First Drafts: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

My first drafts are ugly. I have friends who talk about plotting and planning for months before they ever write a word on a new manuscript. I can’t see myself doing that. I’m getting better at plotting but even so, it doesn’t seem to matter how much I plan and ponder, dream and think, my first drafts are still rough.

For me, a first draft is largely an exploration of the plot. It’s also about me trying to get to know the characters. It’s not until I’ve gone all the way through a draft that I start to get a handle on the sub-plots and themes, and it’s only then that I start understanding my characters. So my first drafts are perhaps more what other people call planning.

I’d love to be one of those writers who can complete a manuscript to satisfaction in just a couple of drafts. It usually takes me about three drafts to really nail down the plot and it’s only then that I can start worrying about the details – sensory, emotional, visual. This is when I start looking at issues like what time of year events occur in and what the weather is like. For some reason, my characters are always trapped in an “unseasonal heatwave”. Here in Australia, we have very hot summers so perhaps this is the reason for my obsession with heatwaves.  At about the dozen draft mark, I start feeling comfortable with what I’ve written and it’s really only then that I start to feel like I have a manuscript that’s getting towards being half decent.

I’m currently working on the first round of edits for a manuscript that I meticulously – for me, at least – planned prior to writing. I even used index cards – lots of them – and I thought I did a much better job of laying out the plot than I ever have before. However now that I’m finally re-reading this draft for the first time, I’m realising all that planning has left me with a first draft that really isn’t any better than what I usually produce. There are still massive plot holes, contradictions and things I just haven’t figured out yet.

So I’m wondering whether all that planning was a waste of time. Perhaps this is just the way my brain works. Maybe I need to go through that process of laying the story out, in the form of a first draft, to get my head around it. Perhaps what I’ve been thinking of as a first draft is really my planning stage. Other people use index cards, character notes, and synopses for planning. I guess I’m doing much the same, only mine is 80,000 words long.

So I’m wondering whether I’m approaching this the wrong way. All this time I’ve been telling myself I need to plan better, but perhaps what I’ve been thinking of as a first draft really is my planning process. It’s just a little longer than what some other people do. But then again, maybe I’m kidding myself.  Am I just being lazy and avoiding planning properly because I find it so difficult? That’s the problem with writers, isn’t it.  We can convince ourselves of just about anything by justifying it as our “creative process” instead of laziness.

So tell me: what planning process do you go through prior to writing your first draft?


8 responses on “First Drafts: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

  1. Brandon M Lindsay

    I really do think that everyone’s creative process can be different since our creative process ultimately reduces down to how we think. Creativity occurs as an interaction between the conscious and the subconscious. How, and when, that occurs varies between people.

    Generally, I can’t even get the wheels rolling until I’ve written something. It usually starts out with a spark of an idea, for which I write a scene. It’s usually in this scene that I establish a conflict (if not the main one) and a main character or two. Then, I stew on that and can begin planning. Then I write another scene, and then I do more planning. I don’t have discrete phases in my writing process; each one feeds off of the others. I’ve tried writing other ways, but they don’t really work for me and I just end up with a pile of garbage. This way produces the goods, and I think that’s because it reflects how my mind works.

  2. Cacy

    There’s no wrong way as long as the final product looks good. Some writers do pages and pages of character profiles and scenery description and world building, only a fraction of which will ever be published. If that’s not a waste of pages, then I don’t see why that would be true for your early drafts in which you chisel out your story a little more with each pass. And I don’t think you’re being lazy because your way of doing things seems like plenty of work.

    I do a little bit of pre-plotting. I write up a very loose bullet-point list of what I know should happen. It usually includes a pretty good idea of where I’m going to end up (the ending is the only thing I really super need to get invested in writing something) though the how I’m going to get there can be pretty vague. My clearest plot points are for the next few chapters I’m about to write with the hope that by the time I get to vague parts of my outlines I’ve gotten some new ideas or indication of where I should go. Any notes I’ve written out (whether outline, dialogue, action) are there because I’m afraid of forgetting what I was thinking or how I phrased something in my head, not because I feel I have to do a lot of pre-writing. I rarely write out character profiles. I usually have a sense of them stored in my head and feel them out further as I’m writing. If I’m struggling with the direction of a scene, then I may have to pull out my character profile sheet and dig further into a character or two to figure out what they want or how they’d react to the situation.

  3. Frank Morin

    I’m becoming more and more of a plotter, but I still need at least a couple of drafts to get a story good. My second story, which I heavily planned, will be going through a third draft later this year, and at that point I think it will finally be getting good. In my third novel, which I am writing the first draft of now, I plotted heavily and I think I’m getting better at the process. The first draft is looking pretty good. I’m sure I’ll do at least a couple more drafts to fine-tune, polish, and add depth, but I’m hoping I won’t have to do major structural changes. Of course, I also have the benefit of this being a sequel to my first book, so I’ve already developed tremendous depth in the world and characters.

    Multiple drafts is not a problem, as long as you recognize that it’s necessary for how you write. Authors get into trouble when they write a first draft that’s exploring the story and then pretend that the story is finished with that draft.

  4. KylieQ Post author

    I find it really interesting how individual each writer’s process is. We all seem to have some variation of planning but for some it’s more cursory – like Cacy’s bullet points for the next few chapters – and for others it’s more extensive. We all have to find the way that works best for us and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong.

  5. RD Meyer

    To be fair, my process has evolved over time and continues to evolve. I used to just sit down and write, but then I’d get stuck and start all over. Then I moved to brainstorming the major points, and then write, but that left me feeling too “out there.” I currently plot things out for about 30-40 pages, write, and then plot out again. This gives me a first draft that’s around 75% complete, and I can augment when I come back.

    I’m sure this’ll change yet again with my next work.

  6. KylieQ Post author

    RD, I know what you mean – my planning process seems to change with every manuscript too. Admittedly that’s partly because I’m experimenting with different methods, trying to find a way to reduce the number of drafts I need. But no matter what I try, I still get to about the 70,000 word mark and get stuck. Perhaps with more experience that will change.

  7. A.L. Sirois

    When I started out back in the 70s I was pretty much a “panster;” that is, I started with whatever idea impelled me to sit down, and kept writing by the seat of my pants without knowing much about what was coming until I either fetched up against a wall or finished the thing. This sort of approach works well for some people, most notably Stephen King. Alas, I am not Stephen King.

    “Pantsing” worked well enough that I started to sell stories, but I didn’t sell very many. Gradually I took outlining more seriously, so that by the time I started writing novels I usually knew more or less what the story line would be. Usually.

    These days, I work out my beats (scenes) according to a relatively strict template. It can take me two months to “outline” a book this way, but the actual writing of the book goes faster because I have worked out in advance what the plot points are, where the pinch points occur, what the mid-point shift is, and how the book resolves. *shrug* So far, so good.

  8. KylieQ Post author

    AL, it sounds like you’ve found a good balance. I’m still trying to find that place where I’ve done enough plotting to make the writing go faster but yet still allow the story to go where it wants.

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