Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tuesday Tip: First Drafts

You have a fabulous idea for a story, be it short or long, fiction or non. You start working on it. You feel pretty good.

Then, inevitably, you go back and read it. And you start wondering whether this was such a good idea after all.

Now, there are two schools of thought when it comes to first draft revisions. Some people revise as they go, and some don't.

For those who revise as they go, they generally want what they're working from (ie, the stuff already written) to be on par with the part they are currently working on. Especially if things have started to go in a different direction from what was originally planned, or if they've had a great idea that requires the already-written-part to change.

I used to do that. I'm not going to tell you how long it took me to finish the first draft of my first novel. Years. Many years.

I'm now in the other camp - get the first draft down first, and revise it later.

The biggest reason for this is because it is so easy to get caught up in the prose and lose the story. Over the years that I worked on that first draft, my writing improved and improved, because I was practicing it. And I'd go back and read the earlier work and think it was terrible (because it was). And then I'd go back and try to fix it, without getting any farther into the story.

If you are tempted to go back and fix bad prose in the middle of your first draft, stop and tell yourself this very important truth:

"First drafts are allowed to suck."

You might want to print it out and tape it to your monitor.

Everyone's first draft sucks. Go to your local bookstore, and look at all the pretty books on the shelves. They all sucked in the first draft too. It's okay.

So many first-time writers get bogged down in the first draft. They look at it and only see all the flaws, and they look at their favorite writers and see how great their books are, and they get discouraged.

But remember that you can't compare your first draft to someone else's finished product. That's a completely unfair comparison! Don't do that to yourself.

Get the story down, so you can see the whole picture. Many books shift theme or plot during the writing process. It happens all the time. Allow your book to grow as you write it, and remember that you can always fix it later. That's the point of revising, after all--finding all the places that suck and making them better, including inconsistencies and changes in the plot.

Now, if you have a really major plot point change that could totally alter the rest of the book, then it might be worth going back to the point where things need to change, scrapping everything after that, and start writing new first draft from there. But if it's not a big enough change to justify re-writing everything else after it, you might want to consider whether it's worth going back now as opposed to doing it after the first draft is done. You can always insert a comment or a footnote in your first draft with ideas for changes you want to make in the later drafts.

The important thing is to get the story down. Once you have the whole story, you can really see the shape of things, the theme you didn't even know you had, information that needs to be included and things you thought would be important but really aren't, places where information is needlessly repeated, timeline issues, action points that need more show and less tell, and all the other things that crop up the first time through.

Turn your inner editor off and just go. The first draft is allowed to suck. Make use of that freedom and try new techniques, experiment with ideas, and above all, enjoy yourself. Because the gods know that there is enough of "I've read this thing so many times, I'd really rather never see it again outside of galleys" during the revision process. Why start sooner?

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