Episode 28: Why Your First Draft Doesn't Have to be Magical
Hello and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster. Today I want to talk a little bit about first drafts, more specifically why we shouldn't expect gold the first time we write "the end".
First, though, I want to update you on my writing life because that's what I do here, right? At the end of August I received a rejection letter from The Sun for my short story The Snowbank. I love this story so much, but am having a very difficult time placing it. I'll be submitting it to a few more publications. Hopefully one of those submissions will be a yes. In case you haven't realized it yet, writing equals a whole lot of no's and very few yes's. Adding to that rejection, I also received a rejection for my novel, Catching Fireflies, from one of my dream agents. I still haven't heard back from the agent that requested the revise and resubmit, but I'm hoping to hear back before January 2021. If I don't hear back by then I'll just assume it’s a no. 7 months is long enough. I did see a horrible tweet the other day where a woman just received a rejection for her manuscript. She submitted to this agency 3 years ago. Here’s a little tip to agents, if it's been 3 years you can assume that we've moved on.
Courtney Maum says that your book isn't really ready to go until you've gone through around 4 drafts and I've found, at least for me, that this is 100% true. Take my most recently completed novel for example. When I first completed it in November of 2018 I had a word count of 58,000 words. I also had a very shallow character and not a lot of what I needed to make a compelling story. I had a sexual abuse survivor who had tried to commit suicide, failed, and returned home to live with her mother. I had a dysfunctional relationship between her and her mother and a too-perfect one between the MC and her sister, despite the fact that she abandoned her little sister a decade ago to vanish into the night. What little sister isn't going to be harboring some bad feelings about that?
Now, with me I tend to work through a second draft very quickly. The real work, aside from writing the damn thing in the first place, comes when I get to draft three. That's when I really start to consider the motivations of my characters, what situations I can introduce to up the conflict, and how much deeper I should go with each character. Here's the thing; with each draft I added 8 - 10,000 words because I was going deeper into the story and the characters and the messes they kept creating for themselves. Finally, at the beginning of draft four I needed 14,000 more words to get the book to industry standard so that an agent would look at it. For women's fiction the standard is 80,000 words. When I got into the draft I noticed my MC didn't have a lot of interactions with people outside of work and home, so I made it a point to add a few. I also wanted to add more of her stepfather and neighbor into the story because they didn't feel rounded out enough. When I finished that draft I had 82,000 words, and I was happy with it. The story was told.
Then an agent requested a full and suggested that I make a few more changes, so fifth draft it was! After those revisions I came out at 91,000 words and a story that I am proud to say I wrote.
Well, you ask, what about those authors who say they turned in their first draft to their editor and it was "almost perfect." Let me tell you this, I know those writers (could name them, but I won't) and that is not their first draft. They may not have twenty-five revision files sitting in their documents folder, but I can assure you they have been back over that manuscript time and time and time again. I know a couple of writers who go back and edit previous chapters at the beginning of every writing day. For example, let's say Writer Cindy wrote two chapters on Sunday. She couldn't write on Monday for whatever reason. Maybe she takes Monday's off. Anyway, when she opens the file on Tuesday to write, she goes back to those chapters written on Sunday and reads through them to make corrections or revisions before moving on to write new material. Nothing wrong with this method, but this gives the sense that they're turning in a first draft. They are not.
Also, stop comparing yourself to Writer Cindy.
I know I haven't been validated by the publishing world yet, so you can take what I say with a grain of salt. However, I'm going to tell you three reasons why your first draft doesn't have to be "perfect".
No draft is perfect. Period. Anne Lamott wasn't kidding when she said it's okay for a first draft to be shitty and neither am I. I'm a moderate reader. Maybe 25 books per year. I think I'm at 18 books for 2020 so far. Yes, I'm behind. My point, not even those finely polished, traditionally published books were perfect. It's time we stop striving for perfection and remind our brains that nothing is perfect - Nothing - and our first drafts are allowed to be the most imperfect of all.
Your first draft is simply you telling yourself the story. Think of it as a very detailed outline. One that you can just improve upon until it's a bonafide story ready for the world.
Writing is hard work.
Let me explain this last bit. I'm in an MFA program. In that program I've met a number of very "green" authors. To them I am a jaded old hag who's lost her passion for this work. When one of my classmates starts waxing poetic about the muse and how we all must dance with it, or whatever, I'm the first one to say, the muse has no place in professional writing. It's another of those myths. Have you seen The Muse with Albert Brooks and Sharon Stone? That is not writing.
Undoubtedly someone is shouting at me now, "You shut your blasphemous mouth!" But, I can't hear them so it's okay. And, if they want to wait around for some muse to whisper in their ear or sprinkle stardust on them, that's cool. Me? I'll be seated at my desk getting some words in when all I really want to do is go back to bed or play State of Decay 2.
How many times have you told someone you're a writer and they say, "Oh, I thought about writing a book!" as if it's the easiest thing in the world? Too many times for me, thank you very much. The average person really has no idea how difficult it is to be a writer. It's Hollywood's fault, for sure. They've glamorized the profession, made it seem like big advances are the norm for everyone, you're always with the same publisher, and the profits from your first book are enough to live on and buy that big mansion in the hills. That may be the norm for 1% of the writing population, but the other 99% had to take off those rose-colored specks and take a look at the harsh realities of the writing world.
It's mostly Nos
It costs a hell of a lot of money
Most people don't get to live the "full time writer" dream life.
**Please note: As someone currently living the full time writer dream life, it isn't what it's cracked up to be.**
Writing is rewriting. We've all heard it and, if you're a professional writer, you've lived it. You know that the first draft doesn't have to be perfect because you know that writing "the end" doesn't mean you're anywhere near finished.
I was in a Facebook group a couple of weeks ago and saw a writer's post about finishing their first draft. The author said they were sending the completed draft to their editor that day and would be publishing in two weeks. My first question was, of course, how on earth will the editor get the suggested edits back, the writer complete them, the editor go over the revisions, and betas read before it is published in two weeks?
How does that even make sense?
I will admit, there are a whole lot of behaviors in the indie publishing community that don't make sense (more on that in an upcoming episode), but this publishing a first draft has vexed me for a long time. Then I realized what most of these publish-button-happy writers haven't, writing is hard work.
It took me 5 drafts to get the story right (well, right enough to submit to agents). For other writers it takes 3 and for many others take 7 or 8 or 10! But one thing I know for sure, a first draft is not ready for publishing. You are not the exception. Very, very few people are.
So let your first drafts be as shitty as they need to be. Finish it, write "the end", and have a celebratory whatever, then put it in the drawer and walk away from it for 4 to 6 weeks. Stephen King says it should take no longer than 3 months to write a novel. I think for him that may be true. For the rest of us, though, I'd say the number should be doubled.
3 months to write draft 1 (no need to stress yourself), 4 - 6 weeks rest, and the rest to edit and revise.
This method isn't conducive to rapid-release publishing, but you shouldn't be doing that anyway. More on that in a later episode.
So those are my thoughts on why your first draft doesn't have to be perfect. I know there's all this noise in the writing community where people toot their own horns. All that tooting becomes overwhelming and makes us start to question our own methods and instincts when it comes to writing. One thing I've learned in my time here in the land of writers and writing is that writers lie. That's what we do, right? We make up stories to entertain readers. We also make up stories to hide what we perceive as our shortcomings. Think Nicole Kidman's character Devlin in "Just Go With It". She always felt superior to Jennifer Aniston's character Katherine, so when they bump into one another in paradise Devlin keeps up pretenses that she's in the perfect marriage and her life is perfect. Turns out, Devlin's marriage is a disaster and she's just as insecure about herself as Katherine is about herself. Writers are no different. We put up a good front:
We tweet, "Just got another rejection. YEAH!" while tears drop on our keyboards and our wounded hearts struggle to pump.
We say, "Write for you, no one else!" while desperately checking our emails in the hope that one of the million agents or publishers we've submitted to will just say yes.
And we tell other writers things like, "My first drafts don't need much editing" knowing full-well that the reason they don't need a ton of editing is because we went back through the manuscript over and over and over again to make sure that "first draft" was as close to perfect as possible.
I suppose what I'm really saying to you today is this: Don't listen to the noise. No one has a perfect first draft and you damn sure won't either. Writing takes time. A LOT Of time. It takes patience and it takes perseverance. It is a business, like any other, and there are very few fairytales. You have to put in the work to get a product that's worthy of publication, whether it's traditional or indie, and you have to really, really want it because aside from being a parent and a spouse, being a writer is the hardest thing I've ever done.
Good luck and, as they say, God speed.
That's all for this week. Next time I'll be talking about how to handle critique. Fun times, fun times!
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If you'd like to know what I'm up to when I'm not talking to you about writing, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram, @saybeller. You can also find this podcast on Twitter (@WritingThingPod) and Instagram (@AboutThisWritingThing).