What’s in a first draft

Call it a first draft, zero draft, pre-draft, skeleton draft, preliminary notes, inane rambling, word-vomit – it ends up being the same thing in the end: a first attempt at converting story data from thought to text form. The conversion inevitably results in an imperfect translation, wherein certain data may go missing or turn up in places it wasn’t supposed to (not always for the worse), mysterious repetition of data patterns may emerge without rhyme or reason, entire documents may be completely illegible and beyond salvaging, and by the end you may wonder what the point of trying even was to begin with.

As far as I can tell, that means you’re doing it right.

Everything I learnt about drafting novels, I taught myself. It was messy. It was frustrating. It ran out, and at the moment I’m trying to extend it so that I can move beyond the single draft and subsequent single revision I’ve accomplished for Tallulah, the novel I’ve been writing for the past three years. And the number one lesson I learnt was this: the worse your first draft is, the better.

But something else occurred to me today. It’s not just that having a bad first draft is good in terms of identifying problems (the worse they are, the easier they are to spot) and solving them (the worse they are, the more obvious the solution will be). It’s also that the first draft – and, really, reading that first draft – is where you find out if you actually want to tell this story at all.

In other words, you have to write the book before you really know if you want to write the book.

I learnt that by doing it. It’s exactly as frustrating as it sounds.

And I learnt that, with this book at least, I do want to write it, and that’s fantastic. I’m still trying to write it as I write this. But what has occurred to me is that, if considering a first draft less as a project and more as a process, and specifically the process by which the writer decides if they wanted to complete the project in the first place, the whole “bad is good” rule takes on a whole new meaning.

If it’s meant to be bad …

Why try at all?

Why not just make preliminary notes? Why not make notes on every scene that you have in mind, write [insert scene/emotional climax/insightful social commentary here] at the points where ideas haven’t arrived quite yet, toss it into a folder or Word document or Scrivener project and call that a first draft? I have struggled with the notion that story and coherence are not at all important in a first draft ever since I heard that advice, simply because I have a clear idea in my head and insist that I am able to put it down in writing, and that if that doesn’t happen for me it’s my own damn fault for not being focused/disciplined/committed enough to the task, rather than because “clear ideas” often aren’t as clear as we think they are when we get them out in writing or say them out loud, or we find that the idea itself isn’t the only thing that needs considering once we start to externalise it from ourselves. Even while writing my more or less stream-of-consciousness first draft of Tallulah, I cared about story, I cared about plot, continuity, consistency and all those other important things. But if “bad is good” holds true, then surely the less I care, the worse it will be, and the worse it is the better it is and aaaAAAAAAA?

Well, here’s my first thought on that.

You know how Twilight is particularly awful because you can tell that Stephanie Meyer cared a lot about it? That’s the kind of “bad is good” I’m talking about in a first draft. You have to care.

I’m not talking in a moral sense; I’m talking in a mechanical sense. When we care about something, we treat it preferentially and with huge bias, whether we want or are able to admit it or not, and whether that bias is complimentary or not. Sometimes, especially if we think of ourselves as smart people, that bias can be particularly hard to detect because we’re so accustomed to being on top of things and ultra self-aware all the time about everything. (Arts students, I’m looking at us.) You need this for two reasons:

  • Caring will make your efforts more earnest, making the good bits better and the bad bits really, really bad – which will make them easier to identify/fix
  • If you don’t care, you shouldn’t be writing it to begin with

If you’re writing something and doing all the things you’re meant to be doing – not worrying about how it looks now because it’ll be edited later, meeting your writing schedule, sticking to your plan – but you just don’t care about the story?

Don’t tell it.

Simple.

There is no shame in not caring enough about a story to tell it, even after you’ve started.

You need to care, but only because if you don’t care it means you should be doing something else. So I guess a better way of saying it is: only do it if you care enough to do it. Let that be your deciding factor.

And what I’ve found is that writing the thing, putting in effort and actually trying, is where I find out if a certain story is the one I want to be telling.

In short: yeah, you do have to try. If you’re forcing it rather than following your passion, then it’s going to be a slog the whole way through and, unless you are actually being paid to do it, not worth your time. I mean perhaps if you have an idea for a story that you know would sell well (telepaths, I’m looking at you) but just have no personal passion to tell there’s some concessions you can make as to your personal preferences, but in all other cases, do it because you want to, because chances are you’re never going to get paid to do it.

I hope you will, just like I hope I will, but there is a certain freedom in acknowledging the statistical unlikelihood of that scenario. Because once you take away the “I have to” part, all you’re left with is “I want to” or “I don’t want to”. And if you want to, you’ll try, and if you try, the bad stuff will be truly bad, and if it’s truly bad then you can fix it really easily …

And at the end of the day, you’ll have a really good first draft, and the opportunity to decide whether this story is the one for you.

Now if only the actual drafting process could be shortened from a year to, like, a couple of hours. That’d be swell.

I’m totally not still sour about failing Nanowrimo what are you talking about

(Also does this count as writing advice because I don’t know how I feel about that)

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