On first drafts

I learned something really important over the past eighteen months, something that I'd somehow never learned in my prior eighteen years of noveling. I discovered it almost by accident while working on Eleanor. It wasn't even something new; I'd heard it said many times, and, like most writing advice, it sounded great, but it wasn't real. Until it was. It took discovering it for myself for this advice to become real. And when it became real, it was a revelation. 

Here's the thing I learned:

It's okay to write an imperfect first draft. 

Not only okay; desirable, even. The first draft isn't the place for perfection; striving for perfection while you're in the weeds is a lost cause, wasted effort. Until you've finished the thing, and stepped out of the weeds and onto a hillside to look down upon it, you don't even know what you have. How can you perfect it? But up there, on that hillside, you can see the shape of it. You can see where it's a little lean, a little chunky, where entire parts of it are disconnected from each other. And now that you can see those things, you can make a plan for fixing them. 

The first draft, in other words, is all about momentum. At least, that's what it has become for me. It's about getting the ideas onto the page, getting the skeleton of the story there, so you have something to look down upon once you're on that hillside. In the first draft, you can give yourself permission to write a little loosely. It's okay if the dialogue is sloppy in that scene; you can refine it later. It's okay if you used the wrong word to describe something; you can find the right word later. It's even okay to save some research for subsequent drafts, to write a location a little thinly for the time being; in the second or fourth or eighth draft you can paint the details, get the culture of a place right. 

I'm saying 'you', but that's because this is me, talking to me. Giving myself permission to write an imperfect first draft isn't a one-and-done piece of advice; it's a thing I have to remind myself of daily. In the past, when I'd be ten, twenty, thirty thousand words into a novel, I might have a sudden epiphany; I'd realize I'd forgotten something, or that I was writing from the wrong perspective, or that I was missing a scene. I'd backtrack, often to page one, and begin writing the entire thing over again, filling in the missing bits as I went, feeling better about this new pass through the same territory. And then I'd write past the original thirty thousand words, and somewhere around forty thousand, or fifty, I'd have another crisis, and I'd backtrack again. The more I did this, the farther I seemed to get from my novel's ending. There were many reasons that Eleanor took fourteen or fifteen years to complete, but this is definitely one of the biggest. 

My process now—which is still in flux, changing as I discover better ways to do things—is a little different. I'm working from a rich outline, with enough detail that I know what I need to achieve in each section of my novel, and that I know where I'm going. Outlines are designed to flex, of course, and as I discover things about my outline that need to change, I don't pause to rewrite the outline, or to edit the draft I've written so far to accommodate that change. Instead, I jot down a note to myself—something like "Revisit the scene on the Fowler property in chapter four, it's missing a sense of dread" or "The second daughter is entirely underwritten: what does she want?"—and then put the note aside, and continue writing the book. What this does for me is free me up to keep moving. I've recognized a flaw in the story, made a note of it, put it aside; when I'm done with the first draft, I can return to that note, give it some consideration, find the best way to address it, and then incorporate it into my book's second draft, or third, or fifth. And believe me, there are going to be that many drafts. Eleanor had nine, maybe ten, before the story really came together in all the right ways. 

These notes that I make for myself: I jot them down, and sometimes they're simple, and sometimes they're very, very detailed. I save them in Evernote, in a notebook called Limbs Edits. This is one of my favorite notes, about my main character's dog: 

See, that's an easy one to address. In a future draft, I'll zip back through the book, looking for all of the critical scenes that Dudley the Bernese mountain dog should appear in, and I'll write him back in. Ta-da. Solved. 

But there are also very complicated notes I've made for myself. For example, my main character is Asian-American. His deceased wife was African-American. Together they have two daughters of mixed race. One of the daughters is disabled. If you've seen my photo anywhere on this blog, you'll know I'm white, I'm male, and I'm able-bodied, which means that I'm writing about many characters who have entirely different identities and life experiences than I do. It's very important to me that I am not writing versions of white characters who I've painted different colors, or whose disabilities I may have acknowledged and then forgotten about later. Their stories are not my own; they're very different from my own. So one of my notes is about this, and one of my subsequent drafts will focus exclusively on the authentic experiences of these characters. In my imperfect first draft, which no one but me will see, I'll have made all sorts of mistakes, and in subsequent drafts I'll begin the work of removing those errors and lapses and mistakes and biases. (And once I feel I've begun to solve this particular refinement well, I'll share it with people who can point out the problems that I wasn't even aware of, the mistakes that I couldn't possibly have seen because of my own different life experiences.) This particular note will span many drafts, and even then there's a solid chance I won't have gotten it perfect by the time the book is complete. 

This is why writing an imperfect first draft is so important, at least in my own ever-changing process of creating a novel. If I allowed all of the imperfections to weigh on me right now, I'd never finish writing the first draft. But by acknowledging them and putting them aside for the future, I give myself permission to write, and later to edit. Editing is magical; that's something I also learned from Eleanor's creation. It's only in the long process of revisions and edits that Eleanor truly became the novel I hoped I could write. Nine or ten drafts, remember. And in the end, the reader sees none of that. The reader brings their own experiences to the novel, and filters it through their own lens.

With Limbs, I'm currently around 75,000 words into the first draft. My rough target for this book is somewhere around 95,000-105,000 words, give or take. But I'm only halfway through my outline. If the back half of the outline is as verbose as the first, then my first draft could end up at 150,000 words. If this had happened to me ten years ago, or even five, I might have said, "Well, this book just wants to be long." Instead, I know that my future drafts will involve a lot of clear-cutting, and maybe a few replacement chainsaw chains. Maybe it will be a long book, but that will be determined later, not by the first draft. 

Here's one more good reason to write the imperfect first draft: sometimes it will surprise you, and midstream you'll discover you're writing something different than you thought. Or, like me, you might get 75,000 words into the book before you discover the truth of what you're writing. Now that I know that, I can write the rest of the draft with that in mind, then return to the first 75,000 words later, and tease that truth out subtly throughout the entire book, so that it builds until the reader becomes aware of it. If I do it right, they'll feel as if they discovered it themselves, and that's not something I can achieve in a single draft. That takes refinement, the slow shaping of a block of stone into something expressive and statuesque; that takes adding layers to a canvas, bringing out the richness of each existing layer with the fine touches of each new one. 

There's nothing wrong with writing an imperfect first draft. It's a superpower that you can grant yourself. Publishing a first draft...well, that should be your kryptonite. Don't do that. 

Forgive me, father

Emotional uppercuts