Yesterday, my amazing CP, Alison, wrote an equally amazing guest post for YAHighway. It got me thinking about my own writing process.
A couple weeks ago, I finally finished the manuscript I’ve been working on since June. Right before Christmas, I posted on Absolute Write looking for a couple beta readers. I told them I’d just finished my first draft and needed fresh eyes before submitting to my agent. I had some great people offer to read, and they all told me the same thing. When they saw the words “first draft,” they got really nervous, until they started reading and realized it read like a later draft.
“Well,” I said, “I guess technically it’s not a first draft when I think about it, but in a way it is.” Which, I realize, makes no sense. Around this time my agent tweeted that she’s convinced everyone’s first drafts are complete crap. Everyone.
This all got me thinking: what is a first draft?
See, I consider my first draft to be the first one I complete. When I type those last few words and lift my fingers from the keyboard, I have finished my first draft. But I don’t think it’s crap, necessarily (depends on the day, haha), because I’ve already worked it to death by the time I finish. Technically, I suppose, it could be thought of as a second draft, or even third–but that feels weird to me, since it’s the first time I’ve finished. See how I talk it in circles? It’s kind of confusing, so let’s back up.
Google “writing advice.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. One of the first links you’ll get is a post called 21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors. I linked it for you in case you didn’t Google it. The very first tip comes from Ernest Hemingway. It says basically the same thing my agent tweeted. If you keep going through the links, though, or talk to the majority of writers, or read writing blogs or websites, you’ll inevitably see these words over and over again: “Don’t self-edit. Just write the first draft, then go back and edit later. Keep that momentum going.” Pretty much everyone hands out this little piece of advice like Halloween candy.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they’re wrong. Dead wrong. Don’t close the page just yet, hear me out.
Ever read Query Shark? Janet Reid gives excellent advice for writing queries. One thing she constantly harps on is following the rules. No rhetorical questions, no gimmicks, no first person, start with the plot, etc, etc. However, she says once you have a good grasp of the rules, they can be broken. The famous example of this is the wonderful Josin McQuein’s query. It breaks all the rules, but is so darn captivating it doesn’t matter. (The book, by the way, is also excellent. Go pick up a copy. Get Arclight while you’re at it. You’ll thank me for the cover alone. All the pretty!). Man, I’m all about some links today!
Janet’s query advice should extend to all writing. When you’re just starting, yes, follow the rules. If you’re having trouble getting motivated to write, by all means just get words on the page. Get the first draft down, however crappy and messy and convoluted it may be, and fix it later. I started this way. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote.
But it didn’t work for me. By the time I finished, I had SO MANY WORDS! Plots that started and dropped off. Threads that twisted into a tangled mass. Characters that weren’t consistent. Revising was such a headache. I would look at the draft and think “I can never do this. It’s too much.” You know what? I was right. I got overwhelmed by the amount of work the first draft would need. It was like finding some pretty necklaces at a yard sale, but they’re all in a box together and the chains are intertwined. You try to tease out the couple you like, but everything is so tightly knotted you just throw the whole mess down and say screw it.
Then I found my CP. We started working together by exchanging a few chapters at a time, initially of a finished draft, and then of a WIP. I’d write a few, then she’d email and ask how the writing was going. So I’d send her the pages, she’d send feedback, and I couldn’t not go through her comments when I got them. (How do you like that little double negative? Here’s another). Then I couldn’t not incorporate changes and fix problems she’d noticed. Next thing I knew, I had a finished first draft that read more like a second. I self-edited. And I didn’t die. (By the way, I totally have this scene from Mean Girls in my head. Except insert “self-edit” for “sex,” and “write terribly” for “pregnant.”) My writing didn’t suffer. In fact, I think it got better.
My most recent WIP went through lots of changes I as wrote. I ended up plotting more than I ever have, even though I didn’t marry my outline or anything.The initial words that went on the page: yeah, they were crap, but I fixed them as I went. I rewrote the beginning and moved chapters around. It went slower than any other ms I’ve written, which frustrated me. I’ve always thought of myself as a quick writer. When I think about it, though, it really took the same amount of time. Before, I wrote the first draft in three months, and revised for three. This time around it took six to get through the “first draft,” but it wasn’t the sloppy, just-get-words-on-the-page kind of draft I used to turn out. It was polished, edited, neat. Reading back through and revising was a breeze.
So, self-edit, or don’t self-edit. Revise chapter by chapter, or revise all at once. Follow the rules, or break the rules. It doesn’t matter. Just write it. Everyone is different, and everyone works in their own way. There is no one size fits all writing advice. Find what works best for you and do it.
I’ve heard a few writers refer to their first drafts as “draft zero.” Personally, I’m not sure what to call mine. First draft? Second? Fred? Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter (although I’m partial to Fred). As long as the ms you finally query, or submit to your agent, or whatever, is polished, who cares what you call it? Forget rules and advice and labels and everything. Clear your mind of all but the story, and write.