Whether you’re a dedicated outliner or you wing it with no idea where your story might take you, the first complete draft you produce will have problems.
A lot of the time you will know a section isn't working before you even reach the end of the paragraph. Just not good enough.
You can stop and fret and worry about how to make it better, or you can keep going.
Unless you are some kind of genius (and I’m going to assume you aren’t), there will be parts of your story that don’t satisfy you. For me these tend to be: weak endings, meandering middles, characters who spend too much time doing nothing, plot holes, scenes with predictable things happening in obvious fashion.
I can see these things immediately. I don’t need to wait for a third party to indicate where the problems are, I already know. Often there will be whole scenes missing where I know the sort of thing I want to happen, but no ideas how to write it, so I’ll put in a place-holder that says something like: Jack escapes from prison in a surprising way.
As soon as you get to the end of a first draft and have a complete story, the usual advice is to put it in a drawer for a few weeks. Get away from the words you’ve been spending all your time with. When you take it out again, you will do so with fresh eyes and a much better judgement.
This is very true, but this is not what I do. That first run from beginning to end never produces a solid manuscript (and I outline fairly extensively). Because my main focus is getting to the end as quickly as possible, I don’t bother pausing for corrections or improvements. Even if things clearly don’t work and definitely won’t make it to the final draft, I don’t care. Onwards!
Then, when I get to the end (a great moment no matter how crappy the draft), I immediately go back to the start and read it through marking up the spots that I ignored first time round. These sections get a bit more thinking time so that they feel more complete. They still might not be great, but they at least make sense.
The reason I do it this way is because if I don’t push myself to get through to the end I can easily get side-tracked into dwelling on a scene for days on end. But with a complete manuscript I have a much better idea of the story. Where it’s going, who it’s about. And then I have something to work from with the sections that were giving me trouble.
Until I have a manuscript I am willing to show other people, I don’t consider what I have to be even a first draft. It’s Draft Zero.
And the great thing about Draft Zero is that I fully accept it will be terrible. Absolutely awful. Huge chunks of it will be going straight in the shredder. And that takes off a lot of pressure. No one else will see it, nothing is set in stone, the process from there to a proper first draft will be nothing but improvements.
Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, giving yourself permission to write stuff that isn’t going to be good enough straight off, and being open to changes that make it better, is very important to the writing process.
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*This post first appeared April 2012. Mooderino will post something new in January (probably).