The Joy of First Drafts


As I want to talk not just about the progress of my books but also the process of writing them, finishing the first draft seems like an apt time to talk about them in general.

To me the most important role of first drafts is this:

They tell you what is wrong with your story.

This is awesome. Actually it’s not awesome, it’s amazing, but it can only be done once you’ve got a completed first draft in front of you.

I work from an outline, which has about four or five bullet points for each chapter/section outlining what should happen in each. But it cannot tell me whether the story works, or if the characters are right, or if the pacing is all over the place (it is). You can only judge that once you have a whole story in front of you.

Sure you can spend ages on each chapter in your first draft, making the grammar and prose amazing as you go along, but to me that is wasted time. At that point you don’t know how much you will need to change so focusing on those issues is just wasting time. Get that first draft finished and you will have an overview of the whole story and a much better idea of what you need to do going forward.

Remember that story is everything with a book, get that nailed down first you can worry about the details later. It’s no good having wonderful prose if the story is rubbish, or moves as fast as dried cement.

They help find your characters voices.

Sometimes characters jump full formed into your mind, complete with how they speak and act. The rest of the time that will evolve as your write each draft and put them into situations they have to react to. A first draft that focus on dialogue and story can help build those distinctive voices you want because you have time writing them and getting a clearer picture of who they are in your head.

Having your characters worked out also feeds back into your story, as your characters evolve you may find the story you had planned no longer works with the personalities you have now given them.

This is great.

Embrace this and change the story as needed to fit them because it will make both stronger. You will have a story that moves with characters and characters actions that fit with the personality you have given them.

So coming to the second draft you will hopefully have a much better picture of the characters you are writing and be able to feed that into it, and also make your story longer as a result.

They let you suck.

This may be more important than either of the two points above. First drafts will be bad, they are for almost every single writer live today and who has ever lived. Sure they be some exceptions but they’re the special cases. For most terrible, cringe-worthy and clich├ęd first drafts are part of the process of every book they write. It is them getting ideas down, getting a story finished and then making it better.

I often see budding writers on the internet saying how worried they are that what they are writing is bad, or sucks, or isn’t worth continuing with. Ignore that voice, kick it into the back of the closet in your mind and lock it away. Take your chance to just write what you want (though don’t go insane, remember the story you are meant to be telling), and get it done.

Be proud that you have finished something, and that is important, but remember you then have to make it good. First drafts may be a chance to get the story down and see what needs changing but things will need changing. First drafts should be for your eyes, and maybe a few trusted people whose advice you value, and no one else’s!

You still have to make it good.

So go and finish your first drafts, embrace their bad stories, learn from them, and then get on with finishing the book to the absolute best of your abilities.