How to Write a Perfect First Draft


The other day, I had a talk with a writer who said she’s trying to write a perfect first draft. I had to break it to her that this just doesn’t happen, no matter how long you’ve been writing. (Though your first drafts certainly get better after you’ve got a few manuscripts under your belt.)

And because I like you so much — no, I’m not going to show you my first draft, but I will tell you some of the problems I will be fixing in IN3 over the next few weeks.

First, you need to keep in mind that this, while a first draft, is not my first shot at the book. I’d written the very first draft of the book before I even got my edit letter for INCARNATE, in Fall 2010. I didn’t touch it again until January 2012 (after my IN2 edits were finished) when I realized that so many things had changed in books 1 and 2 that book 3 now looked like a crazy person’s story. So I dumped 75,000 words and started over with a new synopsis.

Then I realized my new start wasn’t working, either, and I dumped another 10,000 words and my synopsis because sticking to that just wasn’t working. (Though it was still closer than the original draft.)

So this 88,000-word draft I just wrote is still very much a first draft, but it’s also a product of the draft + 10k that came before it.

So, what’s wrong with this first draft? Oh, where to start.

1. Disappearing characters.

Partway through the draft, I realized that two characters hanging out with Ana . . . don’t need to be there. In fact, they needed to be somewhere else entirely. They’d be much more useful there and their absence would make Ana’s life a little sadder. But instead of immediately going back to move these characters around, I just . . . pretended like I’d already made the change. These two characters were gone. Ana was a wreck. The story was much stronger.

But in the draft as it is now, they’re still there in the beginning, being awkward, not fitting right, slowing the story down . . . and then they just vanish somewhere around chapter 14.

2. Missing information.

As I was writing, I discovered something super important to the story, but I wasn’t sure where to add a piece of information that would help explain things to the characters and the reader. I kept thinking to myself, I’ll add it later, I’ll add it later, and then I reached the end of the book and I still had not added the information.

Without it, the draft is all lumpy and weird with assumptions. But when I had a finished draft, I was able to look over the whole thing and find a place where the information would be a natural fit and not bog down the pacing.

3. [Something happens here] scenes.

Pardon me if this sounds like crazy writer talk, but sometimes you can just feel when a story is supposed to do something. Move quickly. Relay information. Take a breath with a more emotional scene. Whatever. But you don’t always . . . know what will happen in that scene. Something happens. You might even know what kind of something. But exactly what that something is? It is a mystery.

After I finished the draft and pulled back for a wider view, I realized my instincts about the type of scene were right, but the fix wasn’t as simple as adding the scene there. Because . . .

4. Scenes out of order/not where they belong in the characters’ emotional arc or development.

Scene A is an action scene that ends on a quiet emotional note.
Scene B is a [quieter information sum up time jump what happens heeeeeere?] scene.
Scene C is a quiet emotion scene that started feeling out of place as I was writing it.
Scene D is where things begin to fall apart.
Scene E is where things are still falling apart and the characters begin to deal with it.

I looked at this section of the story and could tell that something was off, and I had a couple ideas about how to fix the out-of-place part after talking to a friend about it. But what about the mystery Scene B?

In the end, I moved scenes around and combined two others. There was too much stopping and feeeeeeling in the beginning of this section, so I combined parts of Scenes B and C (less B, obviously, since there wasn’t much to begin with) and moved chunks of Scene C to the end of Scene E where it made more sense and fit better with the emotional arcs. That fixed not only my problem of not knowing what was happening in Scene B, but the awkward pacing from too many quiet scenes in a row.

5. Timeline.

In Book 3, there is a ticking clock. The book begins immediately after book 2 ends — I didn’t leave myself much of a choice on that — and there’s a firm date when the climax happens. This left me with a certain number of weeks that the whole story had to happen inside. As I was writing, I thought I was keeping decent track of how much time was passing.

It turns out I was not. As I was writing, I just said things like “a week passed” or “we had four more weeks” without counting how many weeks/days/whatever I actually had to work with. So when I finished my draft, I got out a fresh document and started working out my timeline. When I go back through the draft and encounter a spot where Ana tells the reader about a time jump, I’m going to have to check it against my timeline. The timeline is accurate. The draft is not. (There are currently several more weeks than weeks actually available.)

And those are just the problems I figured out as I was writing, not including weak prose, places where the sensations are thin, or I just gave up on a description and said [metaphor.] As I go through the draft, I’ll no doubt find even more things to fix, some big and some small, and when I give it to my crit partners they’ll pick out more things for me to fix. And when I give it to my editor and get my edit letter . . . Well, I daydream about her calling me up to say, “Wow, Jodi, you did such a great job! Here’s a typo to fix but we can blame that on your ferret. That’s it! Off to the copyeditor!” But I know that’s not how it will be.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, if you think it’s perfect, you’re probably delusional. It’s okay. I still like you.

My point is, I don’t know one writer who writes perfect first drafts. Sometimes the required edits are sweeping. Other times they’re more subtle. But there’s always something to fix, and by pushing yourself to write a perfect first draft, you’re only hurting yourself.

As author Elizabeth Bear says, “Writing is not a performance art.” You can revise. You can make it better. Get the puzzle pieces out of the box and all lying face-up. No one expects you to put a puzzle together with half the pieces in the box or upside down. And¬†usually¬†you have to try connecting a few wrong pieces before you find the right fit.


How to Write a Perfect First Draft — 16 Comments

  1. Love this post. Yeah, I’m learning all kinds of weird things lately – the most unwelcome lesson (but in the end is for the best): REWRITES are okay, they are your friend, even. Yes, it takes days and hours and weeks to put the pieces in the right place, and longer to rewrite the rest so that one thing connects to another and another. I’m in this place with book 3 right now – taking half a book that was mostly written, rearranging scene blocks like my son does with his actual play blocks, then trying to flatten them out and make sense of the whole dang thing! Then, lo and behold, forward movment occurs!

    But I still wish it was easier ;)

  2. Such a GREAT post! I love this. I have a friend who is an editor and I on and groan about re-reads/edits ALL THE TIME. Her response to me was the average novel goes through 22 drafts before it is considered finished. TWENTY TWO! i was floored and both discouraged and encouraged.

    • Twenty-two sounds about right! For me, some drafts are smaller than others — mostly tinkering with word choices and clarity — but . . . yeah. Books take a loooooot of work.

  3. Hee! I am relieved that I am not the only writer who has Mysteriously Disappearing Characters in the first draft. On one notable occasion, I had two characters in one chapter becoming a single composite character in the next…

    • Oh you’re certainly not the only one!

      I’ve had to combine characters like that, too. When there are too many on the page, it just gets confusing and hard to keep up with. *fistbump*

  4. So very, very true. I don’t even call anything a “first draft” anymore. There’s the “main draft” (product of multiple earlier misbegotten and crudely smashed-together drafts, half-chapters, scenes floating in space-time, ideas) and it’s mostly (usually, sometimes, when the wind is from the right quarter) in order. If not, main draft is followed by “sequence draft” in which everything is shoved into the right order in a process that resembles someone trying to sort out my office. Fast & dirty “first half/second half” is followed by “first/second/third/fourth quarter” sorts and then each quarter pummeled and raked so the chapters and fragments have sequential sense and the gaps show up clearly. (Wait–you mean I never wrote that whole three month section in which the fifty ninjas descend on Paris and discover the secret weapons cache of the Ion Brigade and Bruno and Tessa are trapped in the catacombs and then Philo calls in a favor from the mysterious Recardinal
    Richelieu, but these three time-travelers with swords fall over the Sacred Dog of Hinchu-Wakem and the fourth time-traveler, trying to find the three, threatens Bruno with a dagger and Tessa bashes him with her handbag full of computer chips, and then…???? Er….no.) So do the overlaps. (No, we do not need the Prince of Pickles and the cocky little thief having the same conversation twice, four chapters apart. Let alone a third time, eighteen chapters later.)

    Once Main and Sequence are sorted out (in those books where sequence requires a late sort and I’m not admitting how often THAT happens) then it’s on to Second and Third drafts, with some bits requiring seven or eight or more (“This paragraph still sucks. And yet, it’s important for the reader to know right now that Colin’s bay mare has a stone in her hoof because it’s an important stone…” “What kind of important?” “I DON”T KNOW. I just know that he puts it in his pocket and cocky little thief steals it and that…..matters.”) And then Final Draft. And then 24 hours later Final Draft is shown to have more typos than something written by a monkey in a zoo and a plot hole big enough for a regiment to march through. Final-final eventually goes to Agent & Editor, who immediately point out what was missed. Telling them they’re lucky they didn’t see the earlier drafts doesn’t make them any more merciful.

    Perfect first drafts…bah, humbug.

    • Hahahahahahahahahaha.

      Yes. Oh man, yes to all of that. Characters having the same conversation multiple times? Check. Important scenes being missed? Check. No clue why something is IMPORTANT just that it is? CHECK.

      *shares chocolate*

  5. “Perfect first draft”? Yes of course, and I once made at cake by throwing all of the ingredients into a bowl: flour, eggs sugar, butter, fruit etc and most certainly didn’t mix it all up at all.

    Came out perfectly, honest! ;)

  6. You need to ask the historical romance writer lounging on a studio sofa while she/he dictates to a bespectacled shorthand typist. Three thousand words a day and no rewrites. Okay, it was a dream I had–or maybe a Monty Python sketch.

    No, first drafts are just regurgitated hairballs which then need teasing apart to find the valuable little diamond trinket within.

    Or, as one Hemingway put it, ‘all first drafts are ***t.”
    Long live the rewrite though!

  7. Thanks for this!

    A few months ago I came up with an idea and started writing. I didn’t get very far as I’m a student in highschool and well yeah.. Anyways, so I wanted to start back up again in the school holidays just gone and I reread everything (which wasn’t much) but felt disconnected from it and unsure where to go next. Not only that but I’m kind of a perfectionist so what I’d written so far, it had potential but is wasn’t right just yet. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the next time (which I hope is soon) I put pen to paper, I’m going to just continue from where I left off. That’s really the only solution, otherwise we’d revise and revise, tweeking here, erasing there and well in the end you’d be lucky if you wrote a chapter or two! haha

    Beautiful post, Jodi! <3

    • Yep! Sometimes you just have to keep going. I think FINISHING a book is incredibly important. You have to know that you can do it (and you can!), and you have to come to terms with the fact that it won’t be perfect the first time around. Or the second. Fortunately, we have word processors and changes are easily made. :)

  8. Isaac Asimov claimed he wrote perfect first drafts. He further said that he just wrote stuff and then sent it off. I have the feeling that the editors did a lot of behind-the-scenes work after those drafts arrived, though.

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