so the first draft really is me discovering the story as I stumble through, and I have to remind myself of that every time I begin a new story. Once the concept settles into my thick head I’m fine. I nestle down in the fictive dream, and then I quite enjoy the wonder of it. But I realized if I, after 4 years of serious writing, have to wrestle with this concept, what must new writers feel?

So the purpose of this post is to say Relax and write badly. It is the only way that you’re going to get words on the page and ultimately that is what any writer — every writer — needs: words on the page. This is why I’m a fan of NaNoWriMo. The whole point of it is to keeping going forward until you have 50,000 words. First draft or Bust — that should be the NaNo motto.

It’s all fine to say these things. It’s quite something else to have to live through it. There’s another famous Hemingway* quote that also applies: “Writing is easy, just sit at the typewriter and bleed.” It certainly feels that way some days — each word is painful; each thought has to be plucked from your brain.

I have two tricks to combat the reluctance to write badly. First, if you are truly good and stuck, grab a pen and paper. You might still have the urge to edit, but you can’t fiddle with the prose very much — it is quite fixed on the page. Added benefit that later, when I transcribe it to the computer, I can do light editing. It feels a bit like cheating.

The second trick is to think aloud with a recorder. You can get a recording app for your phone. At first you may feel self-conscious about it, but since I rarely listen to old recordings, I’ve learned to get past that. Thinking aloud can be transformative — you will make connections you couldn’t see before. You’ll spin out ideas, plot devices, even dialog as you talk through the story. You’re not technically getting words on the page, but I usually end a brainstorming session eager to write.

If you are an outliner, if you plan the story out ahead of time, it’s even more imperative that you allow yourself to write badly. I imagine that it might be harder for outliners to do that because the story structure is so clear in their heads and writing is just such messy business. All I can say is trust the process; trust your imagination to get you through the first draft.

Much of my advice is for novelists — I went from writing poetry to writing novels. No need to go half measure! — but the same principles apply for short stories. Drafting a 3,000 word piece can be just as painful as drafting 50,000 words.

The key is to remember that this really is just the first pass at the story. As I wrote those words I realized that for some writers that’s the most depressing thing I’ve said so far. They want to write it once and be done. No one does that. Every work of fiction (and nonfiction!) you read has been edited half a dozen times at least.

The sequence goes like this (for me at least):
First draft = get the story down
Second draft = expand the story and flesh out characters
Third draft = world building, adding foreshadowing and backstory
Fourth draft = polish for continuity and tweak structure
Fifth draft = final polish for beta readers
Sixth draft = fix all the stuff that beta readers found
Seventh draft = fix all the stuff that new beta readers found
Eighth draft = let Debbie read it
Ninth draft = fix the stuff that Debbie found and publish!

See? Easy*

*That’s a joke.


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