Monday, January 16, 2023

7 Reasons Why Your First Draft Sucks

first drafts, fixing a novel
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

First drafts are written first for a reason.

Getting to the end of a first draft is an accomplishment that ought to be celebrated, no matter what state that draft is in. It takes a lot of effort and determination to write an entire novel. It takes planning and brainstorming, and uses up a ton of creative juice to get all those ideas from our heads to the page.

It’s also not uncommon to stumble a bit and write a first draft that’s, shall we say, less than stellar. Maybe it even sucks.

If this is you, take heart—you’re not alone. 

Bad first drafts happen all the time, even to professional authors with dozens of books under their writing belts. Writing is a creative endeavor and you can’t force creativity, even if you can plow through it and keep writing when the muse is on vacation.

A bad first draft can happen for many reasons, but here are seven of the most common ones, with some tips on how to fix them:

1. You have no clue what the story’s really about

first drafts, figuring out your story
Unsure about your story?
An idea hit you and you started writing, but you were figuring it out as you went. There’s no cohesive plot or problem to solve, just a lot of random things happening, so the story doesn’t read like a story. 

These random things might be fun scenes and work individually, but they don’t build to a satisfying ending for the reader. The writing could be good or bad, but when you read it, even you have no idea what you were trying to do.

To fix this draft: What you probably have is more of a rough draft than a first draft—you essentially brainstormed on paper. It might feel like you wasted your time, but this is actually a useful way to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page. 

Sort through the mess and find the story you want to tell within the parts you like. Odds are, now that’s it’s down, you have a better sense of the plot and what aspects of this idea you want to focus on, so the next draft will be tighter and more developed.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Idea, Premise, Plot, and Story)

2. You don’t know whose story it is yet

who's the protagonist, first drafts
Who's your protagonist?
The idea is good, the setup works, but there’s no sense of who the protagonist is—often because the book is exploring an idea and not showing a character with a problem. This happens more often in plot-driven stories with multiple point of view characters, where several people are involved in the plot, and the problem is so big it affects everyone (or a large amount of people).

To fix this draft: Figure out which character (or characters if you have more than one) is the protagonist. Who’s making the story happen? Who is so tightly connected to the problem that the story wouldn’t work if they weren’t there? Even in multiple POV stories, when you look close, there’s usually one person everything else revolves around who is pushing the story to happen.

(Here’s more with Whose Story is It?)

3. The story engine is weak (aka: no goals—motivation—conflict)

No matter how good an idea is, or how well it’s written, if there’s a weak or missing goal—motivation—conflict structure, the story fails. These are the building blocks of a novel, and a plot can’t survive without them.

To fix this draft: Take it scene by scene and figure out the goal, motivation, and conflict for each one. What do the characters want? Why do they want it? What’s in their way of getting it?

(Here’s more with Goals, Conflicts, & Stakes: Why Plots Need All Three)

4. It has some major plausibility issues

plausibility issues, first drafts
Are readers crying foul?
Sometimes in our effort to craft a tale the way we want to tell it, we force events to happen a certain way. While a few coincidences are often okay, too many of them stretches reader credibility. 

It’s even worse for stories that create complicated worlds and situations that all feel custom-made for the protagonist and their particular problem. Logic goes out the window and we have situations or worlds that would never work.

To fix this draft: Start at the drawing board and craft plausible reasons why the things in the story happen as they do. Don’t forget—the world needs to be able to exist even if the protagonist wasn’t there. The problems need to be solved in logical ways, not based on out-of-the-blue hunches or realizations.

(Here’s more with 6 Ways to Identify a Contrived Plot)

5. It requires a skill that’s not quite up for the task yet

Sometimes we stretch ourselves and our skill isn’t where it needs to be on the first try. Maybe you need more practice on a skill, or need to study up on a technique to achieve the effect or story you want. For example, if you’ve never written first person before, you might stumble trying to write a first-person story. Maybe it’s a different genre or market than you typically write, and you still need to learn the tropes and rules.

To fix this draft: Study what’s weak and keep working on it. Do exercises, read books, blogs, and articles on writing. Attend a workshop or talk to a friend who does it well.

(Here’s more with 3 Ways to Improve Your Storytelling)

6. Admit it—it’s not your best writing

Hey, I’ve been there. I know admitting you kinda phoned it in on this one isn’t fun, but at least it’s fixable. Everybody writes a “bad book” from time to time.

To fix this draft: Examine the draft and determine if it’s salvageable. Some bad drafts are, and all they need is another pass or two to whip them into shape. But others are so inherently flawed it’s easier to toss them out and start fresh.

(Here’s more with I Quit: When to Give Up on a Novel)

7. It’s a first draft

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a sucky first draft except it’s a first draft. It’s rough, it’s incomplete, it’s still working out the details of the characters and the plot. It has its good spots and its bad, but after a revision pass or two it’ll be just fine and something to be proud of.

To fix this draft: Remind yourself that nobody writes a perfect first draft, and that first drafts are all about getting the story down. Just keep working on it, and revise until you’re happy with it.

(Here’s more with What a First Draft Should Look Like)

First drafts range from rough and ugly to clean and workable, and we never really know which side they’ll fall on until we write them. Don’t get discouraged if yours happens to be on the rough side—just look at it objectively and figure out what it needs, then focus on that during the second draft (and the third, maybe the fourth or fifth—as long as you need to).

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take some time and analyze why your sucky first draft isn't working. Then make a plan to fix it. You don't need to know everything, just enough to give you a direction to go in, such as "this need stronger GMC overall," or "I need to work on my plot." 

Have you ever written a first draft that sucked? How clean are your first drafts?

*Originally published February 2019. Last updated January 2023.

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 ShifterBlue 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. My normal first draft is written in a rush, Ideas bubbling, coming together to create an (almost) coherent tale. It normally has a spark a start and conclusion but little else to recommend it. I then start the rewrites, often they are many, various and transform the story, sometimes into something worthwhile other times into something less than it first was.
    Years ago, I wrote a novel in around six weeks. As you can imagine it was rough, just the essentials. Needing rewritten and perfected. I always expect to do many rewrites; plot holes, bad grammar, lol bad typing Mar the original. Tis' just the way I do things. Not for everyone but suits me.

    I called my editor (Mallory Smith, if you know of her you will know how good she is- sadly long gone) and said, it is just the story. It needs to be fixed but together we can make this a great novel. I gave her a day to read it and before I had the chance to call her, she called me. "You are right, handled well, this could be another "Strand Loper", or "Selkie", a modern-day romantic "Beowulf" you have the idea and the tone of the novel just right. So, we worked for months on the story together, even recruited a couple of other authors and friends from the publishing business to help but no matter what we tried the story would not work.
    Eighteen months later Mallory called me and said, we should just have fixed the grammar and the spelling mistakes, we have made it too long too cumbersome, too literary. We should have just fixed the easy stuff; we wrote the spontaneity and surprise out of the story and wrote the mundane in looking to make it perfect. Sometimes a good book is just a good book.

    Anyway, the reason for this rather long and sorry tale is just to suggest that the right way to do things is almost always the best way. Almost always...
    But a great article that made a great deal of sense to me and I think that you are right. Almost always. (lol- I kind of telegraphed that.)

    1. Quite the story, and thanks for sharing. It's really easy to edit out the good stuff. A YouTuber I like always says "Don't let perfect be the enemy of good." And he's right. Fix what's broken and not working, but leave what's working, even if it's not perfect. Once you're done editing, THEN you can decide what good stuff might need polishing up.