Day 36: The Truth About The First Draft

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s quote has recently been doing the rounds.  I’ve seen it appear most recently on Facebook and Twitter, but also heard it during a seminar I attended.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

How true this is!  The information I initially revealed in my first chapter of Femme was a barrage.  I narrated it rather than caustically unloaded, but I did give everything away at once rather than feeding it through in digestible chunks.  It wasn’t terrible writing, those that saw the first draft didn’t notice.  But it wasn’t great writing, which is why it’s important to identify what the first draft is really about.  It’s easier to be content with what you have, especially when it sounds pretty good.  Since Femme is a lighter story than what I’m used to telling, I told myself it was the styling.

Then I read that Terry Pratchett quote and the lights went on and the bells all rang and every other metaphor went zing!

What a difference there was when I went back through and took the telling out.  Some I changed to showing and others I removed completely, because I knew a lot of that information was revealed later.  My ‘pretty good’ story improved.

There is a time for telling, because the character knows more than the reader does and the knowledge will have to pass hands .  Should I explain it all in the first two pages?  Certainly not.

So why did I write the first draft this way?  I know the techniques, I know about hooks, I know how to encourage interest.  In hindsight, I was eager to get the story going.  My knowledge of how the world worked was getting in the way, like I had to race through it before I could write about the drama.  I was caught up in the rush of writing.

Getting caught in the flow of writing is what writers strive for.  I’ve heard it referred to as ‘word vomit’ and ‘vomitting your story onto the keyboard’.  Gross, but apt.  The first draft tells the story.  The final draft tells the story well.  There’s another step in between and it might take (usually takes) more than three drafts, but the premise is there.

My first draft was surprisingly clean, but still needed a lot of work.  There’s always room for improvement.  I’ll leave with another quote about first drafts, from Ernest Hemingway.

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

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