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First Drafts (Excerpt #1)—Launch Week Festivities*

March 13, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 13, 2016

An excerpt from The Magic of Fictionfront-cover-image-only-2

from Chapter 3, “The First Draft”

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Whatever your approach to getting the first draft done, recognize that others may follow a different path to the completion of their first drafts and that it’s okay to have different paths to the same outcome—a finished first draft. Recognize also that the first draft isn’t the end. The first draft is simply the bare bones of the story.

Some first drafts are more complete than others, this is true. Some are closer to outlines while others are closer to books. Many more fall between the extremes.

Most are missing scenes. Most have too many words and too many inexact words.

Some are missing character motivation or character goals while others are missing necessary characters.

Some are light on dialogue, heavy on description. Some have the opposite problem.

Many feature dialogue that’s too exact or direct.

Many first drafts have little conflict and few emotionally charged scenes. Many are too cool or distant.

Many first drafts have way too much back story doled out with a generous hand.

Some first drafts inadvertently feature ghost towns—locales populated by only major characters and no background characters—or story worlds that are as clear as fog, with no discernible characteristics or details peculiar to that world.

Many have the same steady pace throughout, no speeding up and no slowing down. No sense of events approaching a high or low point. No sense of rising excitement or easing back on excitement.

Many have an unintentional mix of points of view, the wrong viewpoint character performing narrator duties, and uneven narrative distance from scene to scene.

Many are missing the buildup to the climax. Some are missing the climax itself.

Most have characters who hedge or who don’t follow through. Many have no memorable characters who stand out.

Some have way too much explanation. Some feature summary and a whole bunch of telling with only a few scenes depicted in real time.

Some first drafts lack setting details and references to sounds, textures, or scents. Some have few visuals. Many lack color.

Still others have no subtext, no depth of any kind, only surface actions and the most superficial insight into the characters.

Many first drafts suffer from all of these shortcomings.

For all first drafts, many words are simply wrong. They’re the wrong words for meaning or they’re used in the wrong way. They’re wrong for the sound of the sentence. They’re repetitious. They don’t fit the character. Don’t fit a scene’s mood. Don’t fit the genre or era. Don’t fit the words around them.

First drafts have all sorts of problems, and yet weaknesses in a first draft are okay. Okay for that first draft.

Writing a first draft is all about getting the events on the page, putting the characters into place, and establishing some sense of genre, mood, and setting. It’s not about perfection, although you may discover the perfect event or character motivation as you write. You may even discover a perfect section of dialogue that lasts intact throughout the revision process. Still, writing the first draft isn’t about composing perfect sentences, devising lyrical metaphors, or creating fiction gold although you might do any of these things to some degree in a first draft.

The first draft is allowed to be messy and bloated and full of holes. It’s allowed to be a little of this and a lot of that. It’s allowed to be too much and too little at the same time.

The first draft is allowed to be the first draft. Which means there will be more drafts. Which means that you get to take that first draft and change it, mangle it, rip it apart, and reform it.

The first draft is only the beginning. You don’t ever need to be ashamed of a first draft. At the same time, you don’t need to show it to others either.

It’s not ready for an audience.

Except for the truly beautiful streaks that run through it here and there, the first draft is ugly and raw, and it doesn’t need critics poking at it. You don’t need critics poking at it. It does, however, need your diligent care and all your varied skills to help it grow into a story of beauty and strength.

The first draft is allowed to be lacking. It’s just not allowed to remain that way.

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Read more about the first draft in The Magic of Fiction.

Join us all week—March 13 through March 17—for more excerpts and other Launch Week festivities to celebrate The Magic of Fiction.

* Comments in this article are eligible for the Prize Pack Giveaway. The single prize winner will be chosen randomly from comments made on eligible Launch Week articles. (#2)

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26 Responses to “First Drafts (Excerpt #1)—Launch Week Festivities*”

  1. Overall, this excerpt from
    ‘The Magic of Fiction’ , chapter 3, ‘The First Draft’ is an encouragement to me;
    no matter what is right,
    wrong or could be improved
    with my first draft.

  2. Matt Randles says:

    It’s so helpful to be freed from preconceptions of what a “first draft” must be. I naturally tend to think a first draft should be readable prose from beginning to end, whatever the flaws. That’s my bias. But the reality of my own writing practice is that certain parts of my story don’t get past the outline stage before being radically revised. So, even though I tell people I’m working on the second draft of my WIP, large portions of it were never fully “drafted” before I began revising the entire story from the beginning. And some parts have gone through lots of detailed outlining–only to be scrapped or completely reworked.
    But I also find that even though I’m working on the “second draft,” for the parts that have been totally reconceived I need to think like I’m writing a first draft: just get the words on the page, don’t fret about making it pretty, see if it works in broad strokes.

    • I’m with you, Matt. See if it works in broad strokes is a great attitude for that first draft.

      And experimenting with first and second drafts is so useful in opening us up to possibilities we hadn’t imagined. Sometimes we don’t know what we wrote in a paragraph but when we look back at it, we see that it’s the key to the whole story.

  3. Barb says:

    This section alone, when I read it in the pdf version of “The Magic of Fiction” made your book invaluable for me. That I could allow my writing to be “ugly and raw” in the beginning was such a liberating idea. I somehow had the notion that my writing must flow perfectly and that I could not proceed to the next chapter until that perfection had been met. No wonder I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages!

    • Barb, I’m so glad you’ve allowed yourself the freedom to just get the bones down without trying to perfect each sentence. There’s no reason to restrict yourself while you’re creating that first draft and exploring possibilities.

  4. MG says:

    Having working on several novels for more than a decade, your words are spot-on! One thing I might add is the value of setting aside a draft for a period of time and then coming back to it with fresher eyes. It’s too easy to get tunnel vision and not see the holes, the missing scenes, the thin characters, and—as Eudora Welty might say—where the moon comes up in the west. I would guess that a “finished” novel has anywhere from 10 to 20 drafts. A novel I just finished probably has 30!

    • MG, you’re so right. Setting a draft aside is a tried and true method for bringing clarity. Although we want to keep at it, keep working and tinkering, creating distance between us and our stories is often the best option.

  5. I was just thinking about this the other day, that my first draft is like a sketch for a painting. The general idea is there, but it only has a perception of the colors, shadows and details to come. Since I’m writing historical fiction, it’s also a path to discovery. The plot line is unknown when I start, and only by writing a first draft will I understand who are the characters who will become villains, what is the REAL issue, who will be the traitor, what additional characters are needed, etc. This is not the first book I write, and I definitely feel less pressure to create perfection with my current first draft. Only if the third draft sucks am I in real trouble.

    • Kristi, I love how you put this—but it only has a perception of the colors, shadows and details to come. A first draft is a sketch. A blueprint. A foundation.

      Some first drafts are more complete than others, but no first draft is the final version.

  6. Phil Huston says:

    Sketch is the truest form of the beginning of anything, I think. And Amen to what you said about the one paragraph that has the magic. If you ever get a chance to see an exhibit of Turner in Venice, his sketches are mesmerizing. Incomplete magic. Sometimes they stay there, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, that magic makes it to the big canvas of words.

    Thanks for all you do.

  7. Dave says:

    The funniest thing is when you know the end, you started great and midway through you realize the parts aren’t going to meet in the middle at all :) Oops.

    Oh well, maybe those thirty pages you wrote can be used somewhere else.

    • Dave, bringing the pieces together requires both creativity and skill. But you’re right—sometimes the ending and the beginning no longer match. But to look on the positive side, now you’ve got two stories going. You just have to write the middle and ending for the one and the beginning and the middle for the other.

  8. Deborah says:

    I recently finished the first draft of a story and what a relief it was to have gotten it all out. Well, not ‘all’. I am missing complete scenes and even a chapter, but there are plans for those parts, if only a few notes or bullet points. A friend offered to read it and I had to say ‘NOOOOOO!’ because as excited as I am to share it, it’s not close to being ready for a beta reader yet. That’s okay. It’ll get there.

  9. Anna says:

    As a beginner editor this section about first drafts has been very encouraging to me. I’ve bought the book ‘The Magic of Fiction’ and can’t wait for more insights. Than you Beth for this blog.I look forward to every post.

  10. Thank you for this excerpt. I have learned the hard way that sharing that first draft is disastrous to one’s writing health. It’s just a jumble of barely thought out words, heading in what you hope is the right direction. I joined group critiquing and happily shipped out bunches of pages for other eyes. What I got back was mostly chaos. Different ideas, from different people. Some of it good advice, some not so much. All were trying to be helpful, and all of them ended up only confusing the heck out of a new writer.
    Yep! I will learn a lot from The Magic of Fiction. Look forward to doing this.

  11. Mara L. says:

    I don’t agree with this post. To me, a first draft is a “finished” piece. It’s not a work-in-progress or a bunch of ideas dumped n a page. When I say a ‘finished” piece, I don’t mean that the piece is perfect and that it doesn’t need any more editing or revising of any kind. What I mean is that the piece is cohesive and that it has been edited to the best of the writer’s ability. If an agent asks for a “first draft” and instead, he/she receives a piece of writing that has ” an unintentional mix of points of view, the wrong viewpoint character performing narrator duties, and uneven narrative distance from scene to scene..” I don’t think the agent will be asking to see more because this kind of thing will reflect poorly on the writer.

    • Matt Randles says:

      How to define a “first draft” is, of course, a matter of semantics. For many writers and teachers of writing, a first draft is not polished or edited or finished; it’s a *first* draft. And it would seem that if a piece is edited to the best of the writer’s ability, by definition it’s not a “first draft;” it’s an edited draft.

      Conventional writing wisdom is to get the first draft down on paper without getting bogged down in fixing and editing and revising—“write quickly, edit slowly.” For any long form fiction, this means there will be all sorts of issues and problems and holes that need to be addressed. (Of course, some writers happily revise as they go. Some will get to the end of the first draft and have something very good and readable. But even these writers would do well not to send out their work at this stage.)

      A first draft isn’t for agents. An image of a first draft that I find especially helpful is that the first draft is the writer telling the story to him or herself.

      Personally, I can’t imagine showing an agent an actual first draft; I don’t even show them to my writing group!

  12. As a writer who is 80% finished with my first draft, I always tell my friends who ask how the book is coming, that the first draft is like the skeleton…after that comes the muscle, tendons, etc. that will turn it into a beautiful ‘body.’ I also believe that it will take several years to get this story to be beautiful, well rounded, healthy, wise…and a story that readers will want to spend time with. I so much appreciate the ‘list’ of flaws you described that are apparent in first drafts…I will use them as check lists when I finally start the revisions. Thanks so much for being there for us fledglings, Beth Hill. If we crash and burn on the first flight, well it won’t be because you didn’t try to shore up our wings!

    • Kat says:

      I love how you put this, your manuscript sounds as if it will be a pleasure to read when it’s grown into its “beautiful body”.
      Good luck!

  13. Janet says:

    I needed this encouragement that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. I struggle with editing as I go and this slows me down. The idea of the first draft as the skeleton puts it into perspective to add layers later.

  14. Kat says:

    Therein lies the great thing with first drafts, the “truly beautiful streaks that run through it here and there” tend to be more easily seen – they stand out because the rest of the manuscript is so raw. Sure, these parts usually need tweaking but it’s wonderful to see the development of such manuscripts.
    I love watching a manuscript change. Often (but not always) the end product is vastly different from its first incarnation.

  15. Summer Ross says:

    I had actually discussed first drafts with my writers group a weekend ago. I made my point with them, but I think referencing this post might help them see it better. I basically told my fellow authors their first draft should be the place they play, where they can be free to tell the story as they see it, without added stress or what someone else wants.
    Then they go back to revise after the story is told, because they will see the entire picture.

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  1. […] First Drafts (Excerpt #1)—Launch Week Festivities*  The Magic of Fiction was launched at the Editor’s Blog this month, and posts included this interesting post about first drafts. They produced a plethora of great posts – listed here – all of which are worth a look. You’ll find at least one or two that speak loud. […]