Writing a first draft

29 June 2012
Hemingway once said, ‘All first drafts are shit’.  Ernest, me old mate,  that is an understatement! I am referring, of course, to  my own current first-draft which at the moment is a steaming pile of merde if ever there was one.  I have to keep reminding myself that there were times when I felt the same about my first novel, but after a great deal of rewriting, I now think it’s rather good, and so do Simon & Schuster, who are publishing it in May 2013.
A novel has to start somewhere; it doesn’t just appear in the right order with the storylines perfectly developed, the characters rounded and convincing, the themes consistent, relevant and thought-provoking.   You have to craft and hone and polish.  And most writers agree that most of the crafting and honing and polishing comes later – after you’ve written the first draft.
But it ain’t easy, folks, so although I hope this post will encourage other authors who are currently wading through the mires of their own first drafts, it’s also a bit of a pep talk to myself, because at the moment, I’m going through a very sticky patch. I’m changing things  –  I’ve changed the  period  the novel is set in and the occupation of the main character, I’ve changed the age of a supporting character, and I’ve introduced a new viewpoint. No doubt there will be a lot more changes. I’m also plagued by doubts – is the plot too thin? Will it be believable? Are my characters convincing? Will the whole thing work? Will anybody give a flying feck?
The thing is, I know from past experience and from talking to other writers that it would be unusual not to be thinking like this at this stage. So I’m ploughing on and I hope to have a rough – very rough – first draft completed by mid-August. There! I’ve stated it publicly, so now I’ll have to do it! Some people write a first draft in a few weeks, and I envy them. I take considerably longer. I started working seriously on this idea in December, so if I hit my August deadline, it will have taken me eight to nine months – and at least the same again for rewriting.
 A couple of years ago, I attended a novel masterclass by award winning author Jill Dawson. Jill keeps a journal-type notebook for every novel, in which she records her thoughts about the novel and the writing process – she uses the notebook almost as a silent writing buddy, having ‘conversations ‘ with it about the work as it progresses.  With her most recent novel, she confided, she’d got to the 40,000 word point and had decided it wasn’t working, and what’s more, couldn’t be made to work. At the point of despair and on the verge of giving up, she decided to have a flick through notebooks from previous novels. She found that she had experienced the same excruciating doubts with every novel she’d ever written – including the orange-shortlisted ones – and very often at the 40,000 word point!
So what we need to do is to really get it into out heads that a first draft is little more than a rough sketch, and we fill in the colour and texture later. At this stage, even if you’ve done plenty of planning,  things will change along the way, so to a certain extent, you’re still telling yourself the story. There will be inconsistencies, plot threads that lead nowhere, one-dimensional characters, rubbish dialogue, important scenes that are skimmed over, lengthy scenes that will end up being cut completely. There will probably be superfluous back story,  lots of ‘telling’ and info-dumping, and no real sign of a decent theme. Stephen King tells us not to even think about themes in the first draft, and I think that’s good advice. The real themes may turn out to be different to what you expected, because your unconscious will have been working away on your behalf.
So no matter how dreadful your first draft seems now, just plough on.  Keep moving your story onwards, even if it feels mundane and clumsy, even if it goes off in directions you hadn’t planned. Remember that it isn’t set in stone  – a half-realised scene can be added to later; a digression that doesn’t work can be cut. Just keep putting the words down! Some writers like to check their word counts each day; others prefer to write for a timed period, or to write to a particular point in the story. I’m a word-count person, and I like to have some sort of visual encouragement, something that shows my progress. I reckon my first draft should be about 90,000 words, so I took two jars, and counted out 90 glass pebbles into one of them and stood them on my desk. For every thousand words I write, I move a pebble from the ‘to write’ jar to the ‘written’ jar.  
I’m happy to say that the jar on the right is the ‘written’ jar! It’s a little bit of nonsense, of course, because many of these words will end up being cut, but I find it helps to spur me on.
When you get to the end of a first draft, it’s time to celebrate – even if it’s pretty poor – because now you have something to work on. Rewriting and editing will turn a poor first draft into an okay one, and an okay draft into a good one. From there, you’re talking very good or even excellent. But if you don’t have a draft, you have nothing.
Do you struggle with your first drafts, or do you find that the easy part? Are you able to ignore the flaws and keep writing, or do you edit as you go along? How long do your first drafts take, or does it vary?  I’d love to hear your experiences – perhaps we could cheer each other on?   
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27 thoughts on “Writing a first draft

  1. JO says:

    Oh the pain of a first draft! I think one of the most difficult things is it having no rhythm – some days it just flows (though can still be drivel) and another day every word is like pulling teeth.

    What keeps me going? A rather odd conviction that, once I've written that first sentence, well I might as well write another, and another.

    How long does it take? That depends if I've detoured to Nepal, or elsewhere!

  2. K.M.Lockwood says:

    I'm in the haunted wilderness of First Draught Land (again). I've tried being all planned and organised first – it doesn't seem to help. I swear the topography changes.
    This is such a good and honest post.
    I'll support you – whinge at me if you want to.

  3. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    I empathise totally! I've just had a couple of 'pulling teeth' days, so much harder to keep going. We just have to remember the joy of those free-flowing days – even if it's drivel!

  4. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Yes, I always plan to a certain extent, but I'm not sure it helps, because the topography definitely changes as you go along. I love the way you describe it as a 'haunted wilderness' – spot on!

  5. Wendy Hollands says:

    I'm starting to think the first draft was a walk in the park after taking more than twice as long with revisions — and more to come. For a writer, I'm somewhat impatient. I love writing the first draft precisely because it can be so unpolished!

  6. Sarah says:

    Oh how very true. I always get halfway through and think, what am I doing? This is utter rubbish. Why can't it come out on the page like I see it in my head? Find a friend that says, “NO. Keep on keeping on.” I found one recently and seem to be getting there finally. He's worth his weight in chocolate.

  7. marthawilliams.org says:

    Great, encouraging post. My WIP has, in recent weeks, been given the working title “Oh Yeah That” — around the 50,000 mark. It's so bad, I've even done the housework, which I'm sure is just a phase. I might try the glass thing, although I might sub in Maltesers… and yes we must cheer each other on — we'll all get there in the end, might as well make it fun!

  8. Janet O'Kane says:

    An excellent post. I love Jill Dawson's idea of keeping a diary in which to pour out one's feelings while writing, and think I may try that.
    I find getting that first draft out excruciating, but enjoy editing. So much so that I'm finding it hard to leave book 1 alone and concentrate on drafting book 2. The luxury of not having to work to someone else's deadline can be a double-edged sword.

  9. Janet O'Kane says:

    An excellent post. I love Jill Dawson's idea of keeping a diary in which to pour out one's feelings while writing, and think I may try that.
    I find getting that first draft out excruciating, but enjoy editing. So much so that I'm finding it hard to leave book 1 alone and concentrate on drafting book 2. The luxury of not having to work to someone else's deadline can be a double-edged sword.

  10. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Housework?? That is serious! It just goes to show what drastic lengths we are sometimes driven to. Maltesers sounds a really good idea. We could make it one per 100 words, just for that extra bit of encouragement…

  11. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Janet, I feel exactly the same – I LOVE editing! Thanks goodness book 1 is now out of my hands, or I'd still be tweaking. I've been trying to do the Jill Dawson thing myself, but need to get into the habit.

  12. Abi Burlingham says:

    What a fab post, Sue. It really is tough when you're in that 'bad place' with your first draft isn't it? But you are right, it is just the skeleton and the flesh and colour and contours can come later. We just need little reminders of this. Love the cover of your book by the way – gorgeous and so eye catching.

  13. Helen says:

    Great post Susan, Very interesting anecdote from Jill Dawson re the 40k mark because that's been the point where I'm filled with self doubt too. And I like the 2 jars idea to give you a visual stimulus to spur you on. Best of luck with the first draft- I'm feeling your pain!

  14. SJIHolliday says:

    Brilliant post, sums up how I feel. My last attempt failed at 40k words and I dumped it. This one is nowhere near that yet, but I keep stopping and starting because I try to convince myself it should be right first time round – even though every author I speak to says, 'just write it, even if it's crap'. I agree that it's the flow that causes the problems – if I have the time and my head is in the right place, I can write 3k words without coming up for air. If not, I might manage a few rubbish sentences and feel bad about it. It's always nice to hear that I'm not the only one though, hence I will keep on keeping on!

  15. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks Abi!I also think of it like building a house – you lay the foundations and build the main walls, but it's a while before the staircases go in and the roof goes on, not to mention the finer points of plumbing, electrics etc.

    The cover's gorgeous, isn't it? Am so pleased with it.

  16. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks Helen – so many people have said the same thing about the 40,000 mark – it's a real stumbling block. I hope it helps everone to know they're not alone – it's certainly helping me!

  17. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    That's it exactly – we feel bad becasue it's not perfect and that paralyses our ability to write, which makes us feel bad again, and so on. It can be quite difficult to push forward, I think, but you just have to keep telling yourself, 'so what if it's crap? I can delete it later. Let's just see what else comes out first.' Good luck!

  18. Ruby Speechley says:

    I'm totally with you Wendy, I find it easier to get the story down, but editing! It's never ending and I too am so impatient.

  19. Kristin Celms says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for this post, Susan! I've written enough first drafts now that I shouldn't have to be reminded that the first draft is usually crap, but I always seem to forget somewhere along the way! As Helen also mentioned, I love Jill's anecdote and think that keeping such a notebook might help me remember that, when I'm all doom and gloom with my draft, all is not lost! I just recently began rewriting my current WIP, and at first I was terrified: was I such a rotten writer that I had to actually make the decision to REWRITE?! And then I went back to a book I had been reading about plot by James Scott Bell, and in the very next chapter, he stated that lots of writers decide to rewrite after the first drafts, especially those who work without an outline. I felt so much better after that – just to know I was not alone. Because that's what we are after all when we're writing – alone – and that is just when my brain starts playing tricks on me. Thanks again!

  20. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks for this lovely comment, Kristin, I think rewriting is essential, because things always change along the way, even if you've planned. That book sounds great – I'll get a copy. Good luck with your WIP!

  21. Glosswitch says:

    What an inspiring post! I've recently started trying to write fiction – in the past I used to have ideas and write bits and bobs (the bits I wanted to write) but never summoned up the energy to construct a whole story. Now I've decided to force myself to do it, as otherwise I'll never know if I can. Am only 15,000 words in but despairing and worrying that nothing will hold together so it's a relief to find I'm not alone (and that yes, you do get another chance to rework it afterwards!)

  22. Kat says:

    I do review as I go too, but find that this sometimes keeps me at a standstill rather than edging forwards!
    Although I try to maintain the perspective that any words I add to my draft can only be a step forwards, I love the pebble idea and think I might give it a go: it seems to me that it's the perfect way to enhance a “glass half full” outlook on my scribbles!
    Thank you for an inspiring post! 🙂
    *skips off to find stash of glass pebbles that I never know what else to do with anyway*

  23. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks Kat. Do you know, the 'glass half full' thing hadn't even occurred to me! And yes, it was a relief to find something useful to do with those glass pebbles!Good luck, and keep going!

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