Four Rules for Surviving a First Draft

A first draft is a battlefield of ideas tearing themselves apart. As you charge for the objective, injured ideas beg for your attention, plotting errors lead to landmines going off seemingly at random, research fox-holes beckon you to take a break and dive into something safe and intriguing, and critics (internal and external) direct bullets of self-doubt and flamethrowers of fear. But you have to get to the other side, because that, soldier, is your job. You want the shiny ribbon they hand out with a finished piece of writing (it’s a lie, there is no ribbon, but sometimes there’s money)? You want to repose in the comfortable fields called ‘draft revision?’ Then here is the best advice I know how to give to get you across that tormented murder-land called a first draft.

1.      Don’t stop writing.

All right now, remember. A war is mostly running. We run whether we are defending or attacking. If you can’t run in a war then it’s already over. – Shichiroji, in Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa

Basically, you have to keep going in order to get to the end. So whatever you do, don’t stop advancing. There are two big reasons for this; it keeps up your momentum, and it’s more efficient. The momentum part should be fairly obvious, so lets talk about the efficiency:

“You can write one chapter ten times, or ten chapters once. They’re the same amount of work, but one of them gets you a novel.” – Michael A. Stackpole

That ten spotty chapters might be better than one very polished one might not be obvious to you, but I assure you it is much better for the following reason: you can’t edit a novel that doesn’t exist. Editing requires a knowledge of the whole in order for due attention to be given to the part. So a lot of the editing you do on that one perfect chapter will end up wasted effort.

One of the best kept secrets in writing long-form narrative (screenplays, novels, articles, doesn’t matter) is that the author seldom knows for sure where a piece is going until they arrive. Only in later revision do we go back and make it look like we knew all along, by sneaking in foreshadowing and setting up details that will turn critical later. What this means for rule number one is that you should not take time off from advancing the narrative to fix things – you’ll be doing major draft revision anyway, so you might as well save the housekeeping for later.

To put it another way; there’s little value to cleaning the windows before you’ve finished installing the walls. Therefor, keep your eyes on the prize: finish the draft.

This rule is so important and so counter-intuitive, that a huge portion of my job as a writing teacher is reminding people of it. Every writer I know, myself included, has at some point caught themselves painting tile arrangements in a house with no roof. Then it turns out the tiled wall was not constructed properly to support the roof, and so the tile ends up in the rubage heap. Don’t do detail work until you’ve got the macro-structure built. And I mean built, not plotted or planned – an outline is not the same as a draft. You want a draft because the process of drafting involves a fair amount of discovery. It is often those discoveries that bring the most color to a story, and until you have discovered them, you can’t properly edit for them.

Keep a separate notepad with a list of things you’ll need to go back and edit later. For example:

  • Chekov uses a gun in act two, so find a wall to hang it on in act one.
  • Side character Meghann turned out to do really interesting things in the second half, maybe combine her with b-story Jackson, so she can be interesting in the first half too?
  • Werewolves are a thing in this world starting on page 103. Who knew? Probably should mention that sooner considering what happens to Tom’s cat.
  • Holy carp! I just realized I’m writing about fishermen and the ending is a MIND BLOWING metaphor about tides going out and I have no idea how tides work or when they happen! RESEARCH TIDES. ALSO CARP.
  • Etc.

Even if you want to change completely trivial details, like the name of a character, do not go back and change it right away, but just add it to your list.

  • Tom is named Bob starting on page 25. Deal with it, future me.

In essence, do no editing until your first draft is done. Don’t let the pen leave the page. Keep on, keep up, and don’t stop writing. Except…

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