Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.
If you've been a reader of the Go Teen Writers blog for awhile, then you've possibly already seen this article. I wrote it back in the spring when Jill and I did our Go Teen Writers blog tour, but I've never posted it here. Since I mentioned bad first drafts in yesterday's post about that first slip of momentum, and since many of you said in the comments that don't edit as you write, that you just try to press on with the first draft I thought it might be helpful to post about what exactly should be involved in writing a bad first draft.
You've likely heard writers talk about writing "bad first drafts." This is something I first learned about in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, the idea that you can make more progress in writing by not worrying about every teensy-tiny detail and editing each scene until it's perfect, but instead by writing a bare bones first draft and then going back to revise.
Not all writers do this, but for those of us who write bad firsts, I think it begs the question of, "How bad can a useful first draft be?"
The bones of the story should be there on the page.
When you finish your first draft, the elements of the story should be there. Maybe a couple characters are flat, that plot twist isn't quite there yet, and the ending is rushed, but you should have something you can work with and shape. Like a lump of Play-Doh that you're trying to mold - the Play Doh has to be there before you can make it into anything. Maybe your character's black moment still needs to be darker but you should have what you need to shape it into a black moment.
If the story bones aren't there yet, then your first priority should be to write them. Because you don't want to spend a bunch of time tweaking descriptions of your main character's school if you haven't yet figured out how your story is going to end.
It should be a length you can work with.
Some writers are putter-inners and some are taker-outers. By which I mean some naturally write long and have to cut back their words and others write bare bones and have to go in and flesh out their stories. If you're writing in hopes of getting published, you'll need to pay attention to what word count you want to hit, and then figure out where your first draft needs to be.
I'm a putter-inner. So I know that if I want my book to be 90,000 words, I need a first draft around 77 to 80,000 words long. My friend Roseanna White is a taker-outer so for a first draft of 100,000 words, she knows she needs to reign herself in around 110,000 or so.
You should still like the story.
When I finish a first draft, I usually feel pretty drained. I've been pushing myself hard to finish, and I'm ready for a break. I try to take six weeks off after my first draft. When I come back to it, I need to still like it. I see lots of things that need fixing, but I should also see promise and feel excited about edits. If I don't, I'm in trouble.
This has only happened to me once where I finished a first draft, reread it six weeks later, and had a good long cry because the book was just so bad. I put the book away and I've never pulled it back out. During that six weeks off, I had the idea for Me, Just Different, and I saw a lot more promise in it than I did this other story. I decided not to torture myself with edits for this other book, to move on to Skylar and Connor, and I've never regretted it.
So what can be bad?
So what elements of a first draft are okay to be really, truly bad? Here's a list of what typically needs the most work in my edits:
- My prose. I'm a dialogue girl, so my dialogue is normally decent but my prose needs a lot of smoothing. You might be the opposite.
- The voice of my "other" characters. They usually all sound the same, like afterthoughts.
- Drab action beats. My characters do a lot of smiling, sighing, and chuckling in first drafts. I have to clean all that up.
- Lame twists or surprises. Sometimes I come up with something great in the first draft, but more often than not, I have to work for a more unique twist or surprise connection in the second draft.
- A rushed pace. Again, I'm a putter-inner, so I typically have a manuscript that sounds very rushed. I have to slow things down and describe more in my second drafts.
The edits can feel overwhelming, especially if you're not a plotter, but many writers grow to love edits even more than they love writing the first draft.
What's your style? Do you write bad first drafts or do you edit as you go?