First Draft Rules

So, I do have good news this time! I finally found the right beginning, the one that has set me on the track to getting this thing done. I’ve reached a farther point in this draft than in any of my other attempts, and while it’s way too early for me to feel confident that I will get to the finish line (I think I won’t feel confident about that until I’m there), it’s a start. The right start.

At least, the right start for a draft.

Which brings me to today’s topic: First Draft Rules.

These are mainly to remind myself what to keep in mind as I go. Because I am so intent to publish, because I want it so badly and I want it now, I am very prone to getting stuck in my head and overanalyzing and panicking, and I will never finish a first, rough draft that way.

The key rules to keep in mind that I’ve come up with so far are as follows:

1. Let it suck.

I mean this to apply at every level, from sentence to scene to story. Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to think it’s good. Most of the time, not at all. It will be horrible, the worst thing you have ever read, and you will want to burn it all and give up on ever being a writer because clearly you are hopelessly awful. But you have to just let it suck. Like I wrote in an earlier post, these words are just the bread crumbs the real words will follow later. But those real words will never find their way without a map, and that’s what you’re creating here. You just have to let it suck.

2. Move forward.

And don’t look back. Do whatever it takes not to go back and edit. I’m guilty of going back and tweaking phrases or adding in little bits of info needed earlier, but it can get really out of hand if you start cutting dialogue or changing entire scenes. Just keep swimming forward, the only way to get where you’re going, and don’t let yourself get dragged back into what you’ve already written. It’s down on paper, it’s words in the bank, so just leave it.

3. Follow the flow.

I started this new batch of posts crowing about my outline, and it was quickly pointed out that outlines can be a trap. And… mine proved that instantly. The beginning was all wrong, the conflict came too late, and I was so thrown off trying to follow what I’d outlined that I nearly lost sight of the project altogether. Once I found my beginning (after two weeks of agony), I was able to find the flow. Now it’s just about following it–let that tangential dialogue happen that you hadn’t planned. Let the character go to that party you just thought of. As long as you don’t stray so far off the path of the story you had planned that you’re lost with nowhere to go, you can follow where your muse leads you.

4. Anything goes.

To go along with the above, this means that anything goes. Don’t judge every decision and scene and piece of dialogue for its quality or even whether or not it makes sense. This is a first draft, which can be a complete mess, so just throw it in there. You can always cut it or change it later–later, in revision. But when you’re feeling blocked, or lost, or like you need something to happen here but you’re not sure what, just go with the first thing that pops into your head and let it happen. Be adventurous.

5. Don’t keep pace.

One of my biggest weaknesses, because I’m so intent to publish, is to be concerned with the length of my story–specifically, making sure it’s long enough. I don’t like the idea of ending up with a story that’s too short, and having to puff it out, which can only lead to unnecessary bloat. I want my draft to be too long so I can cut it down to clean, efficient, and taut speed, but I can only do that if there’s enough meat hidden in my draft to sustain a novel. Which can only happen if my draft is long. So as I’m writing I’m constantly comparing chapter lengths, measuring scenes and the outline against my word and page goals, and generally panicking. But I just have to trust that it will end up the length it’s meant to be and I will make it work from there. With how much the draft could change in revision, the last thing I should be worrying about is chapter lengths.

6. Trust in the process.

Related to the above, to all of the above, is the fundamental truth that a first draft will be a complete mess and revision will work wonders for it. Some say revision is the true writing, and I just don’t know because I’ve never gotten to that stage. But in the wild jungle of my first draft, I have to trust that revision can come in and make my jumbled draft into a book. That it can change everything if it has to. That no matter HOW much I SUCK, revision can fix it. I can believe that the process will work, if I let it. And to do that, I have to finish this draft.

7. Don’t visualize your draft as a book.

This can be pretty hard if you’re as intent on publication as I am. I know you’re not supposed to want to be published if you’re a “real” writer, but I know that I do. I don’t write just to be published, since I also just love writing, but I know that’s my goal and I’m not ashamed of it. But looking at my draft now and imagining it as a finished book, as something I might read aloud at a signing, or as something anyone else will read–is dangerous. You start to compare your draft to other published works, and you see all its cracks and flaws. But there’s this great quote from Steve Furtick: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” So have fun visualizing future success, but keep it vague for now. Your draft is still behind-the-scenes.

8. Don’t look for the big picture in the details.

Related to the above, it’s easy (for me, anyway) to start meta-analyzing my work. But when you’re deep in the details, it can seem like the big picture of your work will never be there, and certainly never be good. Just like we see others’ highlight reels, we also see their works as a whole, so it’s easy to analyze them that way. But when you try to do that to your draft, which isn’t nearly finished, it can seem like you’ll never get there. And like the pieces in front of you could never possibly add up to the genius of a completed work. But when you break down analyses of great movies or TV shows or books, they’re just words, one at a time, just like yours. They’ve just gone through revision and then are seen in a completed form. So take a deep breath, and have faith.

9. Trust in a career.

I don’t mean a ‘career’ as far as publication and money go. I mean a ‘career’ as in a body of work. You will have ideas that pop into your head as you work, and they will sound much better than what you’re working on now. In fact, they might be much better than what you’re working on now. But you have to trust that they’ll be there when you’re done, and you’ll get to them. In a way, it should feel good to have those ideas, because it should show that you won’t ever run out of ideas and be left with nothing but the abyss. I believe that I could keep writing forever, regardless of what anyone else thinks of what I write, and never run out of ideas (I’m not promising any quality here, just quantity). But if I keep stopping and starting over with every new idea, I won’t ever finish anything, and I certainly won’t have any kind of real career. So I have to trust that there will be time and opportunity. Later.

And the most important rule of all…

10. Just write.

Pages: 23


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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2 Responses to First Draft Rules

  1. J. Dominique says:

    Great advice. I think most writers expect their first drafts to be wonderful (sometimes even me), and then are disappointed with the results, but what they need to know is that every first draft — every. single. one. — is really, really bad.

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