First Draft

Typing those magic words, ‘The End’, can be a satisfying moment for any first time writer. If you have got that far in your writing, then congratulations. You’ve made it further than most aspiring writers do. You haven’t given up. But then when you read the draft, reality kicks in. Let’s put it kindly: it reads like crap and you start to doubt whether you can write at all. Don’t despair. Take some advice from some of the great writers.

“The first draft of anything is shit.” (Ernest Hemmingway)
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” (Terry Prachett)
“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point so be wrong as fast as you can.” (Andrew Stanton).

I could go on with a lot more quotes, but I think you get the drift. First drafts are just the starting point of writing. Writing is really about re-writing. Anything you write can be revised, changed, improved and polished. But you can only do this if you have written it first. The bad news is you still have a lot of work to do.

If your first drafts are anything like mine, they probably are not in state that you would want to share with anyone yet. They need to be knocked into shape. Here’s another quote about the process:

“My first draft usually only has a few elements worth keeping. I have to find out what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.” (Susan Sontag).

So how do you decide what are the parts worth keeping and what needs to be thrown away? It’s all about understanding the story and finding the best way to present it. Before writing, different writers plan their stories in different levels of detail: some using outlines, scene cards and other devices; others writing organically following the lead from their main characters. But once the story is written, the full story is known, and it is up to the writer to decide how best to present it to the reader. In particular, the writer needs to decide:
– Where’s the best point to start the story. (It’s not always obvious.)
– How the story should end. (Get this wrong at your peril.)
– What is the principal source of conflict (main character’s goal vs obstacles) and what’s at stake if he fails.
– What are the key logical story steps and turning points.
– When should key information be revealed to the main character and to the reader.
– How the story impacts on the characters.

Note, this first stage is a structural edit. Look for scenes that aren’t working or that are not key to the storyline. Examine potential alternative endings. Consider removing elements of backstory that are not relevant. Consider whether the characters are acting consistently. But it’s not all about cutting out. It’s also about increasing tension and displaying characterisation by layering in extra levels of detail to bring key scenes alive.

Let me give you an example. Recently I finished the first draft of my second novel. My initial problem is that the word count is much lower than expected at 58,000 words and I have another 12,000 words in redundant scenes that I ditched during the process of writing the first draft. I know my ending and the last few scenes needs a lot more work, which will increase word count. But I also expect the word count to rise for other reasons. As with my first novel I tend to write the bones of the story in the first draft by focusing on the important scenes in a cinematic style as though I was writing a film script. Then I have to layer in sub-plots, description and improve the transitions, which I had skipped over in the first draft. My net word count therefore tends to increase on the second draft.

Not all writers are the same. Stephen King suggests that second draft should be 90% of the size of the first draft. No doubt Stephen King is much better at flushing out the detail in the first draft and he is simply tightening the words that are there. Lesser mortals like me require more drastic action, and a lot more drafts.

Clearly the amount of re-writing will depend on the type of writer you are. Many writers advocate not getting involved in detailed editing until the first draft is complete. I can understand this view. Finishing a first draft as quickly as possible is important and editing can get in the way. Others, like me tend, to back track as they go along to eliminate errors and inconsistencies.

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times… Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” (Roald Dahl)

Whatever type of writer you are one thing is certain. The quality of your work will depend on how much and how well you edit and re-write. Don’t be fooled into thinking that first drafts are anywhere near complete. It’s just the start of the editing process.

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