Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Horror of the First Draft

Posted by LD Keach on Thursday, March 11, 2010

(Or, is that a manuscript in your pocket, or are you just wasting your freakin’ life?)

There is a vast difference between short story writing and novel writing. Think of it as the difference between pot and heroin—sure, it’s perfectly easy to just write a short story now and then, maybe just a bit on the weekends (you can quit anytime you want) but it really just opens the door to more the more hardcore stuff.

And, once you’re chasing that novel-writing dragon, there’s no going back. Soon you’re getting up early or staying up late, plugging away half the day at your obsession, constantly fixed on nothing more than getting to those blessed words “The End.” It will be weeks, months, sometimes years before your lust is slaked, before you’ve bled enough over the page to actually call it finished.

But then, after you’ve thrown yourself on the sacrificial altar that is your novel, you wake up one morning and realize; the whole thing is crap.

There are few things more horrifying. I’ve been there. If you’ve ever finished a first draft of a novel, chances are, you’ve been there, too. Not necessarily because either of us are bad writers (well, maybe I am, but my delusions keep me going) but mainly because of the one universal truth that all writers must admit to themselves before they get to Novelist Nirvana:

First drafts always suck.


That’s not to say, of course, that first drafts never get published. Oh, there’s a lot of first drafts out there, infesting the market pools with their oily bile, turning black the hearts of readers who just laid down eight whole dollars for a book that was supposed to be entertaining, dammit. I’ve read one or two myself, and, I’ll admit, they turned me to the forces of evil.

But, don’t worry; it’s not so bad. Even if just looking at that first draft makes you want to throw yourself off a bridge—or get a slimy agent who will somehow manage to use the right incantations to Beelzebub get your draft into print—you have accomplished a wonderful thing. You have a draft! A First Draft means you have passed a horrific hurdle, climbed a dire mountain. You, my friend, are officially a Novelist.

So, I give you my condolences. I hate to say it, but there’s no turning back at that point. You’re doomed. Doomed to toil forever in that vast, maniacal obsession that is novel writing. Now you’ll languish forever in the purgatory of formatting and finishing, query-writing and polishing and dumping hundreds of dollars at your local copy shop to print out submitable manuscripts. Now you'll have to rewrite. (Oh, sweet Beezlebub, not rewriting!) It’s a horror I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Oi. A heroin habit would probably be more useful. Sorry I had to be the one to break it to you.

EDIT: 3.14.10

So, I was hungover the morning I posted this, and rushing to finish my dark incantations to Beezlebub, so I neglected to mention something:

Yes, we're screwed as novel writers. But, once the horror has dawned on us, and we're faced with the realities of toiling forever in our miserably doomed states, there's only two possible options. We can stop...

Or, we can plunge recklessly forward through the murky swamp that is our own twisted literary dreams. We can wade through the muck to get to that glorious reprieve that is a Good Novel, by sweat and blood and tears, and by the screams of a thousand dishes never washed and the howls of a thousand TV shows never watched.

And, really, once you're hooked, that's the only option. To plunge recklessly forward.

I'll see you guys in the swamp.


  1. Oh, god, do I know that feeling. So much hard work and bam, a quick cursory look over the finished manuscript reveals a thousand oozing, pus-infested holes. Not a fun feeling, realizing you're going to have to do it all over again just to polish the garbage off.

    To make matters even worse, the third time around I decided to make my first draft public and put it up as a Facebook group. I'm fairly certain the reason I get zero comments (and constantly lose group members) is because it is just that bad. I ought to be flogged for my horrible decisions. It's gotten to the point where I'm constantly thinking about pulling it offline just to save my dignity.

    Fun little question for you. What draft number do you think the published version of Twilight is? Is that a first draft, and if not, what do you think the initial manuscript looked like?

  2. Oh my GOD, Jessica, I am so sorry to hear that happened to you! No comments can be heartbreaking. But it doesn't mean you're a bad writer! Those migrating group members are probably just Facebook ditchers. Or they're jerks. One or the other.

    You want ME to check out your page and tell you how many pus-infested holes I find...? ;) I will, because sensible but kind feedback is very valuable, and I am disheartened to hear on your lack of feedback.

    Once, I plowed through a 120,000 word monstrosity in six months, when the main thing that kept me going was the thought that a handful of my friends might really like it. I HATED the thing by the time I hit 60,000, but I kept going for them. Only to find out once they read the full draft they were like, "Uh, was okay." Afterwards, I read the thing and realized I'd actually done them a disservice by making them read such a pile of drivel!

    Ah-ha, Twilight? I'd LIKE to think that it's the first draft, and I'm sure the second and third books are, but sometimes I worry. Twilight might actually be the product of REWRITING. I shudder to think.

    The first draft probably looked like a fourteen-year-old strung out on meth writing a love letter to the hottest junior high bully.

    And, by the way, thank you for your comment. You've made me realized I missed something vital in this post, which I shall amend here shortly with a posthumous edit.

  3. One of my writer buddies (more than likely Kody Boye up to his usual tricks) apparently linked me somewhere, because I went from 32 to 81 members over the last few days.

    If you want to take a look, feel free. Just don't spend too much time going over it. I think that once I'm done, if it's salvageable, I'll be reworking it quite a bit. Here's the link to the group:

    I have to agree with you about pushing forward no matter the quality of the first draft. If I weren't writing I'd be a miserable wreck of a human being, no matter how much I stress over first draft ugliness. I just wonder if putting all of that ugliness in full view of the public was a wise idea. Kind of wrecks that "writerly mystique," not that I actually have much of that to begin with.

  4. Hahahaha! So true!

    Unfortunately, once I hit the "My first draft is crap" realization, I usually trash my entire story. I delete the whole thing.


    Yes, it's true! I'm sorry to say I've done this with at least 2 novels now. I've come to appreciate back-up files and hardcopies (flash drives, printed copies, etc.) as a result, but I'm too insecure to start on another novel, I've been building up my confidence with short stories.

    I'll get to that damn novel, eventually!

  5. Dude, oh no! Don't get rid of your first drafts! They're so good at propping up the broken legs of your desk! ;)

    But, seriously; you've accomplished a lot with writing two first drafts, you should be proud of yourself. If re-writing's not for you (I don't particularly care for it myself) then you should at least hold onto your drafts as a badge of honor. Or a scarlet letter, I'm not sure which. And then get crackin' on your next novel! ^_^