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Your first draft is horrible, and that’s a good thing

September 9, 2013

Okay, if you aren’t working on a first draft–or you’ll never work on a first draft–you can ignore this post. Everyone else, listen up. (And that means you Ms. It’s-not-perfect-so-I-never-get-past-it. I see you there, hiding in the back.)

Your first draft hits the fan.

Your first draft sucks. It’s perhaps the worst thing ever created by pen, paper, or electrons making patters that look like letters on a screen in front of you.

I know, I haven’t read it, but I don’t need to. It sucks. Get over it. Uncle Ernie said first drafts are…what hit the fan. If Hemingway said it, that’s good enough for me and it’s good enough for you, too.

First drafts are meant to be fun. Sit down and spew. It doesn’t matter that your character changed during the time you wrote the thing–you were getting to know him. What you thought was a defining characteristic at first glance was really a minor part of his personality. And she really isn’t a hair-on-fire bitch, it’s just that fate (and good plot construction) conspired to make her experience a day from hell.

Put another way, the very first time my first serious girlfriend met me, she thought I was an arrogant smart-ass who didn’t care about people. It turned out, I was just being a smart ass for a few seconds, but that was just one aspect of my personality. It also turned out that I was 19 at the time, and that’s sometimes an overriding characteristic of 19-year-old boys. As she got to know me, she saw that.

It could be a full house or it could be nothing. It will cost you to find out.

It’s the same thing as you flesh out your first draft. It’s like the first few dates. You start to notice things about your characters you didn’t at first. That personality flaw is really quite endearing. That beautiful face (or other body part) that makes your knees go weak is really masking someone who’s quite narcissistic. And while you thought for a few moments that his face was a rich palette of emotions, you were wrong, and sitting across the table from him is like trying to play poker against a Vulcan.

In short, you’re getting to know the people you’re writing about. (Or, if you’re writing a series, you’re getting reacquainted.) People change, including you. Your perception of a character may have changed since the last time you spend time with her.

In short, stop treating this like brain surgery. It’s not. It’s more like clearing brush. You don’t clear brush and then immediately start building a house. You go over it again, get the stumps you missed, pull out the rocks and generally smooth things over–multiple times. And that’s before you lay the slab.

My current first draft is a nightmare. There are plot and character inconsistencies all over the place, and I have never been more excited about a first draft. The characters are rich and complex and I like the story and how the interact. I think it’s the basis for a strong novel.

That’s how to come out of a first draft–excited at the possibilities flowing from you and your new friends, not depressed that they weren’t everything you thought they were at first glance. No one is, not even fictional people.

  1. Carol Anderson permalink
    September 9, 2013 7:10 am

    Good one today, Chris! Spot on. C

  2. September 9, 2013 8:58 am

    Chris, Thanks for telling us that. I’ve been calling them the kindergarten version…just saying Claudia

  3. Elizabeth Ressler permalink
    September 9, 2013 10:27 am

    Once again, thank you Mr. Hamilton for writing this blog. Today’s read hit me fair and square. I am a carbon copy of Ms. It is good to have your wisdom blowing the dust off my first draft, and one of the reasons I registered to be at the FWF pre-conference “How to Write a Book…Step By Step,” Mary Burton all-day seminar.

  4. September 9, 2013 2:32 pm

    Love this because it is SO true. And I don’t think you meant to do this on purpose, but, using Spock was a flash of brilliance. Because if you go back and watch the “first” episode “Where No Man Has Gone” of the original Star Trek, you will see that their “First Draft” left A LOT to be desired. The writers had to change A LOT to make it the hit it turned out to be! Spock was hilarious to look at, almost green in color, said he had some “ancestor” who married a human woman, and Kirk’s name was James “R.” Kirk, not “T.” Lots they “revised” there. Good going Chris!!!

  5. September 12, 2013 10:19 am

    Reblogged this on The BiaLog.

  6. September 12, 2013 1:13 pm

    Add me to the list of fans for this post. I spent the last couple days working on rewrites instead of writing. You sit there in front of your first draft, reread it and wince. And then a writing friend/colleague/unusually honest spouse writes you a bullet-pointed list of all the things you should fix. And you want to cry.

    But then you see they were right, and your first draft isn’t unsalvageable, just incomplete. So you start addressing those genuinely constructive criticisms…and then the characters start talking to you…and then you end up with something you can be proud of.

    I think the ability to tolerate this process is one of the things that separates people who want to be writers from people who ARE writers.

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