It’s common writer wisdom to write rough first drafts. Just get through it, no matter how bad.
And at the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the words, it’s not that hard. I can accept that these sentences don’t have to flow with the (seemingly) effortless beauty of poetry—they can be short and stumpy and graceless and mechanical. For now, because I can revise them later.
I think imagining how to revise sentences is relatively easy—move that clause here, delete that adjective, vary the lengths, etc.
But revising the plot and the characters is so much harder, and especially so much harder to see when you’re just thinking up the plot for the first time. Unlike sentences, vocabulary, and grammar, which we can set aside to write whatever gets the ideas down on the page, when it comes to the plot and the characters we are at least trying to come up with the final product at the beginning.
I know that I’ll probably change plot events, or deepen characters through revised dialogue, or discover new ideas along the way—but that’s hard to see when writing the first draft of the plot and characters. Because unlike the “surface” level of the words, the plot is at the core of the idea and the project at hand. And when it’s crappy, it feels like it can never be anything else.
To give a specific example, let’s say you have in your vague outline that the ending is a battle in the villain’s lair. That’s what the plot you invented calls for, and you like its thematic commentary on violence and you know the defeat of the villain won’t come easily and so on. But now it’s time to figure out exactly what happens… and suddenly your plot is crap. You’re going to have the heroes sneak into the villain’s lair? How? Oh, they find a hidden doorway… that’s original. And how did the villain not think to block that? Maybe it’s a trap and they get caught! Great… but why doesn’t the villain just kill them? I mean, he’s been trying to for the entire book, and now he has them in a trap, and he’s just going to… wait until they find the… way out of the trap that now I have to think of… sigh.
Plotting is really hard—not just at the basic idea level of thinking about what happens, but at the specific level of the details of what happens. Especially in more plot-driven works that rely on twists and fights and cleverness. But I think character-driven works can struggle with this too; you may know you want to write about a mother and daughter learning to accept each other while on a road trip to the grandmother’s funeral, but what exactly gets them to that place of acceptance? What dialogue, what events, what emotional development?
If you do think of something, you might realize it’s crap. It might be horribly unoriginal, even blatantly inspired by something similar you saw. Or it might be too easy, or too confusing to explain to readers coherently, or too fast or too slow or… just crap.
But that’s part of a rough first draft too, difficult as it may be to see the other side from where you’re at. A crappy plot is hard to write, much harder than crappy prose in my opinion, but it’s just as necessary to plow through it. On the other side, you can go back and do all the thinking and analyzing and bettering that you wanted to wait and do before you started. But you’ll have things to work with, and new ideas along the way, and more than anything else—a finished draft (crappy as it may be).
And that’s worth everything.