THE IMPORTANCE OF A BAD FIRST DRAFT

Writing is stressful. It isn’t this blissfully serene activity, where writers spend their days on high-backed chairs sipping a perfectly roasted cup of coffee while story arcs magically plot and write themselves.

No. every word choice is agonizing. Every plot twist takes time and preparation to, well, plot.

From the second draft to the fourth (or fifth, tenth, or how ever many it may take to get to a final), stress levels are high as you boil down the words to their most perfect form, and strip away any imperfections within the narrative arc.

But here’s the thing: a lot of writers stress about this in their first draft. And that’s a bad thing. You may be asking yourself: “but shouldn’t my first draft be the best it can be so I can build from there?”

Here’s the short answer: no, it doesn’t.

The longer, more elaborate answer is that your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, because perfection isn’t the goal.

No story is perfect, ever, but especially in the first few drafts. The story is still figuring out what it is trying to be. Even if you, the writer, may think you have everything perfectly plotted out and ready to go. The story needs room to breathe and expand.

The only expectation you should ever have of a first draft is to have it written. It doesn’t need to be good. Doesn’t even need to have all the pieces. It just needs to be on paper, and it needs to be finished in the sense that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the first draft, the focus should be on story and making sure the main plot points are all in the right-ish order.  

You can always go back and tinker with the writing to your heart’s content. But focusing on the writing is kind of like choosing an outfit without looking at the forecast: might work out, but you might need to get changed. When you focus on the story, then you can make sure the pacing is good, the characters are where they need to be at the right time, and all the steps are in place.

The first draft is as bad as your story will ever get. It’s all improvement from this point on.

I’m a huge advocate of a bad first draft. My first draft for A Forgotten Past was just under 50,000 words. A few dozen drafts later, and the final was just over 100,000. The first draft was not publishable. Neither was the second or third. I would never have dreamed of sending it to an agent.

And that alleviated a lot of pressure. The stakes were lower. This draft just needed to be done, typos, mistakes, and run-on sentences galore. I didn’t care, because it didn’t matter. No one, short of a few trusted friends, would ever read that monstrosity.

But because I didn’t sweat the small stuff, I was able to get a first draft out in a few short months. And from there, I refined, re-plotted, re-wrote, and edited, edited, edited.

All the writers I know all agree on one thing: it’s a lot easier to edit than to write. Staring at a blank page is awful. The stakes are so high, needlessly so.

But editing is a thing of beauty. You have an outline, maybe not a clear one, but an idea is beginning to form, and it just needs some polishing. Your first draft is the putty that you need to sculpt your masterpiece. It needs to be sculpted and mashed and cut and worried for it to resemble something worth displaying.

Without that first bad draft of A Forgotten Past, I might never have finished the whole book. Or maybe I’d still be writing it. But by hanging up my pride as a writer and embracing a get-‘er done attitude, I was able to have fun just writing and throwing ideas onto a page for an older and wiser version of myself to edit at a later time.

The more time you waste on trying to find the exact, perfect word to describe something, the less time and energy you have on building your story.

And remember: story is everything. Readers will forgive a good book that is written okay. But good writing cannot cover for a bad story.

Fantasy Writer Spotlight

Since becoming more involved in the writing community online, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of meeting a ton of amazing writers with incredible stories.

One of those writers is Jonathan Chandler. I had the pleasure of reading his entire manuscript for Bright Claw, a fantasy story about a wolf who goes on a journey to discover who she really is, and how her relationship with her mother, the pack leader, has impacted her self-image. It’s an amazing story with a heartfelt cast of characters who each have their own struggles and conflicts to surmount.

Since our audiences and stories are similar, Jonathan and I decided to do a blog swap! You can read Jonathan’s blog here.

Here’s what Jonathan had to say about why he writes, and what his story is about.

What is your story about?

            Bright Claw follows a hunted wolf, fleeing the harsh and overbearing rule of her mother and the pack her mother commands. After refusing to give up the hiding place of a rival god filled being in the ancient and wintry forest her mother rules, the wolf eventually named Bright meets another outcast named Trickclaw, who shows her the merits of being willing to fight even one’s own blood for the right to live life one’s own way.

            It’s a story about coming to terms with the pains that have made your parents the way they are; about accepting the harshness of a world where power seems to be the only way to survive. It’s a story of the loneliness suffering creates in us and the will it takes to overcome that isolation.

            While gods and fate seem to clash with Bright’s pursuit of happiness, her adventure will call for her to accept those things and still, somehow, remain herself.

Why do you write?

            When I was younger, I used to fancy myself a debater. I loved playing devil’s advocate, but more, I loved when I could unpack the layered perceptions that led someone to believe what they did. And, in doing so, I loved when I could take part in creating an entirely new, often more nuanced perception—that even I hadn’t had before.

            As beings of flesh and bone and spirit—of thought—we are constantly living at odds with the world and each other. With our varied experiences and physical separation from one another, with our individual bodies and minds, we often feel we have no choice but to designate the differences in others as either wholly good or wholly bad. We have to make others either friends or foes, or risk being overrun by the problems of the world around us, and the basic physical needs we each have. Yet, in spite of that reality, we humans have managed to create societies, communities, and nations that have worked in concert to thrive in a harsh world and have even begun to manipulate those fundamental aspects of reality that only the gods had dominion over in the past.

            We have survived and evolved. And not just by chance. We didn’t simply always give in to our instinct to make lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We discovered a magic, I think, that does more than even a revelatory debate, because it acts as a neutral party to mitigate the effects of ego on the ensuing change of the involved parties’ spirits. That magic was storytelling.

            The act of creating a dialogical space where empathy could bridge the gap of our physical selves, helped us see other points of view and ways of experience. It helped us find common ground. It helped us continue to expand the once small tribes that our ancestors fought and bled for. Now, we sit on the edge of an interconnectivity that no one has experienced before, because of the momentum of that magic and the technology its seeded desires have given birth to, through us. I want to be a part of that.

            I no longer consider myself a debater—though I’m sure I argue as much as anyone else in these days. I don’t want to fight. I want to experience. I want to cry, live, love, and share in the magic of stories in whatever way I can. Because, I think, writing stories is the most human thing that can be done, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

            World building; initial plotting and character sketching, are all my favorite parts of creating a story. When you’re someone that, perhaps, spends too much time in your own head, it can be a surprising thing to discover that you don’t know everything that can be found there. I’m sure everyone has moments of introspection that coincidentally lead to recalling a vague memory, or person, or idea. But those small moments are often fleeting and rarely do more than bring up sparks of the emotion they had when they were first experienced. The nostalgia is short lived, however true it might feel for a little while.

            Unearthing a gem in the back of my mind and rotating it in the hands of my perception has always been a passed time, nonetheless. And I’ve found that writing enhances this act. It digs deeper and melds together half forgotten things of your past to produce something novel (to you and the world—oh, and no pun intended there, ha).

            The feeling of wonder that comes with the contradictory feeling of familiarity is the reason I love plotting and building worlds—particularly in fantasy, where archetypes let us graft our experiences intuitively. I think, just like how story allows people to connect with others outside of themselves by internalizing external experiences, I think story making allows a person to connect with the ‘other’ in themselves through the exercise of externalizing what has been left subconsciously internalized throughout their lifetime. Learning about the good and bad parts of myself, that I never knew before—or have never been able to articulate before—is the reason I keep staring at blank pages until my head hurts.

Here’s an exerpt from Jonathan’s incredible story:

She wasn’t alone. She only felt like it. There was a pressure, a pressing on the sides of her eyeballs that shadowed everything in a way that pulsed with the beat of the blood in her veins.

            The ravens’ magic? Bright wondered.

            There was another wolf with her, whining and growling plaintively for her not to press on. It was a familiar complaint, from a familiar source. She ignored it, in spite of her present self-howling for her to listen to the tag along her mother always sent with her. To watch her.

            To stop me from wandering too far….

            She was too far. The shadows broke along her memory self’s path, creating a tunneled vision toward the very place Bright of the present had run so far away from.

            There was a copse of ashen trees, clustered oddly together, so that they were like a great beaver’s damn emerging into Bright’s vision. She investigated them, sniffing up and down the wall’s length for an opening, a place where the scents beyond could become an inviting cloud.

            This place had been new to Bright. This was a place the pack hadn’t been. A place her mother hadn’t marked.

            It was a horizon. A place I could have made my own. It had been so important to do that, Bright of the present lamented. Then her past self found a way through the wall. There was a place where the lay of the trees was untethered with a dip in the ground. She had to dig to clear dirt, moss, and the ominous bones of some small beast, but the Bright of the past was undaunted.

            She was spurred on by a strange scent that grew and grew in her nostrils, until it was all she could think about. She smelled, beyond the dirt and roots and bark, animal flesh and smoke. Like the sky had sent down one of its blinding, jagged furies to start a fire in the Wood. But the smell didn’t have that warning itch, that dryness of the air that would have scared her off. There didn’t seem to be a storm brewing.

            Again, this had been something new; fire without the scent of a spark.

            When she broke through, she learned the terrifying why.

            There was the hollow skin from a bear, standing next to a fire, surrounded by small stones. Bright snarled immediately, even before she got her body free of the hole she’d dug beneath the clustered and stacked trees. The thought of how vulnerable she was rolled through her past self in a chill down her spine, making the Bright that had to watch bark in time with her vision.

            What kind of bear wasn’t afraid of a fire? What kind of fire wasn’t wild and ravenous, consuming all it could snare?

            This bear, placid and sunken in many places, was nearly hugging the flame; as if it had no fur to warm it. This fire was tame, beneath a conical roof of tinder, content to nibble at its own housing and blacken it to ember.

            The sunken bear moved at the barks past Bright threw at it. But it didn’t move like a bear. The head didn’t raise and the eyes, the wolf realized, were empty sockets— sightless.

            Bright of the present, who saw this as a ghost might, through eyes too far away to control what was seen— to demand her past self to turn away— watched the tunneling shadow of her vision condense around the figure that was not a beast of any kind. It stood tall, having been crouched in the guise of an animal. As it did, the fire it had been huddled over cast a dancing light on its skin.

            Skin. Not fur. The thing, the lanky, but muscled thing that stood on two legs, had almost no hair, save for its shoulders, face, and head. In its head were piercing eyes, darkened by the cowl of the bear pelt and strong brow.

            Bright had never seen anything like it. Her past self knew to fear it though. After all, what prey thing could wear a dead bear.

            It took a pack of wolves to kill a bear, normally. This creature had apparently done it alone, because Bright scented no others. The question of how crawled over Bright’s mind for a moment. Then the thing spoke. And, having now felt what god-speech is like from a more mortal creature, Bright of the present could not help but flinch at the force of a god’s thoughts given form.

            Through this vision, Bright experienced the sights this new god had cast into her and all around her, a second time.

            While the fear of this new thing speaking seized her chest, the Bright of the present had the mind to keep her eyes opened as the god spoke its words to spawn sights not just into her mind, but into the world itself.

            That was the power of true god magic. Bright’s mother could do the same, as host of Great Cold. It created more than visions. It created the real. But no god Bright had ever heard of had ever been able to produce so much. What was this god’s name that it had mastery over the trees, earth, and fire?

            Only the Bright of the present could now wonder if indeed the strange new creature was full of only one god at all.

            Trees sprouted with loud cracks of stone and earth, right in front of the wolf and made her jump from the hole that was her only apparent escape. She was nearly bowled over sideways when a fir erupted at an angle to her left and thundered toward the sky, headless of the wolf in its path. Then another sprouted and lanced through her now wounded ear. Bright of the present cried out from the doubly present pain.

            More words came, followed by trees and rocks and fire gouts that licked the pads of her feet. At one point, her breath a scratching coil in her chest, incomplete and panic inducing, she was seized. Great arms grabbed her by the scruff and tried to wrestle her from her feet. But she thought of the bear. She thought of the blackness of those empty eyes and the icy gaze of the figure wearing the bear’s sockets as its own. 

            She felt like prey. She felt like death was near.

            I had looked for a horizon— not an end!

            She twisted in the god’s grip. She lashed out with her teeth, biting some part of the figure blindly. The creature’s muscle moved oddly in her mouth, like a clutch of snakes. The taste of blood on her tongue was hot and filled her with a shock of strength. The thought of how her mother looked, hunting other god-hosts, occurred to her for the briefest instant. Then her mouth burned. It flashed with a bewildering light that made the creature holding her yell and set her free.

            Immediately, she ran in a widening circle, unsure what random creation would spear her or flay her, when her tag along resolved on a ridge above a low part in the ash tree wall.

            Bright followed his howl, as she remembered from the actual moment of her frenzied escape. All the while the god thing spoke and she couldn’t understand his words, or even really if it was more than one word it was speaking. An incredibly terrifying and, somehow, frustrating situation. As if she couldn’t understand why she was afraid, despite the danger of death on her heels.

            But I’m almost free….

            No.

            The path she took up the hill to leap over the ash wall vanished, then the other wolf she’d been with turned into shadow and shattered into a burst of cawing black birds.

            Suddenly Bright was in complete darkness, with the cloud of black birds becoming a veil that crowed and yelled to drown out the god she fled. At first, this was like a gift. Then there was snarling.

            She was still running. It was the only thing that made her heart’s pounding feel right in its cage. Ahead there was a dimly glowing light, growing its ambient sphere as if Bright were rapidly closing on it. Light in this emptiness was welcome, but a cold tingled her nose that soon sank beneath her fur. Her mother resolved in the light, snarling and barking loud enough to shake the invisible ground beneath Bright’s feet.

            The whole pack was behind her mother’s tall shadow and were resolute as a wall amidst the wisps of frost and snow her mother brought with her. All their hackles were raised and they magnified to the size of mountains as Bright’s legs rushed her toward them.

            With numbing anxiety, Bright thought she might pass between the giant wolves’ legs, since she could not change direction or slow down.

            She was afraid. And she was right to be.

            Her mother’s head lowered, nearly to the invisible ground, her massive eyes, the color of winter wind, peering into her soul to dispel all hope.

            “Tell me, daughter,” Bright’s mother said, with a voice like the hiss of a blizzard’s gusts. “Where is it?”

            Bright kept her jaws closed.

            “Where is the new god in my wood? Tell me, so I can avenge my daughter.”

            Bright shook her head with a whine as her mother’s oversized head let its mouth hang open on the path Bright took. She would be consumed!

            “Tell me or you will be eaten first, and the Great Cold will still have its way. Why protect what threatened you? Tell me and be the wolf you are. Tell me or be gone!”

            The fury of winter and the god within Bright’s mother cast spikes of ice on either side of Bright’s path. She would be eaten.

            And like the new god, she realized, she was alone and afraid.

            I will be no more than what my mother wished for me….