Anne Lamott famously gave us the concept of “shitty first drafts” as the key to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts,” and even that seems overly optimistic for many writers—my process for long fiction takes at least four drafts. But if we are being generous with ourselves, as Anne Lamott argues, we embrace the idea that our first drafts will be “shitty” and give ourselves permission to fail in that space. This is important.
But what do we do when we can see the shape of the “good second draft” emerging from the mists of imagination, so close we can almost touch it, but that “shitty first draft” isn’t done yet? When all we want to do is leap the fence and graze that greener, fresher pasture?
If your mind works like mine at all, you stay the course and finish up that godawful first draft. You make notes along the way—don’t lose sight of that sparkling new draft’s shape!—but you finish the draft in front of you.
In my experience (disclaimer: there is no one-size-fits-all writing process!), if you abandon the first draft before it’s complete, that just means that when you get to the bits you didn’t draft in your second draft, you’ll have first draft parts running in a second draft model. Like a poorly applied base coat of paint when you’re rushing to get the finished color on the wall, it’ll just make more work for you later and show through in the form of uneven texture when you’re revising.
The other thing that happens is you start to doubt your own ability to finish anything. There’s a satisfaction in finishing a first draft of a novel; it was hard and long and a mess, but you did it. Finishing is a thing that needs practice and discipline as much as starting, but it’s a lot easier to get practice starting than finishing. Things like NaNoWriMo can give us the motivation and support to take being a “some day” writer (“some day I’ll write a novel…”) to being a “today” writer (“I’m writing a novel right now”). That’s very empowering. But finishing that first draft is even better, taking you from “today” to “yesterday” (“yesterday I finished a draft!”).
And finishing a draft sneaks up on you; unlike starting, you can’t put it on an exact timer. You can estimate when it’s going to come based on your sense of the story and, if you have one, your outline, but like giving birth, it’ll happen in its own good time and no matter how prepared you think you are for it, it’ll burst into being when you least expect it. Endings are not a precise art, especially not in first drafts. How do I know when I have finished a novel? When I can’t write anymore. That sounds flippant, but that’s exactly my experience. When the plot’s basically wrapped up and the climax is done, there comes a point where I try to add another sentence and I delete it, over and over. And then I know I’m done. The novel rejects addition, at least for that draft.
I’m not just pontificating that my current way is best here; this is a hard-won knowledge of my writing process from years of doing it differently. When I first started writing in earnest, I followed the flashes of inspiration. I skipped around and wrote the scenes that interested me, expecting I’d stitch them together later. I endlessly reworked those scenes, honing my revision skills in microcosm, but they never stitched together into a novel. But the one novel I wrote in order, over two years, until it was truly finished, even though that draft disgusted me so much that I literally threw it down a hallway once, that novel was the only one to get any progress. All the rest were just scraps, like quilt squares that wind up at the bottom of a fabric bin instead of adding up to an actual blanket.
It was NaNoWriMo that taught me the discipline it took to finally turn that first novel draft into something truly useable, to write that second, third, fourth, draft. But even then, it wasn’t enough. Too often I hit 50k only to abandon the draft in exhaustion, and then I return to it and read it and—well, generally there is much grumbling and self-loathing about authors who can’t be bothered to put endings on their stories because I need to know what happened to the characters. It’s like checking out a book from the library only to find out someone’s torn out the last forty pages. Which leaves me stuck back in Draft #1 if I ever want to finish out Draft #2. NaNoWriMo gave me a start, but it’s on me to persevere enough to finish.
Right now I’m in that space where I just want that first draft out of the way. I can see already many of the changes in my work-in-progress that I want to make for Draft #2. I’m excited to try them out. This first draft is already basically dead to me. I know it’s going to be scrapped almost entirely. It seems pointless sometimes to keep working on it.
But I also have no idea how this story ends. I have to see this thing through, so that my future self will have something to build that “good second draft” on. Otherwise I’m just going to be first-drafting the ending without any foundation anyway.
I often describe my fiction process as being at least four drafts: One to figure out what I want to say, one to figure out what I actually wanted to say, one to say it, and one to say it right.
Finish that dead draft. Figure out what you want to say.