Wednesday, 10 September 2014

On Crap First Drafts and Listening to Your Inner Critic

I'm off to the Festival of Writing at York this weekend, which is both exciting and a little terrifying. Part of the package is two one-to-one meetings with agents (or book doctors, but I've plumped for the agents). When I originally booked to go to the Festival, I was hoping to have a polished draft of my novel in something close to its finished form. As it turns out, this was wildly optimistic of me. But that's okay, because being wildly optimistic is pretty much the only thing that keeps me going with this book-writing malarkey.

The changes I need to make to my book are so profound that I need to rewrite it. I can't edit my first draft into shape, I need to start over. Luckily, the opening chapter is one of the few that survived the cull, and this has been sent off, along with a brief synopsis, to the agents I am seeing at the weekend. The synopsis reflects the changes I intend to make in the next draft, which I've had a few months to think about, so that's okay too. And in the event that either of the agents wants to see more, I'll be honest and tell them how long I think it will take me to get the next draft whipped into shape. It's not like they'll be twiddling their thumbs waiting for my masterpiece.

Apart from planning the new and improved version of my book, I've been pondering how I got myself into this mess in the first place. We are told to allow our first drafts to be crap, but surely ending up with something that is un-editable is not the goal? So, where did it all go wrong?

First and foremost, I was too fixated on my word count. Not the daily word count, but the final one. Daily word counts are good. You need to be doing the work. But keeping a running total of those words, watching the total climb towards something vaguely book-length, can be a very bad idea. Some of those words belong in your draft, some don't. It becomes tempting to think of them as the essential building blocks of your book, and a such, you can't delete them. You just can't. It feels like pulling a block out from the bottom of a Jenga tower. And the longer you leave that brick in, the harder it is to pull it out. Eventually you can't even see it anymore, but it's in there, making your whole edifice unsound.

And that was the other thing I got wrong: being afraid to delete things, to change direction, to see that something wasn't working and to junk it. Time and again I was told: don't delete anything. Just write. For many people that is probably good advice. For me, it was disastrous. There were several points where I had moments of epiphany, better ideas that meant junking weeks or months of writing to make them work. I should have done it. None of the work was wasted - I had to go the wrong way to be able to recognise the right way when I saw it. But I was afraid to do it, afraid that I would lose the momentum, never finish that first draft if I kept second-guessing myself.

There is a big difference, though, between dithering over your first draft because you lack confidence and experience, and ditching a draft or part of a draft that you know is not working and is not going to work, especially when you have an inkling of what would work better.

I think this is especially true for me as I'm a panster, not a plotter. If you are writing to see where it takes you, you have to be prepared to recognise when you've got yourself down a blind alley. And it's not just about the plot. Quite early on, I started wondering if I should be writing this book in the present tense. Now I'm about to start the rewrite, it's blindingly obvious that I should have listened to myself. It's not just a matter of going through and changing the verbs. Using a different tense would have led to a different voice as well, maybe the voice I was looking for but never found in the whole of my first draft (apart from that one chapter I still like, that is written, surprise surprise, in the present tense).

So why did I stick so doggedly to a method that wasn't right for me? Mostly because it's only with hindsight that I can see the problems. And I do understand the rational behind the advice to just write it and let it be crap. I can see how constantly second-guessing yourself and trying to making everything right will stop you getting the first draft finished at all. Maybe if I had started making drastic changes, and cutting out big chunks, I would have started to lose confidence and momentum. It's impossible to know. But I do know that, for me, some courageous editing as I went along would have been entirely preferable to where I've ended up.

I'm still in a better place than I was a year ago. I'll be starting this second draft with much more courage and conviction. I'll write it the way I know best. I'll remember what's good about my short fiction and I'll bring that to my novel. I can't write a book I think people might want to read. I have to write the book I can write best.

So, here's a great big hug for all of you who cheered me on as I roared through that first draft. For a while there, I thought your faith in me had been misplaced. But remember that wildly optimistic streak of mine? It's back.

NOTE: Next up will be my contribution to the Writing Process blog tour. If ever there was an opportune moment to examine my writing process, it is now.


  1. Bah! I wrote a looooong comment and it's been gobbled. No time to re-write (ain't that the truth?) but just to wish you good luck with it and at York.

    1. Bah, stupid comment-eating gremlins. Thanks for the good wishes.

  2. I don't know nuthin much but just want to say well done on completing first draft. I bet a lot of people don't do that. I'm approaching the end of the first draft of my second book (and struggling on the ending). Maybe if you hadn't done it the way you did then you might not have a complete first draft to revise. That's a more important building block than those first draft words.

  3. great post - I know exactly what you mean, but very good luck in York and keeping going.

  4. Liked your analogy of the difficulty of taking out the brick. I agree with you, deleting is fun and easy(ish) but once you've set off in a particular direction with a first draft it's very difficult to turn it around. I wonder for myself whether I simply need to accept that I'll have to do rewrites rather than edits and go with the flow.
    You must be back from York now, hope it went well.