First Drafts


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Don’t expect perfection in a first draft.
Don’t even expect coherence.

One’s first draft isn’t so much a solid entity as it is an amorphous, adaptive, multi-functional and cluttered embryonic mass that will one day give birth to a polished manuscript, ready for publication. This gestation process is part rough outline, part sketchpad, part journal, part cheat sheet, part receptacle and part dream-catcher for ideas both clever and foolish. (The foolish ones will be gradually, eventually replaced by bouts of brilliance, of course.)

Every writer will experience a unique and different approach to writing a first draft. (Spoiler: There ain’t no single way!) For some writers—not many, but a few—each page will emerge pristine and complete as is. Those writers are basically drafting, editing, re-editing and polishing each page in their heads before continuing to the next page. For the rest of us, however, our first draft is (or will be) a hot mess, filled with gaping plot holes and various discrepancies, half-baked thoughts and overtly flowery prose—all waiting for an eventual fix in subsequent drafts.

Writing a novel-length manuscript involves a two-step process: Part 1. The Idea. And, Part 2. The Implementation. For most writers, creativity isn’t difficult. We’re all daydreamers at heart. The difficulty lies in which of those ideas can best be refined to produce relevant prose. Sometimes, the chasm between The Idea and The Implementation may seem impossible.

Part 1. Perceiving a potential novel—those weeks or months or years spent contemplating a story—that’s pretty much quantum thinking. Fragmented concepts spin around our heads like graffiti at Marti Gras, thoughts about this-or-that coming and going in no particular order. But then we must gather the chaos…

Part 2. Once a writer begins to put thoughts on paper, one word at a time, word after word after word, that’s linear thinking. Basically we’re taking a bloated, unwieldy ball of random ideas and filtering them through a very small cerebral nozzle—one painstaking sentence at a time.

Not everybody attempting a first novel can make that transition. At least, not easily. Our right-brain (the creative side) is handing the baton to our left-brain (the logical, orderly side). A good many beginning novelists fumble the baton at this point. The successful ones pick it up again and keep running.

A first draft is that fusion of quantum thinking crashing into linear thinking. Some thoughts will transcribe smoothly to the page, but others emerge kicking and screaming and not very sure if or where they belong. But a first draft allows all those free-flowing thoughts a place to safely crash-land—many only temporarily—and then recover. Think of an oil painter who roughly sketches an idea on a canvas with a pencil before beginning to apply paint. A writer’s first draft is very much like that sketch. You’re not really sure what the final results will look like, but at least you have an idea. It’s a start.

The key is to not expect immediate satisfaction in a first draft. You’re not looking for any sort of perfection or brilliant prose (although you may see bits and pieces of future brilliance begin to take shape.) Because a first draft is simply a tool meant FYEO, and one that often explores various changes to your story before you find the best way forward. Those writers expecting (or attempting) perfection with their first draft most likely won’t complete that novel—they’ll burn out first from mental exhaustion long before they can reach The End. And that’s only because they’re incorrectly using that tool. Some writers might finish those thoughts in a 2nd or 3rd draft, but most of us will redraft a dozen, two dozen, times before we’re ultimately happy with the results. But there’s no single way to successfully draft a novel. Every writer will have a different approach. The key is finding the one best suited for your needs.

A Comprehensive Illustrative Guide to the
Intentionality and Complexity of a First Draft

Essential Q & A

Q. What’s the difference between an outline and a first draft?

A. Typically (not always, but often) an outline can be created as a prelude to a first draft. Or, conversely, one might consider a first draft a framework of individualized, itemized plot-points, merged together to form a slightly more coherent overall concept. (Refer to The Outline in Where To Start if necessary.) Some writers’ outlines organically morph into first drafts, while others more resemble Outline v2.0. Some writers will hone and rewrite their outlines as a completely separate entity, until they feel comfortable beginning a first draft that might feel like a nearly finished novel. Doesn’t really matter what your outline looks like—so long as it’s comprehensive enough to fulfill your needs as an effective blueprint (e.g.; foundation, guideline, cheat sheet, operations manual, roadmap, master plan) for your subsequent fictional work.

Typically (again, not always, but often) one’s outline is plot-centric. Meaning that a writer is attempting to cobble together a cohesive plot from A-to-Z, but little else at this point. Some writers won’t attempt to define or hone their characters, personalities, motivations, until starting to draft their story. Only during a first draft will a writer begin to overlay bits of literary muscle and flesh to an outline’s skeletal framework.

Q. Should I outline before beginning a first draft?

A. It’s not mandatory. While both practices can be extremely important to story development, creating an outline isn’t absolutely necessary before beginning to write a first draft. S’up to you!

Q. Must my outline continue chronological from the first page of a story until the last page?

A. No. Some ideas begin mid-story, and an outline can continue forwards or backwards. Other writers will pause to create a partial outline only if they’re bogged down in a scene or chapter. Again, an outline is simply a tool that can help a writer move forward and/or more fully develop incomplete thoughts. If that tool isn’t necessary, there’s no need to utilize it.

Q. What’s the difference between a first draft and a second draft?

A. Depends upon your approach. There’s really no structural guideline between a first and second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) draft. Typically, any subsequent draft is a continuation of those alterations and additions begun in a previous draft—although in reality, one can transform a first draft into a final polished manuscript, if that’s the way your brain works.

For many writers (myself included), a second draft is really a mishmash of multiple, partial re-edits and rewrites. Personally, I’ll outline any scene or chapter as it occurs to me, sequentially or not. Even if I’m just beginning a novel, should some obscure Act III scene come to mind, I’ll outline that immediately, while my thoughts are still fresh. And should my story’s conclusion gel in my head—very often I begin a story with only a hazy ending in mind—I’ll immediately stop writing and draft as much of my last chapter as I can. Once I know, or even intuit, my conclusion, I find it much easier to move my characters toward that final destination. Far fewer wrong turns or dead ends, once everyone in my story knows where they’re going.

Q. How complete should/must my outline be?

A. Again, totally your call. An outline (or first draft) can be as simple or complex as necessary for your needs. Once you’re certain of your way forward, those tools have served their purpose. I create an outline for multiple reasons. I’ll include a detailed timeline, should I find myself writing various characters who need to connect in a later scene or chapter. When necessary, I’ll time-stamp hours and/or days (e.g.; TUESDAY 4:30PM) to keep myself aware of the clock ticking. Too often, when writing side-stories or back-stories, it’s too easy to muddle times and dates. One thing about a book’s ending—everybody best show up on time. I’ll also use my outline as a ‘call sheet’—reminding myself which characters are in any particular scene, when they appear and why—just so I don’t inadvertently sideline someone. It’s imperative, when writing a new scene, that every character is ‘accounted for’ ASAP. Each character should be ID’ed within a paragraph or two—an essential part of scene-setting—to avoid sudden ‘unexpected appearances’ later in the scene… even if those character do little but sit silently in a dark corner and scowl. They must be presented to readers ASAP.)

My outlines typically begin small—maybe a page or two of hastily jotted ideas, sometimes on Post-It Notes that pepper my bulletin board. As my story progresses, I find myself adding bits and pieces of data and plumping out a scene’s core elements in various ways— even including snippets of dialogue or scene-setting that I might otherwise forget if not notated in the here-and-now. By the time I finish my novel’s final draft (usually 350-400 pages) my outline will have expanded by 40-50 pages. So, yes, an outline can be a multi-faceted tool for those of us who need constant reminders of where, when, where, why and how I’m attempting to tell my story.


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