By David E. Sharp
I have a love/hate relationship with first drafts. Cue the lonely harmonica.
I thrive on the rewrites. Once the structure is in place, I can go nuts with all the tweaks and edit in a constant effort to improve. I can’t even look at one of my existing manuscripts without trying to improve it. During the rewrites, you take a piece of writing from a chaotic conglomeration of intentions into something that resembles a story. It takes shape.
But first drafts, well . . .
Hemingway says it best, “The first draft of anything is shit.” And I agree. Every time I have to sign a group greeting card, leave a voicemail, or try to reply with a snappy comeback, I wish I had a chance for a rewrite.
I’m sure I could come up with something better than Wishing you a great congratulations! But now it’s in ink, and there’s no taking it back unless this card has an unfortunate encounter with the shredder and — Hey look, a new card is circulating! Everybody sign it again.
Sometimes, ideas sound a lot better in your brain. But when you bring them out to show off, you realize they were still cooking in there. At this stage, it’s probably going to give people literary salmonella. Multiply that raw content by 80,000 words. That’s a first draft. Two or three rewrites later, it might be worth showing to somebody. Four or five rewrites, and you can start thinking about that query letter.
But first drafts are also where the magic happens. It is the one time in the writing process when you don’t know exactly what’s coming. The only time you can be as surprised by your characters’ journey as your readers will be.
Neil Gaiman compares this process to traveling through a fog, not sure where you’re going, but having a general sense, you’re still on the road. (Read the full quote here. It’s a good one.)
First drafts can be absolute garbage, and it doesn’t matter. This is the incinerator copy, after all, so the pressure is off. Get a semblance of a story and let future-you deal with the fallout. Oh, future-you will curse your name, but you’re the one holding all the cards now. All you have to do now is make something. You will make it good later.
I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later, I can build castles. — Shannon Hale
And somehow, first drafts are the ones I get nostalgic about. I remember the epiphanies, and I remember the struggles. I remember the late-night word sprints, the never-ending coffee drip, and the tendency to mutter to myself makes the people around me worry about my well-being!
Sure, I might sing the first draft blues for a while. What can I say? I like the rewrite phase. But that will come in good time. Meanwhile, I’m grabbing my harmonica and pressing on.