The magic of the first draft


I have just written a rubbish book. You’re going to love it.

It has meant months of keyboard bashing. Scribbled plans on scraps of paper. Maps, inventories, a system of laws. I have held imaginary conversations with the characters, had arguments with them. We have told each other jokes. On at least one occasion we have got mildly drunk together.

And today I got to that wonderful point. The fabled last sentence. I didn’t actually write “the end”. That always feels a bit clichéd to me. But I’ve got to the point where “the end” would come. Job done, case closed, journey complete.

And it’s rubbish.

Maybe that needs a little clarification. When I say rubbish I mean …

It is riddled with spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes. The spell checker will have picked up the worst of them, but there will still be hundreds more.

The characterisation isn’t completely consistent. My main character does something in one chapter and something else in the next.

The dialogue style wanders from chapter to chapter. I have one character who starts out mumbling in dialect and ends up speaking perfect queen’s English.

There’s a flabby bit around the middle where a sub plot didn’t quite work.

I have one plot device that I only thought of three quarters of the way through the book. I decided that a particular group of people should all wear masks. A bit like a group identity. But because I only thought of it towards the end, I don’t have these characters wearing masks at the beginning of the book.

I have some action scenes that drag on for too long. And some slower scenes that are over and done with too quickly.

So, yeah, the book is finished and it’s rubbish. I couldn’t be happier.

That might sound like a contradiction, so let me explain. When I said I’d finished writing, what I mean is I have finished writing the first draft. And the first draft of a book is a much misunderstood and magical thing.

There are two common mistakes that people make with first drafts. I should know. I’ve made both of these mistakes. Several times.

The first mistake is thinking that the first draft is perfect.

It isn’t.

Trust me on this. I don’t need to read your first draft. You might think you are the exception. That your first draft is the best thing every committed to paper. And there is a lottery win chance that it might be. It’s theoretically possible. But almost certainly it will need some work. Probably a huge amount of work.

Your first draft will almost certainly need revising in ways that you won’t be able to spot. It is all too easy for authors to fall in love with their writing. Everybody’s baby looks beautiful to its parents, even if the rest of the world sees a wrinkled Winston Churchill mini-me with a total lack of discretion at either end of its digestive system.

That gets us to our second problem. Some people give up on the whole novel writing thing because their first draft is awful. They throw their hands up in despair. This is crap. I’ll never be able to write. I can’t do this.

They compare their first unpolished draft to their favourite author’s completed work and get the glumps. Why doesn’t mine look like his or hers?

But here’s the secret – it is okay for your first draft to be awful. Really, it is. The first draft is where you make your mistakes. You try out new ideas. You take risks.

I liken it to the early pioneers making a journey across America from New Yawk to the Pacific coast.

Trust me, this one will make sense in a minute.

Writing a novel is like making a journey. You start at “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night”, strap on your boots and stride out over the horizon. After many an adventure you arrive at “And they all lived happily ever after.”

Or if you are one of the early pioneers, you head out from the East Coast on mules or on foot. And you struggle across desert and swamp to get to the fabled gold deposits on the West Coast.

The first journey will be awful. There will be no roads, no railway lines and no “all you can eat” diners. You will take wrong turns. Get lost. Have encounters with Native American people which may or may not involve armed hostilities.

That’s your first draft. It doesn’t matter how you get there. All that matters is that you do get there. Somehow. Even if you have to throw your mule over your back and carry it to the finishing line.

Because after the first draft comes the editing phase. This needs a different set of skills. The eye of a perfectionist to spot all those typos. Honesty to nix the long and boring bits, or the passages where you are needlessly showing off. A film director’s eye for plotting and dialogue. Other readers to give you no-holds-barred feedback about the bits that don’t work.

You see, after your mule-carrying pioneers comes the blokes with theodolites and slide rules. The engineers and map makers. The ones who will turn your first draft adventure into an easy straight road or a railroad line.

After the first draft’s roughness, you edit it into a smooth highway for your readers. Take all the rubbish bits and deal with them. Polish. Read, reread, tinker. Polish some more.

Get your kicks on  route sixty six. But only after some pioneer had a much rougher journey mapping out the way. That’s the magic of the first draft.

Incidentally, “get your kicks on route sixty six” doesn’t quite translate so romantically to the UK…

Have a pee on the A303?

Do a widdle on the Cat and Fiddle? Aka – Take a shortcut to heaven on the A537?

Do a poo on the M62?

Spend your life on the M25?

So there you have it, my friends. I have written an awful book. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a tin of polish and a cloth to turn it into a great one.


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