Thoughts on the Shitiness of First Drafts

I’m working on the first draft of a novel. I hate first drafts. Short stories are bad enough, but novels are much smaller boats set adrift on bigger seas. Many writers have commented at length on this process, but I’ll put my trust in Hemingway. He summed it up best: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

When I first came across this quote, I thought someone made it up. How could an undisputed writing master utter such profanity? As I continued in my scribble quest, I thought it meant that first drafts need to be tidied up. Kinks must be worked out, language made pretty so that it flows. Though even then, I thought Hemingway resorted to such a  statement due to having imbibed a bit too much the night before.

Many years later, I get it. First drafts are gangly beasts. First drafts pass out on the floor, quivering masses that drool and fart and disgorge fleshy things. In the first draft, a new character will suddenly appear halfway through and act like she’s been in the book all along. The names of places, characters, and things will change, then change again, then change back again. A factory will produce Twinkies in one chapter, heart monitors in a later chapter, and then settle on Chevy Priuses by the end of the book. The main character will set off on his journey, only to be hijacked by his sidekick who demands that he is, in fact, the main character. In first drafts, the end that seems so crystal clear in the beginning, will wither into hilarity before 50 pages are written, not just snuffing out the much celebrated light, but taking the whole tunnel with it.

I always understand how to write a chapter just as soon as I’ve finished writing it. This is the tricky part. The first draft black hole. I now resist the temptation to go back and make things right. Instead, I take notes and move on to the next chapter, which in turn will only reveal its true form once I’ve slogged clear through it. Often, the chapter before or even one much earlier in the book will change with it. Which is why there is never any going back. I’ve tried that before, and produced some very lovely first chapters. Anyone want to buy a first chapter? Cheap.

When I reach the end, the first draft–clunky though it may be–is a thing of beauty. It went from nothing to something, a miniature big bang. First drafts are manuscripts that live across parallel universes. The trick is to get all the way to the end to understand which one belongs in this universe. Only then do I let myself go back and write the far more fulfilling second draft, yanking the remaining bits of the story into this universe.


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