At this point I’ve been writing so long that there are things I don’t notice about the ways I write. They just are. My brain just works this way, it doesn’t strike me as odd or patterned until someone else points out hey, I’ve noticed this thing about you. Case in point, this tweet chain that started off with an observation my Editrix made about me several days ago after I’d just finished the second near-final draft of a novel of this year.
According to the Editrix I write a first draft that's over 50% correct around once every five years. I… okay! Sure!
— Kitty Chandler (@mightybattlecat) July 7, 2017
The novel I just finished, by the way, was not the first draft that was over 50% correct. That honor goes to Turing Shrugged, which as of this blog post is in submissions and so y’all may not see it for some time. I’m sorry! I swear it’s a really good, fun novel. Even if I did kill off one of my favorite characters to write.
This is a new phenomenon for me. For all that I write, and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time or looked at that twitter thread, you know I write a lot. I wrote out a whole post as to why! (Dumbassery. Is the short version, I was an idiot.) I’ve gotten better over the years about finishing things I write even if I don’t always finish them immediately and a lot of times if there’s six months between starting and finishing the end won’t resemble the beginning very much. And not in a sequential way. So. In the twitter thread I estimated that I write about ten items every year, fifty items every five years. One or two of those will be novels, one or two will be novellas, and the other six or so will be short stories. This might be a conservative estimate given how often I’ll hear something that my brain will interpret as a prompt and go off cackling into writer-land, but we’ll go with it. Ten works a year, fifty works in a five year. And only one of those will be over fifty percent correct the first time. Which works out to 2% and roughly means every work has a 2% chance of being that one.
(I may be doing probability wrong here, by the way, it has been a very long time since I reviewed math on a regular basis.)
I tell you this because hating your first draft is a feeling that never, ever goes away. Because even experienced writers, especially when the drafting is novel length, have the soggy middle that starts whispering you suck you have no idea what you’re doing this entire novel sucks go lay brick somewhere. Yes. The first draft sucks. It’s supposed to suck. That is the point of a first draft.
No, I’m wrong, that’s not the point of a first draft, the point of a first draft is to take a trial run at the novel and see where the edges are, how close you get to dealing with it, where your problems are going to be, and if this is a thing that should exist by your hand or by someone else’s.
You’re not going to find out any of these things if you don’t write it. If you don’t finish it.
You’re not going to find out how long it’s actually supposed to be. You’re not going to find out that it’s supposed to be in third person instead of first, or vice versa. You won’t find out that you’re actually telling three different stories here. You’re not going to find out that it’s not supposed to be about exams and stressing over your future, it’s supposed to be about intergalactic conspiracy and dealing with feelings getting in the way of ambition. You’re not going to find out that no, there really is no way for that character not to die. You won’t find out that the ending is like the gasp of fresh air and burst of sunshine on the eyeballs when you crawl out of that three mile tunnel of shit and sewer water. And you won’t find out that this is a story you have enough passion and drive and imagination to tell. Or, perhaps, that this isn’t a story for you to tell and should be handed off to someone else. Not that there’s any guarantee that someone else will write it but the point is you don’t know until you’ve completed that first draft.
First drafts suck. They’re very rough sketches, sometimes they’re outlines in prose form. Sometimes you veer off south when you should be going east, ask me how I know and about the novel I rewrote literally half (45k words or so) of because the first time it got stuck in a boggy mire and I floundered around for 40k words. Sometimes you get distracted. It happens. Without that first draft, you will never know that the work wasn’t supposed to be this, but that. You can’t have the fix until you make the mistake. And you can’t polish the thing until you have something to polish and can see where all the nicks and stains are.
Ask me how I know. Ask me about the novel I’m about to start again that I’ve written four goddamn times. I think four, by now. I’m not sure. Somewhere around eight or more years ago this one character dropped into my head and put his feet up on my mental desk and not only has refused to leave, has refused to cough up a coherent novel four times. So, periodically, I keep throwing myself at the fucker in the hopes that it’ll work this time if I do this one thing differently. I think I have it now. We’ll find out by the end of the year.
First drafts suck. You have my permission to hate your first draft. You have my permission to feel like it’s the most arduous task on earth if you need it. Not that you need my permission for anything. But my support and reassurance then, you have it, because your first draft is going to suck. My first draft is going to suck. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and George RR Martin’s first drafts are all going to suck, because a first draft is figuring out all the places the story isn’t. It’s only when you get very lucky that 2% of the time that a first draft is when you find out where the story is. The rest is sifting through mud and sewage looking for its shiny buttons.