Your First Draft is NEVER Your Last
The hard-learned lesson that for me was impossible to be told and had to be experienced…and remembered.
While I will be the first to admit that I am impatient, I would definitely not be the only one to attest to that. Some small examples: I am terrible at waiting for presents (both the giving and receiving), I hate waiting in lines and on hold, and to my chagrin, I have been witnessed giving someone the “move it along” hand motion when they are taking a long time to explain something I already understand.(My husband would be willing to testify to this under oath.) But in writing, impatience has a way of setting you up for rough lessons in editing. Because no matter how good your writing is, your first draft has flaws. Not small, fix your overuse of the word “pedantic” flaws, but major, time-consuming flaws that necessitate long hard work.
I learned this in writing my first novel, which took me a solid year to write. It was huge and I had worked hard and was so excited that I was done. I knew that it needed to be cleaned up, typos and all that, but I was finished and so excited to share it. I ordered three copies made at the FedEx near me- spiral bound- to share with “readers”- unsure of who those would be, but ready to find them. When I went to pick it up at FedEx, one of the guys working there asked me if I had written it, I said I had, and he said that they were enjoying reading it. Made my day. Until I got home and started reading it myself and realized it was awful. It wasn’t that the story was bad, it was that I told everything that happened as if I was dictating the story to myself in a monotone. Like when someone tells you about their dream and they include everything as if the random cameo of their first grade teacher is as significant as the multi-headed snake they stabbed under the sink with a knitting needle. Tedious to listen to, horrible to read. I was grateful that I had picked up my order early and that the FedEx guys couldn’t have gotten very far.
I immediately regretted printing three copies, and wondered how I had missed this in all of my hard work. I recycled the copies and sat down to edit with the idea that I needed to show more, and not tell. Three months later, I submitted another print order at FedEx; this time only 2 copies which I planned to pick up promptly. The guy at FedEx remembered me and had more questions about the story. I chatted with him awhile, again feeling pretty good about being done. Until I sat down with one of the copies and realized it was still terrible. Yes, it was more interesting to read but it was so painfully linear that it felt stifling. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen this problem and had wasted more paper and money in my impatience to be done. Not to mention exposed myself, at least to the FedEx guy, as a poor writer.
This process of re-writing and structural editing persisted for a good year. I brought others into the process, opened myself up to reconsider that what I thought was done was actually a great beginning, and embraced the multiple draft approach to writing a novel. I cut out huge swaths of writing that I had spent months crafting, because I started feeling the excitement that comes from watching a story emerge. A story that has room for the reader. A story that understands itself. A story that is structured to both accommodate and play with a reader’s expectations.
It took many times printing out working copies, and though I look back and see all the mistakes and errors of my first book, I know that it is closer to the real story I was trying to tell then any of the drafts that came before it, and that makes me happy. There are countless articles, books and writing professionals who will attest to the value of multiple drafts and the rounds of editing needed. I encourage you to read them if that is how you learn. I am envious of your learning style and impressed with your rigor.
If, however, you are stubborn and impatient and resist learning from others, then I encourage you to write your first draft, print it out, and read it. Not on your screen. On paper. When you read it in a medium you cannot edit as you go, you begin to experience the distance from your writing that you need to see if it has legs. And I can promise you that you will be glad you did. So many books I have read have such good ideas in them, but sometimes, that is as far as they got. You need to let others read and offer significant edits to improve it. Your first draft is never your last draft.
You also need to remember that lesson. I didn’t. Because, as a profoundly impatient person, I started looking, unconsciously, for a faster way through the edits. I imagined that if I just wrote the first draft with the lessons I’d learned from my first novel, I could bypass all those long, time-consuming steps, and just make my first draft perfect. Hmm…that has turned into years of editing, and re-editing and never quite finishing. Though I have plotted the whole story out, and written 2/3 of the novel, I have written no less than 24 versions of the first chapter of my third book and am only now realizing that I need to stop, finish the first draft, print it out, and find my story within the printed page.
Your story has value. Give it the time it needs to be good. And if your impatience is driving you crazy, distract yourself by opening that birthday present you found that your partner stashed in their sock drawer…you can always re-wrap it. But don’t doom your novel to being just a good idea.
ps. When I finally finished my first novel, all three guys who worked at FedEx read it and told me how much they liked it. It made me so happy, I considered how satisfying it might be to only write for them. Then I thought that would make a good short story. I haven’t written it yet, but when I do, I swear to God that I am going to finish the first draft, print it out, and improve it. And my husband wants you to consider that you should only print one copy at a time…