Being Okay with a Shoddy First Draft

I discovery write with a pretty weak outline at the ready, but it’d be a much bigger lie to say that I’m an outliner than to say that I’m a discovery writer.  The outline is there because I liked thinking about my story so much that I had to jot down the vague aspects of what happens so I don’t forget.  It’s there because I get ahead of myself.  If the story starts to go another direction, the outline gets set on fire because there’s no way that boring outliner guy knew what I now know.

On the other hand, what if a flash of inspiration didn’t transform your story into something amazing?  I might slog through the story exactly as I imagined it, but then sit back and still kind of grimace at it.  This is the scenario I’m learning to salvage.

What are the goals of a first draft if not to write a great story?

You really need to find the voice or the structure of the story in the first draft.  If you can’t manage that, you’re pretty much just doing a lot of pre-writing.  It’s not garbage, but if you take a step back and give it a long look, it’s probably not much in the way of a story (at least, the kind other people want to read).

I strive to build an outline before I start, but invariably it’s not just limp but a little uninspired, too.  A real outliner wouldn’t be happy with the kind of outline I make.  They see the weakness for what they are.

If you’re asking how I could be self-aware enough to know this, and yet begin writing the story without fixing the weaknesses, the answer is that I know that there are weaknesses, but I’m not smart enough at that point to know what is “right”.  Often this paralysis comes from the answer relying on 15 other variables that are still unsolved.  That might be too sterile of an algebra metaphor to resonate with you, but think about it: the best I can do to come up with an ending if I don’t know all of the factors is to paint with really broad strokes.

Of course, I do spend a lot of time squinting at that list of scenes, making sure that I recognize the fact of its weakness.  My reasoning is this: if I can’t recognize the weak spots when I set out to write this thing, I’m not going to be subconsciously alert enough when new ideas graze my ear.  When I’m looking for ways to improve something, I’ll notice those ideas fly past; I reach out and catch them before they’re gone, wrangling them to the page in a flurry of excited backspacing.

There is such a thing as a glorious first draft, but more often than not I’m out there breaking a sweat to build a little box garden frame.  I’m filling it with some soil that I thought looked pretty all right.  I might even know exactly the sorts of things I want to plant and in what shape.

Normally the metaphor above is reserved for people talking about the process of discovery writing, except that they talk about making the garden beautiful as it grows.  For me, it hasn’t even grown yet.  My first draft was just me laying the foundation.

The Will to Revise

“Oh no,” he said in little more than a grunt.

This is where you need to do an inventory on your motivation.  Hopefully you don’t hate the story you wrote, but we’re hoping you know that it’s fundamentally at least mediocre (ALM™).  The garden you planted and tried to raise into its glory isn’t done.  It’s hardly even started, you might think.

So what?  Are you going to give up on it?  Are you saying that it’s just not possible to turn it into the thing you envisioned?

If you’re seriously on the fence with your answer, see if you can’t add a little perspective.  Let’s say you walk away.  You don’t even bother to tear it down.  You just leave it.  Some girl comes by and sees the mess.  She starts to clean it up.  There’s a little spark of an idea in her that’s got her hands in the dirt.  She sees where it could go.

You gave up on it because it was hopeless.  Maybe you should go tell her she’s doomed to fail.

Or maybe you shouldn’t.  Was the failure something innate with the story?  I’m going to make a bold suggestion that 90% of the time you find yourself thinking that the story is seriously hopeless, you’re wrong.  Now, you might not be equipped or qualified to fix it (that’s a totally fair analysis), but that burden is on you, not the universe.

You should assume that for any problem you face, there is a solution.  Don’t beat yourself up over not knowing how to synthesize a solution, but never write it off.  This is why authors will tell you not to throw anything away.  Even if you never find the right way to use the story you came up with, it’s not impossible.

Quilting (and then Smoothing)

To get really fired up over the revision process, I’ll admit that I need a spot in the story to find my feet.  For me, that spot is usually not at the beginning.  I’ll know that the beginning needs help, but that is not a ball I’m ready to juggle.  I’m looking instead at the character that looks flat as a bad potato chip, at that council of 4 people who all sound exactly the same (you could rearrange their dialogue attributions and a reader wouldn’t know the difference), or at the weird hitch in Act III where my ending came together but I had to change a character motivation to have it make sense.

With the benefit of hindsight and a view of the whole story as it currently exists, I begin to discovery revise.

Yikes, right?

My goal in the early phases of revision is to identify concrete things that need to be fixed.  If I can’t state it in a single breath, I haven’t distilled the issue down to its core, and thus I’m not qualified yet to fix it.  This is how I avoid making changes I’m not prepared to follow through on.

For example, if you go and add or remove a character just to fix a single scene, you’re going to find that you’ve done it wrong.  On the other hand, if you are fully prepared to make this change, go ahead and start with that scene (rather than at the beginning), and move through the story in whatever order you need until you’re done.

I call this quilting, each scene becoming a pretend square of the larger picture.  I have to isolate the given scene and operate on it, and while I have it bleeding on the table, I have to suspend my own disbelief regarding the fact that the rest of my story hasn’t yet been fixed to match what I’m doing to it.

When it’s time to continue pushing this fix into the rest of the story, it’s not always the very next scene that I’ll jump to next.  If the very next scene needs the same treatment, then I’ll go for it, but I’m not forcing myself to do it that way.

The whole thing is a quilt.  I already sort of created it when I wrote that ALM™ (at least mediocre) first draft, but it’s bland and maybe monochromatic.  During early revision, I’m turning it around and around, building a pattern out from the middle.  I’m quilting the quilt or something.  (Did the metaphor get away from me?)  Because the foundation is already there, I’m finding shapes and patterns on it that just needed to be brought out more, rather than replaced.  I can add detail to those to make them stand out for the happy accident they were, and if I’m really in the zone, I can connect those little details to the world and to the foreshadowing of the ending.

As I work, I still haven’t solved all of my algebraic plot variables, but I’m starting to suspect a range of valid possibilities suggested by the story I wrote.  I’m picking one variable I feel inspired to lock into place, and then start adjusting the rest to fit.

As a discovery writer, there are going to be a host of issues with my first draft that I can’t foresee, even ones as fundamental as character motivation.  Fixing these things in isolation of one another can lead to continuity issues, so I’m always aware that I’ll need a separate smoothing revision.  That’s not something I recommend doing by spot-fixing.  You don’t want to revise your story then give it out for someone to read and never have read it yourself from beginning to end in its “fixed” state.  You’ll be surprised at how many things you didn’t even realize needed fixing.

Go and revise!

One thought on “Being Okay with a Shoddy First Draft

  1. Tom

    It’s almost a Herculean task the way this is explained here, almost discouraging that the task is so daunting. Probably why we have editors. Probably why celebrity books are all ghost-written.

    I think a good technician must also be a good artist, and vice versa, to be good at either. If you have a ton of technical knowhow, or a ton of brilliant stories you’d like to tell, neither of those adds up to much by itself. You need to be both things. Or have a collaboration.

    So to produce good written work, you have to have the ability to create the bones out of whole cloth in an early draft, as an unpolished gem. And you also have to have the wherewithal to make it flow, to dispel the incontinuity, to keep the suspension of disbelief suspended, to not confuse the reader (or to remove the inherent confusion in that first draft).

    The good news is you don’t have to do both things all at once. We all have days where we are more creative, and other days where we are more capable of engineering or re-engineering things technically. The trick is to recognize what is uppermost at a given moment. Write when you are suited for writing, revise when you are better suited for editing. You can do these things in layers, and revising can have many different layers.

    I enjoy the revision process, although not nearly as much as the writing itself. Revising is hard technical work, while writing is a ton of fun, just letting your creativity express itself. It’s the old 10% inspiration vs. 90% perspiration thing, all over again.


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