Monday, September 24, 2018

Writers Take Heart: First Drafts Don't Always Suck

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Just because it's a first draft doesn't mean it has to be a terrible manuscript. 

There's a common term in the writing world: the s%#@y first draft. Despite the harshness of the words, it's actually meant as encouragement. Most first drafts are rough and not very good, and that's the point. They're not supposed to be, because they're a brain dump to get an idea down and see how it all works.

But many writers--especially new writers--think a novel pops perfectly from the author's head. When that doesn't happen, they get frustrated and discouraged. Some may even given up entirely, which is a shame.

Not long after I launched this site, I received a question from such a writer:
Q: I've never written a novel, but I'm inspired to try. I have a Great Idea that I am passionate about, but, as yet, no story. I know my first novel is going to suck, as you've repeatedly said, and it makes me sad that my Great Idea is going to become a sucky novel. Do I put my Great Idea on the shelf for later, after I learn the craft a bit, or do I tackle it now, since I'm passionate about it?
This question made me sad, because this was a writer who was clearly passionate and excited about her idea, but putting it off out of fear. And the "first drafts always suck" refrain was contributing to that.

(Here are five reasons your first draft hates you)

It's been nine years since this writer asked this question, and hopefully she's published and enjoying a nice career by now. But for those worrying about the same thing, take heart:

While many first drafts do suck, not all of them do. 

Author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro said once at World Fantasy that she's a one-draft writer. Bear in mind she's been doing it for forty years (close to fifty now), and she's developed a process that makes sure her one draft is as good as it can be. It took her many years and books to reach this point, but she's proof that first drafts don't have to be terrible.

I've read about other authors who only do one draft as well--usually long-time career authors. Like any skill, after you've done it long enough, you can "get it right the first time" without much trouble. If you're one of the lucky ones to get there early on in your career, enjoy it (and share how you did it!).

(Here's more on planning and writing a first draft)

However, most writers will go through multiple drafts refining their novels--even career authors with 100 books published. The adage, "writing is re-writing" is true for a reason.

Don't put off a novel out of fear the first draft won't be any good. 

The ideas we love the most are the ones that push us to write our best. Write what you're passionate about, and that will shine through in the work. Just don't stress if that first draft doesn't live up to your expectations--not everything we write falls out of our heads perfectly. When that happens (and it does from time to time), enjoy it and treasure it. Use it to help encourage you on the days when the words aren't coming so smoothly.

Serve the story. If you love an idea, go for it full tilt.

(Here's more on what to worry (and not worry) about with a first draft)

It's also important to remember that just because a first draft sucks, that doesn't mean the final novel will suck. It just means the first words out of your head weren't perfect. Once you have a first draft (which is an accomplishment in and of itself and should never be taken lightly) then it's time to polish it and make it the novel you know in your heart it can be.

I actually save the term "first draft" for what most would consider a second draft. I write a rough draft of every novel to get the idea out of my head and see what I have to work with. It's usually messy, with lots of holes and issues, but until I work out the story idea, I won't know what those issues are. Once this is done, then I write a real "first draft." And they're usually pretty decent. Maybe this is cheating (grin), but a lot of writing is in how you look at something, and writing that rough draft first gives me the freedom not to worry about it.

(Here's more on what a first draft should look like)

The ONLY thing "first drafts usually suck" means is that we don't need to be hard on ourselves for not being perfect from the get go. It's okay to write junk before we write well. It's okay for stories to need a few rounds before they grow into novelhood.

Write the stories you love. After all, ugly babies do grow into supermodels.

Where on the "sucky to perfect" scale do your first drafts fall?

*Originally published November 2009. 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thank you for the great reply to my question! I think "go for it full tilt" shall be my mantra :-)

    And congratulations on such a productive morning! That sounds heavenly!

  2. I think it is ideal to be super excited about your first novel and super thrilled when it is finished, and THEN realize that for many author's, the first novel sucks. You won't learn anything if you don't experience writing the first sucky novel. How can your second one be better if there isn't a first one?

    Writers grow! And that's a good thing.

    It is like saying third grade sucks so I'm just going straight to fourth. Well, there might be some important principles taught in third that will arm you to tackle problems you'll encounter in fourth.

    And no one is ever forcing you to give up on the first novel, even if it IS sucky. Write another draft, and then another. Keep growing.

  3. I'm hoping desperately that my first novel doesn't suck, but I'm keeping my mind open to the possibility that it might. Either way, I've learned more than I ever imagined. I never even thought I'd write a full novel before turning 24!

  4. Loved this post! Just stopped by again to tell you I bought your book from Chapters today! Great cover!

  5. Great answer to this question!! And never underestimate the power of editing, reediting and editing some more!!

  6. Nobody wants their first novel to suck. I don't. But there's a possibility that it might, so we all gotta be prepared for it :D

  7. Thanks! Yeah, so much of writing is just allowing yourself to dive in and make mistakes.

  8. I love all the novel's I've written since, but my first novel is still my baby! I'm on the third re-write at the moment, and do plan to get it out into the world one day, using all I've learned since.

  9. I think the expectation that "All first drafts suck" is a really a bad writing myth. I've been writing a story a week for the last month -- story goes from creation to edits to proofreading to sub. With the week deadline for revision. The creation part HAS to work. That's made me realize how much "all first drafts suck" hurt me as a writer. It allowed me to let things go to the revision, things that often ended up resulting in significant and major revision. Often, I ended up breaking the story by revising it because I kept thinking, "The first draft won't work anyway, so I'll fix that on the revision."

  10. Rinelle, good luck! I hope it makes it out there one day :)

    Linda, wow, nice. A story a week? Great discipline. And I'd agree. It's a nice thing to know that first drafts often suck, or are allowed to suck, but don't let it encourage you to write sucky first drafts.

  11. I learned this last year that I could write a first draft that was actually very good, only needed tweaks and edits, not revision. Then I learned that just because I did it once doesn't mean I can do it again, sigh.

    1. Hey, once is more than a lot of writers get :) But I know what you mean. The Shifter pretty much fell out of my head and no other novel has even done that.

  12. I number my drafts the same way! My 'rough draft' or 'draft 0' doesn't deserve an integer. :-)

  13. I don't have "drafts" as such.

    My novel has evolved higgledy piglledy, some scenes being on their who-knows-how-many-eth revision, and some being substantially as originally written.

    Some of the scenes are instant gems that only need a little polish. And some others were just a bad idea to begin with. I'm happy to create a gem, and happy taking out the trash, too. It's all part of the process.

    1. Interesting. Not having any labels would take the pressure off :)