Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stephanie Morrill and Jill Williamson: What it Means to Write a Bad First Draft and a Giveaway!

by Stephanie Morrill

You've likely heard writers talk about writing "bad first drafts." This is something I first learned about in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, the idea that you can make more progress in writing by not worrying about every teensy-tiny detail and editing each scene until it's perfect, but instead by writing a bare bones first draft and then going back to revise.

Not all writers do this, but for those of us who write bad firsts, I think it begs the question of, "How bad can a useful first draft be?"

The bones of the story should be there on the page.

When you finish your first draft, the elements of the story should be there. Maybe a couple characters are flat, that plot twist isn't quite there yet, and the ending is rushed, but you should have something you can work with and shape. Like a lump of Play-Doh that you're trying to mold - the Play Doh has to be there before you can make it into anything. Maybe your character's black moment still needs to be darker but you should have what you need to shape it into a black moment.

If the story bones aren't there yet, then your first priority should be to write them. Because you don't want to spend a bunch of time tweaking descriptions of your main character's school if you haven't yet figured out how your story is going to end.

It should be a length you can work with.

Some writers are putter-inners and some are taker-outers. By which I mean some naturally write long and have to cut back their words and others write bare bones and have to go in and flesh out their stories. If you're writing in hopes of getting published, you'll need to pay attention to what word count you want to hit, and then figure out where your first draft needs to be.

I'm a putter-inner. So I know that if I want my book to be 90,000 words, I need a first draft around 77 to 80,000 words long. My friend Roseanna White is a taker-outer so for a first draft of 100,000 words, she knows she needs to reign herself in around 110,000 or so.

You should still like the story.

When I finish a first draft, I usually feel pretty drained. I've been pushing myself hard to finish, and I'm ready for a break. I try to take six weeks off after my first draft. When I come back to it, I need to still like it. I see lots of things that need fixing, but I should also see promise and feel excited about edits. If I don't, I'm in trouble.

This has only happened to me once where I finished a first draft, reread it six weeks later, and had a good long cry because the book was just so bad. I put the book away and I've never pulled it back out. During that six weeks off, I had the idea for Me, Just Different, and I saw a lot more promise in it than I did this other story. I decided not to torture myself with edits for this other book, to move on to Skylar and Connor, and I've never regretted it.

So what can be bad?

So what elements of a first draft are okay to be really, truly bad? Here's a list of what typically needs the most work in my edits:
  • My prose. I'm a dialogue girl, so my dialogue is normally decent but my prose needs a lot of smoothing. You might be the opposite.
  • The voice of my "other" characters. They usually all sound the same, like afterthoughts.
  • Drab action beats. My characters do a lot of smiling, sighing, and chuckling in first drafts. I have to clean all that up.
  • Lame twists or surprises. Sometimes I come up with something great in the first draft, but more often than not, I have to work for a more unique twist or surprise connection in the second draft.
  • A rushed pace. Again, I'm a putter-inner, so I typically have a manuscript that sounds very rushed. I have to slow things down and describe more in my second drafts.
Edits can feel overwhelming, but it's become one of my favorite parts of the writing process, and the same goes for Jill too. Which is why we felt drawn to writing a book to help with edits, Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft into a Published Novel. Today we're giving away a free download of the book! You can enter to win by using the Rafflecopter below.
a Rafflecopter giveaway Stephanie Morrill and Jill Williamson have written a combined two dozen speculative and contemporary novels for teens. They also blog obsessively at www.goteenwriters.com. When not writing or blogging, they can be found at the teen table at writer's conferences or wherever chocolate is being given away. Come hang out with Stephanie at www.stephaniemorrill.com and Jill at www.jillwilliamson.com.>

36 comments:

Lydia said...

Nice post! The taker-outer and putter-inner thing was interesting. I'm currently writing my first rough draft, so I have no idea which one I am. Mostly I have ideas to put things in, but I also know that a lot of my scences are repetitive and need to be merged.

The Magic Violinist said...

I love my first drafts. They're fresh and ripe and untouched. Though there are flaws, they can be fixed easily. The first draft is the building block of a story and my personal favorite part of writing.

The Magic Violinist said...

Oops. I accidentally put in three entries for following this blog GFC. What does that mean? I'll happily follow, I just don't know how. :/

Tiffanie said...

I often have to stop myself from editing my rough draft, although it's gotten easier once I figured out that I only needed to read less than a paragraph of the previous day's work to figure out what I was doing. :D

Spinner Beech said...

This is interesting - I've seen a lot of people talking about 'bad first drafts', but never with qualifiers of what kinds of bad it can be, and what you should still try to have.

Stephanie Morrill said...

Spinner Beech, same here. I've talked a lot about them, and I'm a big believer in them, but I had never stopped to give thought to what ways they still need to be good. I'm glad you found it interesting!

Arende de Wit said...

This was just what I needed, while I'm working on my first draft and I absolutely had the idea of: 'O man, is this ever going to work?!' Actually, I can't wait till my first draft is finished and I can start to make it all better...

Abigail Miller said...

I really need to let myself write a bad first draft. I often get discouraged because of how bad it is, and I have to remind myself that it is a bad draft several times before I can move on. Great post!

Sarah said...

Thanks for the very helpful post! I've noticed the "still liking the book" thing; sometimes I'll finish a book or story because I felt I had to, and then, when I go to edit it, I just. don't. want. to.

Raquel Battaglia said...

Wonderful post! i have always wondered just how long to make my first drafts, and now i know!

Bethany said...

Thank you for coming by, Stephanie! Great post. I'm almost near the end of what I'm sure is a bad first draft. I'm guessing I'm going to need to work on prose and action beats too. ;)

As you can see, my HTML still doesn't like me completely. ;)

Bethany said...

The Magic Violinist: If you look on the right sidebar, you'll see Followers, and Join This Site. You click Join This Site, and enter your google name, which I think must be The Magic Violinist. :)

Victoria said...

Awesome post. ^ ^ I've been wondering about this topic for a while. :)

The Magic Violinist said...

Thanks, Bethany! :D

Jojos Corner said...

I absolutely LUV Jill & Stephanie-they inspire me!!! I'm soooo excited for GO TEEN WRITERS...hoping it'll put a fire under me for writing;)

Amanda said...

Very good to know--just what I was wondering! "How bad can this be, exactly?" Thank you!

S.J. Bouquet said...

This post was very helpful! :)

Kate H said...

Great post!
My first draft wasn't too bad, thankfully, it just needs some editing.

Cait said...

I'm definitely a puter-in-er. I'm happy if my first drafts hit 60K and then, when I start rewriting and editing, I add and add, hit 90K...and then I take stuff out! ;) Writing is so...fun. ;D Great post, and very encouraging.

Selah said...

I think I am a putter-inner, and my prose is usually okay. :) Thank you for this, great tips!

Caitlin Hensley said...

I usually alternate between putter-inner and taker-outer. Some stories, I rip to pieces and delete thousands of words. And for other stories, I keep adding more and more details.

Elizabeth said...

I've taken to writing very bare bones first drafts in script format. That way I can edit the major parts of the story before having to worry about the prose.

Alice said...

I love being reassured that my terrible first drafts are a good thing! Thanks for this post.

Anne-girl said...

I'm a put inner. 50,000 is my normal first draft and each draft get's bigger and bigger.

Emily Rachelle said...

This is really helpful! It's one of those things I haven't seen as much advice on the web about... and the whole putter-inner vs. taker-outer bit really helps me. I've always had skimpy first drafts, and now I don't feel so bad!

Mime said...

Oh, I would love to win this book! :)

paulinaczarnecki said...

I don't like first drafts. I use them as outlines and then rewrite the whole thing. It works well for me. :)

Jennie said...

This book is one that I've wanted for a while! :) I get excited just reading about it!

Lexi Snow said...

I definitely have to make myself not edit my first drafts. One thing I've noticed is that they're often very rushed. I think it's because I only have an idea of how to get to the end, and I take the straightest, easiest way possible, like I'm running for a finish line. Which does not make a particularly interesting book. :p

RadicalSarah56 said...

Love the post! Very insightful ^_^ Thank you!

Jenny said...

I would love to win a copy of this book :P

Cari said...

Oh boy. Editing is not really my favorite. Sometimes I don't like it, and sometimes, even writing can be hard when you have no inspiration! But I like to call myself a writer. :D

Jenna Blake Morris said...

I've been reworking the same first draft into loads of other drafts for ages now, so it's been a long time since I've done a true first draft. But I'm going to be starting one pretty soon, and I'm hoping to use this method on it. Makes much more sense than what I tried the first time around. Thanks for this post!

Sam Graber said...

I find that I have a hard time writing a first draft that's not at least pretty good. It's the editing that I have the hardest time with. Drafting is a lot more fun.

Jalyn Ely said...

I always have a hard time with first drafts - half the time, when I finish them, I'm left wondering whether it was even worth writing. I like your ideas on how to determine if a first draft is worthless or just needs a lot of edits.

Sarah Elizabeth said...

I *must* get a copy of this book! =) I try to be too much of a perfectionist, which is probably why I'm not that far along into my first ever seriously worked in/on WIP novel. I could use some help!