The Virtues and Vices of First Drafts

See this child? This child will be starting kindergarten this fall.  I am terrified.

See this child? This child will be starting kindergarten this fall. I am terrified.

I hate to admit it, but when I met my firstborn child, he was no cherub. He was a chunky little alien child with acne, a neanderthal brow, and a mashed-up head. He was noisy, smelly, slimy, and he had pooped on me (in me?) while being born. (TMI yet?) But he was also gloriously, heart-stoppingly, incandescently beautiful and I knew that the rest of my life would be devoted to seeing him do well in the world.

First drafts are a lot like newborns. You work darned hard to push them out, only to find that, despite being completely lovable, they’re a little ugly and weird, and need a lot more work before they can face the world on their own. That’s the nature of first drafts. As we plow forward into Camp NaNoWriMo here in another couple days (cue panic), here are a few things to keep in mind while looking forward to the end of a month-long labor of love.

It will not be perfect. But it will have massive potential.

I am constantly guilty of the assumption that whatever first draft I schlepp out in a month will be query ready by the end of a week. And I am constantly disappointed. Go figure. First drafts are not final drafts. Heck, so-called final drafts aren’t even usually final drafts. If you do Camp NaNo and then have this lovely little lump of literature lying in your arms, take a deep breath and let it be imperfect for a moment before you pick up that red pen. Marvel at what you’ve created in so short a time, even if it’s hairy and its poop is yellow. You may some day look back and realize you were cooing down at your newborn masterpiece.

It will frustrate you endlessly. But it will also bring you more joy than you thought possible.

Nobody hates my books like I do. But nobody loves them like I do, either. They keep me awake at night, they take directions that veer wildly from The Plan, and I don’t know what to do with them half the time. But writing is like that sometimes. It’s not a clean shot from A to B with a guaranteed agent smiling to greet you at the end. You might feel down sometimes. You might feel like it’ll never get anywhere in life. But you’ll love it anyway. (And, stepping away from the offspring analogy for a moment, you can always scrap it and use it for parts. A good writer, like a good butcher, wastes nothing.)

It will need to change. But those changes can only be considered improvements.

Ah, editing. Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting. But sometimes we don’t want our babybook to grow up. Sometimes we think it’s perfect just the way it is. But it’s not. (See above. It’s not.) Once you accept that, you will cut flowery scenes that you dearly loved. You will tear out the purple prose that sings pointless poetry between the things that actually matter. For every word that you cut out that feels like a piece of your heart is being removed, you will tighten your prose, you will enhance your dialog, you will streamline your story, and you will improve your book.

A first draft is an advent. A step in creation. Not the first step, but certainly not the last. Expect your first draft to be the utter poop that it is, and love it for its foibles. Soon enough, you’ll be ripping those foibles out like a stolen kidney. But you’ll think back with fondness to these early days and you’ll chuckle at how far you’ve both come.


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