Writing

It’s Just A First Draft

As of yesterday, I’m about 15,000 words into my first draft. Drafting has always been hard for me, but I’ve finally figured out a system that works for me. I set myself a daily word count goal and make sure I meet it every writing day. Once I do, I’m free to do other things, like send queries, critique for someone else, research new agents, write a blog post, enter contests, or read.

As a perfectionist, I have to remind myself that a first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. Here are a few of my mantras.

It’s ok to use cliches, repeated words, and common gestures. Of course these need to be minimal in a final draft, but a first draft is about getting the story out. I could easily let myself agonize over each sentence and how an agent or editor would tell me to fix it. Instead, I remind myself I can fix it when I revise. No one except me is going to see it in that state, and the placeholder cliche or ninetieth nod will stand out when I’m ready to spend the time on individual sentences instead of the overall story.

It’s ok to tell. I wish I could churn out a first draft with scenes that show my characters’ emotions and actions without having to tell the reader. I might have a lucky few passages like that while drafting, but there’s way more telling. I’m ok with that. I have to start somewhere, right? There’ll be time to eliminate those adverbs and narrative interruptions when I go back through the manuscript.

It’s ok if something doesn’t make sense. If you’re someone who can outline every plot point in advance and know exactly where the story’s going, good for you! As I explained in my post on outlining, I’m more of a loose plotter. I lay out scenes, but they often end up changing. I’ve already moved some around and had to insert new scenes just in the first 15,000 words. But being flexible means that sometimes something pops up in the story that I didn’t already plan for, and as a result, it doesn’t make sense. With my first novel, I would have gone back to fix the earlier scenes, but I’ve learned to leave it be until revisions.

It’s ok if you don’t know everything that’s going to happen. In line with the previous point, I don’t stress out if I don’t have everything figured out when I start drafting. Sure, it would be easier if I did, but it’s amazing what creative ideas show up while I’m typing. Non-writers probably don’t understand it when we say we didn’t know something was going to happen in the story we’re writing, but it’s so true! Yesterday I was typing along and a character I hadn’t intended to be in the scene showed up, greatly complicating things for my main character. I wasn’t really thinking about her. I was just typing and suddenly she was there. I really like the conflict she brings, so way to go, subconscious.

I guess the overarching reminder is: It’s just a first draft. Chances are I won’t keep fifty percent of the actual text of that draft. I’ll finesse that copy until it’s a showing, coherent, inevitable without being predictable story free of too many cliches or sighs. For now, I’ll focus on powering through to the end. Then I can get to the fun part, at least for me.

What do you have to remind yourself as you draft? Or do the little things not bother you in the first place?

7 thoughts on “It’s Just A First Draft”

  1. Your process sounds pretty similar to mine. 🙂

    I also set a daily word goal right from the beginning and do everything I can to stick with it. After I hit my goal, everything else is a bonus. I can either relax and focus on something else, or if I’m on the roll, I can continue writing and feel fabulous about it. But either way I’ve met my goal and I’m making progress.

    Your first two points are reminders that I draft by as well. I allow myself to write clichés and terrible analogies and I allow my characters to tell and occasionally even say cringe-worthy dialogue. As you said, it doesn’t matter because no one will see that draft except for myself, and it’s much easier to not worry about it now and get the story down, then go through it later to finesse the writing itself.

    As of late, I’ve been outlining, so that’s helped me as far as not knowing what will happen goes (which oftentimes would leave me struggling with what to write next), but as you said, my characters do still surprise me and sometimes they act differently than I’d originally planned, which is fine. I actually like when that happens, because to me, it’s a sign that my characters are really coming to life, because they’re improvising. 🙂

    But in the end, the number one thing I try to remember is your last point: it’s just a first draft. It can be terrible and ugly and the worst thing I’ve ever written and it doesn’t matter. Making it shine isn’t my job in the first draft—that’s what revisions and edits are for.

    1. Yes, I love it when the characters start doing their own thing. I needed to write this post for myself, but I’m glad it resonates with others, too. It’s always nice to know we’re not alone in our craziness!

  2. I recently completed a first draft where I took a similar approach. Now I’m digging out those clichés and rambling sentences. It’s true what they say… in order to edit you need to have something on the page. Congrats on reaching 15K!

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