Tuesday, November 10

First Drafts Don't Always Suck

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Rebecca said...
I have a question for you and your other blog readers... 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?
While many first drafts do suck, not all of them do. Write what you're passionate about, because 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.

Author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro said at World Fantasy that she's a one-draft writer. Of course, she's been doing it for forty years, and she has developed a way to make sure her one draft is as good as it can be, 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. Like any skill, I can see how after you've done it long enough, you get it right the first time without much trouble. But for most of us, it'll take time to get there. If you're one of the lucky ones to get there first, enjoy it. (And tell us how, would you?)

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 great. 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.

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.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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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.