My First Draft

As I write this, I'm coming to the end of a first draft. The novel in question is the fifth book I've written over the course of my life so far, and it is a prequel to Ash. As many a writer will tell you, every book is different. I've discovered that this time, for the first time, my first draft really, truly feels like a first draft. Let me explain. When I wrote my first three books, I was a teenager. At the time, I really wanted to be a writer, but I didn't quite understand the work that entails. So these three novels never made it to second-draft stage. That means they're still in pretty bad shape and I'm not planning on sharing them, like, ever. But the good news is that they were super fun to write. Back then, I was writing for myself alone, and that meant I was free to write whatever I wanted. I had no editor in my head; it was pure play.

So when I completed the first drafts of those books, I looked at them and went, "Huh. Now what?" I put them away, that's what. I had little idea of what revision even meant, and I had to get back to my homework.

When I wrote the first draft of Ash, I was working full-time and trying to make ends meet as a struggling freelance writer. I think I remember a burst of happiness when I reached the last word (the first time), but I didn't do a lot of rejoicing, because by then I knew what lay ahead if I really wanted to get anywhere: more work. I printed it out and sent it to a friend to read before I lost my nerve.

Several weeks later, my friend sent back my manuscript with a very nicely written letter attached. There were comments. Those comments made me realize there was a fundamental flaw with Ash, and that correcting it would mean rewriting approximately 90% of the book.

I spent another couple of years writing that second draft. But I think of it more as draft 1.5, because so much of it changed (all of it for the better).

This time, the novel I'm writing feels definitively like a first draft. Due to the requirements of my publisher, I've had to write a synopsis for this book, followed by a chapter-by-chapter outline, followed by an initial 75 pages. And now I'm writing the first draft. I didn't love writing the synopsis or the outline or the first 75 pages, but I can tell you that all this prep work has made writing the remainder of the first draft a much more contained experience.

In other words, I know where I'm going (generally). And as I push forward through the outline, turning it into a book, I can see where the gaps are. It's sort of like I'm on a train, and sometimes I see something in the distance that I'd really like to look at more closely, but oops! We've already passed it. I've been making notes so that I can remember to revisit those scenes that slide past my window.

It also feels like a first draft because I can feel where I'm going to have to go back and punch things up. I can tell that a certain story line has to be fleshed out, that some characters have to be entirely reworked, that specific background information is missing and needs to be researched. But this is a first draft, I'm telling myself. I keep moving forward, because I know that there will be a second draft, and probably a third (hopefully not a fourth), in which I will fill these things in.

Now, I'm laying the bricks. That's what happens in a first draft, and for the first time in my experience as a writer of novels, I can see that I'm building something. Sure, I'm sticking the bricks in place with a layer of mortar, but it's rough — and it's not exactly pretty yet. In the second draft, I'll smooth out the mortar; in the third, I'll do touch-ups.

I'm pretty excited that I can see this whole process so clearly for the first time. Ash was like feeling my way through the dark; for this book, I turned the lights on.

This post also appears at Word Ninjas, Ink.