While attempting to design a battery, Thomas Edison reportedly tried over 9,000 experiments that failed. Upon learning this, his associate, Walter S. Mallory, commented, “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?”
To which Edison replied, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.” (Quote Investigator)
I’m currently in the middle of first draft of my novel Mailboat, and that quote came to mind.
Some people love the sheer creativity of first draft. Me? The only reason I tolerate a first draft is so I can get down to the good stuff of revision.
Since my WIP already weighs in at somewhere around 40,000 words … and may actually be a two- or three-part series disguising itself as a single book … I have been desperately searching for worthwhile reasons to endure the agonies of first draft.
This blog post is for those people who can’t stand first draft. Who are weeping in their coffee cups asking, “Why?”
It is also for those people who have finished a first draft and are staring slack-jawed at the beast they have created, despairing whether they will ever mold publication-worthy material out of the morass.
Don’t Burn Your First Draft Before You Finish It
First draft can be depressing. I hate sitting down to add more words, knowing that none of them will be good, and few will make it into the finished book. My dialogue falls into a horrible pattern of material-in-quotes followed by “he said,” and I forget to describe anything about the setting, besides the ice cream cone in the POV character’s hand.
Glancing over my first draft, I often wonder, “Where was all my writing talent when I wrote this?!”
At this early stage in your book’s life, it’s frignteningly easy to believe that you are a fundamentally horrible writer. This little rain cloud of depression is even more dangerous if you’re working on your very first novel.
That’s why they tell you to turn off your internal editor when you’re still in first draft. Just close your eyes and power through it!
Yes, First Draft Is Good For SOMETHING
First draft isn’t meant to be genius – so don’t try to force it into being something it isn’t. Despite that, your first draft does serve a purpose.
First and most obvious, it gets the story down on paper. Every classic ever written was once a first draft. And chances are, the classics you know and love now are very different from the first drafts they once were.
Secondly, first draft is about getting a lot of horrible writing out of your system. This is where we hark back to the quote by Thomas Edison. It must just be something about the way the human brain is wired, but it seems like you often have no idea what you’re trying to say until you see that you haven’t said it.
Just like Edison couldn’t see how to invent a battery until he saw that he hadn’t yet invented it.
The genealogy of success is usually made up of a lot of failure. Somehow, we can’t see the light until we’ve seen the darkness.
Cough Up that Bad Writing!
For most writers, it’s no use to revise your first draft before you’ve finished it. (For other writers, it’s the only way; if this is you, ignore this section.)
Your subconscious knows the story you’re trying to write; it just has no clue how to express it. Before you start revisions, it’s important to cough up everything swirling through your head – in all it’s raw creativity and chaos – because it’s the only way to catch glimpses of what you were trying to say.
Once you’ve written clear through to the end, you’ll usually be able to look over the story as a whole and grasp what you meant to write.
Be an Optimist
You may think that rewriting is about finding and routing out all the bad in your manuscript. If you have that attitude, you’ll quit before you finish. (I remember the time I made the mistake of writing every scene on an index card, then tagging every index card with green post-its for good, and red post-its for bad. Wow. Never doing that again.)
Instead, adopt the mindset that you’re in it to find the good in your manuscript, and to polish all that good stuff to a high shine.
Even in the worst of manuscripts, there are bits and pieces of really good writing. Maybe your basic storyline is strong. Maybe your dialogue is perfect, right out of the box. Maybe you have a knack for exploring your characters’ inner thoughts. If you can’t recognize the genius in your own writing, rustle up some beta readers, join a critique group, take a few classes, or hire an editor. (Preferably all of the above.) When enough people tell you that you excel in a certain point, believe them.
Obviously, much of your manuscript will be honest-to-goodness bad writing. Still, I say … Be an optimist! Train your mind to look for the potential in every single line of your book. For what could be there, instead of what is there. With that mindset, your first draft will feel all bright and shiny – no matter how bad it is!
So that’s my Theory of Surviving First Draft. What about you? Do you hate first draft, too? How do you power through it?