And Why You Shouldn’t Be Bothered By It
Time for some writerly real talk: your first draft sucks.
Sorry, I’m not trying to make you feel bad. It’s just the truth. And it can be hard to swallow because YOU JUST WROTE A NOVEL! That’s amazing! There should be cheering and celebrations, but it can often be anticlimactic because you’re staring at these words that make you cringe, wondering how you ever thought you could do this.
It is so discouraging and I’m here to tell you: I get it. Do not stop here because you’ve just made it past a huge obstacle.
Here is my experience this month: I decided to write a manuscript in three weeks. I’m waiting on edits for another project, and it gave me a window that would just allow me to write another novel. It was ambitious, but I’ve done it before so I knew I could do it again.
However. Life does not always fall in line with your expectations. Just as soon as I sat down to start writing: my entire family gets covid. And a week later, so do I.
So here I am, with approximately 8 words written, and I have my kids at home with me for two weeks. And I’m fuzzy-headed and tired, and really really cranky. But still, I had planned to write a novel, and I am loathe to set off a goal once I’m committed to it.
Did I write a novel in three weeks with covid? Yes, I did. Is it a steaming pile of shite? You betcha.
It’s okay, though. Here’s why:
Your first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to exist.
I saw this on TikTok, and my first thought was: Yes, exactly! It isn’t good, but it is there. It is a real thing that I created with my mind and my fingers, and nobody can take that away from me.
The idea of sitting down and writing a novel can be super overwhelming. It becomes: I AM SITTING DOWN AND WRITING A NOVEL. Heavy. All-consuming. Intimidating. Like climbing Mt. Everest.
I don’t think it has to be like this. I think that writing the first draft, more than any other part of the book-making process, is the most fun. I wouldn’t say that it’s easy, but at this point, there are no repercussions. Nobody’s going to see this other than you. But you need to go through the process of getting the words that are banging around in your head down onto the paper. It’s the hugest step you’re going to take because without that, you’re just talking about that novel you want to write someday.
I believe in the ripping off a bandaid approach: Write it out quick and hot and messy. See here for tips on how to get that done. There will be work to come in future edits, but nothing will happen until that story exists somewhere outside of your mind. There are important reasons why your first draft should, in fact, be awful.
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.
This quote has been attributed to Terry Pratchett, obviously a prolific writing legend, and I think a writer who very much enjoyed what he did. And that’s all the first draft is. You have a thousand thoughts, characters and dialogue lines buzzing around in your brain. It’s time to put them all down in cohesive order in front of you so you know what you have to work with.
If you already have an intricate outline of the novel, then you are set up to start to write. If not, check out my tips on how to craft a perfect novel outline here.
Now all you have to do is … unleash. Let all the creative ideas you’ve stored up in that beautiful brain of yours pour out. It’s not going to be pretty. It’s more like … splatter art. If you squint from afar, you will probably get a general sense of the shape and rhythm of it. Up close, it’s more of an oh no.
For Your Eyes Only!
I would highly recommend never showing anyone your first draft. This is personal. There’s a lot of ideas in there that are awesome, and as things are hammered out, it’s going to be really lovely. And I get you really want to share, and people in your life might be asking to see what you’ve got going on.
But an outsider might not be able to see your vision yet. They are not inside your brain; they don’t have access to that potential. I’ve made this mistake before, and it can be confidence-crushing.
It’s also hard on your loved one who’s like (with a fake cringe-smile because they don’t know what to say without shattering you): Wow! You wrote a novel! (pause) Cool!
And bless you all who have gone through this with me. Earlier on in my writing career, I would share work WAY too early, and it didn’t offer me the encouragement I would have hoped.
Your Muse is On Vacation
I find when I’m deep in writing my first draft, I have only two modes. Sometimes it’s absolutely euphoric. I am ON, paragraphs are flowing fully formed from my finger. And other times it’s like I’m ripping my fingernails out one by one in order to get words on the page. No matter how you’re feeling, it’s super important that you keep your butt in your chair and keep on going.
I find the longer I work at grinding out out hard parts, the easier the euphoric easy part comes. It is a muscle that needs training and practice. Do not, I repeat DO NOT wait for your muse to come. Sometimes it’s just going to be hard work that makes you want to tear out your brain. Fun, right?
Ignore Needed Descriptions or Research
The very last thing you should do at this stage is take the time to browse Pinterest for the right decor, or plunge into the rabbit hole of the internet to find out how long, exactly, do bees hibernate.
Stay away from the web as much as possible! It will suck all your time away. Just make a note to yourself to look into this later, and move on to the next plot point. Does this mean your first draft is, essentially, unfinished? Absolutely. So what? The next stage, the first editing stage, is where you get to go into all of those details. And then, I swear to you, you can take days to find the perfect setting for the scene where your hero finally proclaims his love. But do not interrupt the flow!!
Ways Your First Draft Will Suck
Here are some ways your first draft might suck. These are definitely true in all my manuscripts. I throw out the rule book when it comes to good writing, then clean it all up later. Comment if you can relate, or have other ones that really eat at you!
Backstory Info Dumps
It’s so hard to avoid this one. Sometimes you’re thinking: I have got to get this information in somewhere – this page right here seems like an okay place to just put all of it!
My advice is to stick it in there and leave it for now, but also as you write you’ll probably find more natural ways to convey the information that doesn’t take the reader entirely out of the story, hopefully through dialogue or character insights. You’ll end up removing the information dumps in later edits anyways. I think with the first draft, the point is to put everything in. This is you telling the story to yourself, so don’t leave parts out. In later edits, when you are writing for the reader, you’ll want to finesse these.
These babies are going to rear their ugly head here. The things you haven’t considered yet will receive your attention, the ‘oh wait, that can’t actually happen’ moments. This is all normal. Do not stop to reorganize your plot at this point! The best thing you can do is acknowledge the plot hole. Break out those square brackets to write out why it doesn’t work, and any possible solutions to fix them. Now is not the time to go back and edit! [Acknowledge and move on]
More Questions Than Answers
You go into your first draft with so many unanswered questions. And as you write, probably more questions will come up initially than answers.
As I’m writing, I often come to a section where I’m asking myself a lot of questions. I just type the question directly into the manuscript, within square brackets. This allows me to not stop my flow while I’m considering answer that hasn’t been created yet. Because, as with all questions that come up in your novel, you as the creator are the only one who will find the answers.
Often the answer will appear as you continue on, and you have an aha! moment. If this doesn’t happen, you might need to wait until your first edit when your dredging through the manuscript, trying to pick out all the loose ends that need to be tied together, and at that point there is a more obvious solution.
Or maybe later on you’re going to throw this one out to your critique group/best friend/favourite editor for help – sometimes others can see what you can’t when you’re too close up
The answers will come to you, whether it’s while you’re writing, while you’re dreaming, or while you’re banging your head against a rock: they will come to you.
He growled, she protested, he exclaimed, she hissed! They can’t stay, but they are perfectly acceptable here.
These are words that are descriptive enough to let my future self know where the emotion is, how the characters are reacting. For the most part, though, it’s generally considered bad writing to include dialogue tags that are anything more than (he said, she said). They should be used for clarity, not for description, and only when necessary.
Once you get into the edits, you can rewrite these sentences in a way that captures the emotion you want to create, without the use of descriptive dialogue tags.
On a similar note, it’s the same with filter words. Every other sentence in my first draft starts with: she felt, she saw, she heard. Mainly this is just about describing my main character’s feelings and actions, but they won’t make the final cut. The feelings will remain, but these filter words will eventually be filtered out!
How to get from point A to point B? Sometimes it’s difficult to get this right. Rather than agonize over the appropriate and entertaining way one scene moves into the next, I would recommend banging out a few sentences to sketch it out.
If you’re working with a good outline, and you’re getting a bit stuck, it’s sometimes enough to just power through something awful to get to the next part. It will be cleaned up later, but don’t get bogged down by details like that.
All of the adverbs everywhere
Everything is quickly, gently, stupidly stupidly stupidly! Yes, we hate adverbs, but they also serve a purpose. My first draft is littered with adverbs. This is still me telling myself the story – and adverbs provide accurate and quick descriptions of actions. I don’t want to keep them in there at the end, because I’ll later on think of more descriptive ways to convey this information.
And listen, just because it’s BAD doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be FUN. To me, outside of the initial brainstorming period when I’m just throwing every idea I can come up with at a piece of paper, this is by far the most creative, liberating and fun part of the writing process. When I am able to get into a free-flow writing space, the ideas that come at me sometimes just work so well together that I feel like it’s a process happening outside of me.
So you might have figured out that my first draft basically looks like an annotated skeleton of what might be a story someday. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard not to cringe when you reread it. You might be thinking at this moment: I am the worst writer in the entire world and there is no way I can possibly ever do this.
Would you believe me if I told you it’s all a part of the process?
The excellent news: You have a first draft written! Is your novel finished? Not even close. Is it the next step you needed to take to get this book written? Yes. It’s not supposed to be good. It just has to exist.
Now that you have a manuscript written, it’s time to set it aside. The editing will come, but right now your brain is tired of this story and needs a break. It’s not going to do great work for you right now. I’ve read advice to not even reread the manuscript for at least two weeks; a month is better. I often go 6-9 months before I dive into an edit. It’s time to work on other projects, or start a new one!
Check out some of the fun things you can do to reward yourself for doing such good work here.