The first draft of a story is many conflicting things. It’s an achievement when completed. An agonizing process, like birth, some might say. It’s a heady high where the purest essence of the creative spirit flies free. It is the dregs of an author’s talent and the height of his brilliance. It is, perhaps, the most crucial step an author must take because nothing else can happen until it is complete.
How can it be all those things? For each writer, the experience is different, and for each book, the journey of writing the first draft takes on new character. But at some point, most authors will experience those above states when writing the first draft of a story. Writing is, in it’s own way, a schizophrenic experience, but it’s also a great cleansing of the soul.
However, once a writer gets past the hurdle of finishing that first draft, perspective is essential. That giddy feeling of accomplishment should be enjoyed, but it shouldn’t be allowed to make a writer’s decisions. Nor should the self-doubt that often creeps in afterward. So, here are a few points to keep in mind when looking at your first drafts:
1. The first draft is often most likely to hold the true essence of a story or, to put it another way, to contain the foundations of the emotional impact. The problem writers can run into is that, often, this story essence is obscured in rough writing or writing that comes from the author getting lost with the story or imposing his uncertainties into the fiction, which pretty much always results in poorer product. The main point of editing afterward is to scrape away the flash and polish the beauty already there. When looking over a first draft, watch for that elemental essence so you can draw it forth in the editing process.
However, bear in mind that this polishing may take different forms based on the story. Of course, tightening the prose is always important, but some stories may require a great deal more work on restructuring. For example, some stories may have a solid plot structure but need the characters to bravely come out and deepen what’s already there, to ignite the story’s potential. Other stories may have wonderful characters with impactful insights and gripping goals, but when the author first let them loose, she didn’t give them a playground that lets them fully reveal themselves. In that case, the author may need to strip away flash and polish by altering some big plot elements. But always, root out and stay true to that living essence infused in the story, no matter how deeply.
2. First drafts are known as rough drafts for a reason. The first draft is where an author unloads everything for the story. The point isn’t to edit or trim. At least, it shouldn’t be. The point is to let the subconscious pour forth the story so we writers have material to mold into something readable and, hopefully, appealing. First drafts have lots of rough edges and flash that need trimming. So go at them with a critical eye, but don’t let your pruning sheers snip away the beautiful essence hidden amidst all the brambles.
3. First drafts are also just that, first drafts. They are meant to be followed by other drafts. That means, if something just doesn’t work, a writer has complete liberty and ability to change it. Just because something is in a first draft doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. First drafts are more like setting things in wax or soft clay. They can easily be altered and should be. Too, writers will alter some parts of a first draft a great deal, other parts a small amount, and a few areas almost not at all. However, that last category is usually the smallest.
4. First drafts are the arena for the creative unconscious, not the critical editor. It’s very difficult for you mind to successfully be two opposing forces at once. Creating and critiquing are opposing forces. Spare yourself some misery and keep them separate. Otherwise, the critical voice will call the creative voice all sorts of nasty names, tear up her poor, fragile self-esteem, and send her off the playground in tears. Then she’s unlikely to deliver those brilliant, insightful bits of story that make us tingle with pleasure. She’s far more likely to come up with shallow, unsatisfying narratives to appease us while not incurring the critical voice’s wrath.
Conversely, the critical voice cannot function at her best when she must constantly argue with the creative voice. She begins to second-guess her observations and decisions. The result is a shaky, worn out author and a story that falls far short of that author’s potential. I know some writers try to edit as they write, but nearly all successful writers that I know do not. It’s one thing to write a few chapters, then go back and give them a once over to make sure you’re headed in the way you want or to prune a few things along the way, but it’s entirely another to literally edit and create simultaneously.
5. First drafts are for fun. First entering a story and meeting its characters, turning unexpected corners, exploring are among the great joys of writing. Sure, there are moments when it’s frustrating, but this is where a writer plays. This is the time to experiment. This is when a writer should let everything loose and have fun. This is the time to let the power of your own creative spirit make big impacts. So when writing, don’t worry about the perils of first drafts like rough points or choking your authorial voice, focus on letting the power of creation out and enjoy the ride.