First Drafts and Revisions

The first thing I realized as I was reading through the first draft of my current work-in-progress was this:

Finishing* one book does not, in any way, guarantee that I’ll be able to finish another.

What it does guarantee is that when I hit plot frustrations, moments of insecurity, and the absolute certainty that I will not be able to salvage the thing no matter what I do, it will all feel familiar. I have more than one memory of a pit opening up in my stomach as I scribbled edits on my printed-out pages: this critical plot point isn’t working. This event happens at the wrong time. This character would never say that. I cannot write my way out of a paper bag.

Of course all of these (except perhaps the last one) proved wrong, at least based on my subjective judgment. I have a plot that hangs together, my characters stay true to themselves, and I have wrestled the timeline into a sensible series of events.

But there is no rule of law, or rule of physics, that says because I got away with it once I’ll get away with it again.

Of course, I forget what kind of shape my finished novel was in after the first draft was done. There was a whole chunk of plot that wasn’t there at all. There was a whole POV I was resisting. Because I decided as I wrote who actually committed the crime, there was a lot of inconsistency and missing information in the first part of the story. And of course there were the typical first-draft issues: repetition, things dwelt on too long, things glossed over inappropriately. Not to mention a whole host of secondary characters I knew almost nothing about.

I’ve made this analogy before, but it really is very much like writing software. You start with a general goal, and you sit down and start writing code. As you go, you begin to realize the uglier details of your particular problem. Familiar tricks won’t work in this case; you need to try out some unfamiliar ones. There’s boilerplate you could use, sure; but in most cases it’s verbose and inefficient. Getting the program to work is only the first step, but that’s where you start. Your first pass may result in a program that solves the problem, but it’s going to be messy, ugly, and unsupportable. So you comb through it, and you start cleaning it up, and as you do your understanding of the problem becomes more refined, and you circle back, repeating your steps over and over until you have what you want.

Or maybe that’s just how I write software.

It’s certainly how I write a novel. My first draft (and I’ve grown so used to using NaNoWriMo for this that I’ve started referring to planned work as “my November novel”) is a frantic rush to get the idea on paper, as fully as I can. First draft revisions are where I start working through the plot – or, in both cases, actually adding to the plot. At some point I get a structure that’s more or less what I want, that gets at all the points I want to make.

That, I found, is the easy part. It’s not so bad, getting to a point where I can read through it and say “Yeah, with a little work this might be OK.”

Or, with a little work, the whole premise might completely dissolve.

I’ve been writing my whole life. I have finished first drafts of four novels. Two will never see the eyes of other human beings; I love them, but they were learning experiences. One has gone through multiple revisions, and is more or less where I’d like it to be.

And one is sitting on my iPad, in sprawling, unselfconscious, first-draft form, politely waiting its turn.

Some writers, I understand, sit down and make detailed outlines. By the time they start writing, they know every scene and every plot twist. I envy those people, but I’ll never be one of them, no matter how long I practice. My ideas are never crisp and clear. I start out with one scene, maybe even one conversation, and I start thinking “What if…” To find out “what if,” I have to write, and wander down some blind alleys before I can look back at what I’ve got and see the real path. My current first draft has got an awful lot of blind alleys, and I’m not feeling entirely confident that I’ll be able to wrestle it into something consistent.

Of course, there’s only one way to find out.

(*Finishing is a subjective term, of course.)

2 thoughts on “First Drafts and Revisions

  1. I myself do an outline, but it isn’t super detailed. It’s simply a summary of each chapter that will prevent me from catching writer’s block. My detailed outlines come in the revisions, but you just gotta write that draft and give it a chance. Drafts are supposed to be sloppy and messy. Mine certainly is. I hate drafting for that reason, but I have to get through it. I used to love drafting back when I was inexperienced and had no idea you needed to revise. I kept thinking, “I’m not revising. I did all this hard work of writing all these pages, so why should I have to repeat that? Wouldn’t drafting be pointless then?” Boy, have I learned a lot since then.

    1. I’ll always love drafting, I think, because in my head it will always be perfect once the revisions are done. 🙂 I’ve known people who get very close to a final draft with their first draft – boy, I envy them!

      It was kind of a revelation to realize that for me revisions meant basically rewriting huge chunks of the book. I try not to think about it that way, or you’re right – I’d never get anywhere at all.

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