Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why First Drafts Suck and Why That's Okay

Hemingway writing

"The first draft of anything is sh*t." 
-Ernest Hemingway

I'm working on a new first draft. For the first time in over a year, I'm sitting down in front of my computer and staring at a blank page. Sometimes the words appear in my mind and flow seamlessly through my fingers to the screen. Sometimes I feel like I'm wrestling them into place. But either way, I'm pretty happy with my progress at the moment.

A few years ago, I wouldn't have called myself a writer by any stretch of the imagination. I had written a few short stories, but I was a perfectionist. This meant every sentence got dissected right after it was written—and more often than not, it got deleted because it sounded stupid, or I freaked out about it not having the right lyrical flow, or I thought of a better idea for the beginning ten pages in and deleted the whole thing to start over.

The idea of writing a novel crossed my mind and was immediately dismissed. I made up stories in my head all the time, but I knew writing them down would mean years of arduous deleting and rewriting.

Then came the turning point. My husband suggested something that had never occurred to me: why not just write the draft, without any changes? When I protested that I couldn't let the words sit there like that, he said I could use a separate document to note changes to go back and do later--but in the meantime, I could carry on with the draft.

Mind blown Burt

I tried out this process, and it really, really works for me. I outline the novel, and then I just write. Notes for what isn't working or what needs to be changed later or great new ideas go in a separate "Things to Change" document.

Now, here's the thing. My first drafts are hideous. Some people like to refer to first drafts as "vomit drafts," and this is most definitely accurate for mine. Locations change mid-stream. People who died in the last chapter magically jump back in because I thought of something else for them to do. Someone who starts out as mousy and shy in the first few chapters becomes a confident hussy in the last few.

But that's okay.

The magic happens in the revisions. I go straight down my Things to Change list and mold characterizations, plot, and setting into something that makes sense. Then I go over it again, and again (and about seven more times, but you don't really need to hear about all of those). 

Manuscript revision

The point is, writing this way lets me actually finish drafts. I've met an awful lot of people who tell me, "Oh, I'm writing a novel too. I started a few years ago and I have fifty pages done." They never got past the first draft. Now I tell them about my method. 

I've become a vomit draft evangelist! And I must be doing something right, because I've completed three novels and am working on my fourth.

What's your first draft process? Do you agonize over every word, or vomit it out?

1 comment:

  1. Midway through today's NaNoWriMo right now & I'm really just going to have to trust you and Hemingway that my time was well spent typing away because when I read back through what I've just written, it's kinda not looking so hot. Thanks for the encouragement. :)