Mindee Arnett
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The Myth of the Crappy First Draft

First, let me start this post with two caveats.

1. As with any writing advice ever given, the only truth is this: Find what works for YOU and stick with it.

2. With a first draft of Avalon 2 to deliver, I really don’t have time for blog posts, but I feel compelled to write this one. Please excuse all typos and other awfulness in terms of grammar, punctuation, or even logical sense.

Okay, so I know a whole bunch of you are in the middle of NaNoWriMO, and I think that’s great. Ra-ra! You can do it. I’ll be your cheerleader, promise. It really is great…but, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay if you’re not doing NaNo or if you decide to cool off and not meet those strenuous word counts, if you decide to take your time in other words. And here’s why:

The myth of the crappy first draft is a myth.

There, I said it. Now, before you roll your eyes or accuse me of being some kind of snob or first draft show off, let me explain. I used to buy into the crappy first draft thing. The first 4 novels I wrote were all written with the idea that I just needed to write as fast as the gingerbread man runs and worry about correcting everything in the second draft. However, those first 4 novels sucked. They never saw the light of my agent’s inbox, or any agent inbox for that matter.

It wasn’t until I started writing my 5th novel, The Nightmare Affair, that I came to understand why those first books were so bad and why I failed at them so completely. The answer? I am not good at writing a crappy first draft. Wait, that’s not right. I’m actually really good at it. Too good. I used to write first drafts so bad that no amount of revising or rewriting could ever turn them into something other than total stinky crap.

Now, by first draft I mean the moment when you have a beginning, middle, and end all together, when you’ve taken the protagonist from reaction to action, from inciting incident to denouement. That’s usually what people consider a first draft. For me, in those early books, I reached that end point really easily. I flew by each word and paragraph and chapter certain that whatever I got wrong I could fix later. This idea, is in fact, very true. You CAN fix everything later. The problem was not with the method behind the idea of crappy first drafts. The problem was with me. I tried to rewrite those bad books but by the time I’d torn everything down and rebuilt it again twice, if not three times, I’d lost my faith in the book. Even worse, I’d lost my love for it. In the end, I set the books aside, broken and forlorn, and moved on to greener pastures of a new story. I wouldn’t be surprised if that sounds very familiar to some of you.

When I started Nightmare, I decided that I was going to take my time with the first draft. I was going to revise each chapter and scene as I went, doing my best to correct mistakes and to keep the story in line right from the start. If I went off track, which happened a couple of times (always does), I would stop and rewrite until I was on track again. I’m here to tell you, people, this change was storytelling magic for me. Nightmare was by no means perfect or submission ready by the time I wrote The End, but it wasn’t crappy either. It was actually kinda decent. Even more importantly, I’d managed to write a solid story. The structure was good. It didn’t need to be torn down and rebuilt multiple times. The relief of discovering this was so great, I’m still feeling it, honestly. It enabled not to get discouraged and to ultimately write a book publication worthy.

I’ve written 2 novels the same way since and both of them are more less the same in structure and character arcs as they were when I wrote the first draft. Don’t get me wrong. I revised a lot. A whole lot. I just did it while drafting. It’s a method that works for me. Who knows, it might work for you too.

Happy writing!

Filed under: Writing Tips

  1. Micahel Major
    Wow. Five years later and you found a like-minded, like-method, writer. You've exactly described how I write, and I can't imagine writing any other way. I edit as I go because, to me anyway, only by thinking deeply in the beginning and on the leading edge of the story, can the rest of the story truly progress. Connections have to be made, and most likely they are made from off-handed minutia that seemed to come out of nowhere as characters move along and discover themselves. I have a story in progress now that from 30,000 feet, touches on fuzzy science: dark matter, gravity waves, higher spatial dimensions. Early on – like chapter 1 – I gave the protagonist's eventual love interest an engineering degree for literally no reason whatsoever. This did 2 things for me: 1. later she would provide some much needed scientific rationale to the protagonist, one of whose fatal flaws is his inability grapple with scientific concepts, and 2. I have an instant out! If someone was to challenge why this person has an engineering degree and decides to scrap it for a winery owner, I would simply say, "Sorry, you'll have to take it up with her. I just write this shit down."
  2. Micahel Major
    Wow. Five years later and you found a like-minded, like-method, writer. You've exactly described how I write, and I can't imagine writing any other way. I edit as I go because, to me anyway, only by thinking deeply in the beginning and on the leading edge of the story, can the rest of the story truly progress. Connections have to be made, and most likely they are made from off-handed minutia that seemed to come out of nowhere as characters move along and discover themselves. I have a story in progress now that from 30,000 feet, touches on fuzzy science: dark matter, gravity waves, higher spatial dimensions. Early on – like chapter 1 – I gave the protagonist's eventual love interest an engineering degree for literally no reason whatsoever. This did 2 things for me: 1. later she would provide some much needed scientific rationale to the protagonist, one of whose fatal flaws is his inability grapple with scientific concepts, and 2. I have an instant out! If someone was to challenge why this person has an engineering degree and decides to scrap it to become winery owner, I would simply say, "Sorry, you'll have to take it up with her. I just write this shit down."