“Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.” — Jane Smiley
What kind of crack was Jane Smiley (a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less) smoking when she said this? – was the first thought that popped into my head the other day when this ‘inspirational quote’ came through my twitter feed.
My second, more rational, thought was – what does she mean?
Every draft is crappy, to a certain degree. I should know, for I’ve just finished the first draft of a full-length novel. 76,547 words, to be precise. Three-hundred typed, double-spaced pages. The working title is Dark Matter, and it’s the story of a seemingly perfect family which discovers, after a terrible tragedy, that it’s not so perfect after all.
I’ve been working on it for two years, and this week typed the words – The End – an experience accompanied by a curious sensation of quiet satisfaction, coupled with relief, and guilt.
Writing a novel is a solitary, almost selfish, process.
I am impressed that my brain has managed to spout out 76,547 words. I think it speaks of perseverance, to have actually written those 300 pages. But I also think of the hours, devoted to this largely selfish project – a project which has little prospect of ever earning me or my family a single dollar. I think of what I could have done with those hours – cleaned the house, played more with the kids or (gulp) tried to earn some actual money.
Finishing the first draft of a novel comes with little fanfare. As with the writing of it, the celebration of the end is largely an internal one.
Besides, a first draft is only a beginning. What lies ahead is many, many more hours of hard graft to try and corral this book into something worth reading. And even then, it may all be for nought. This latest work is in fact my second effort at a full-length work – the first found a happy place in the bottom of many publisher’s slush piles, which is where it has remained (deservedly) ever since. Do I regret the hours spent on it? No. At least not enough to deter me from trying again. That work was an extraordinary learning experience. From it, I discovered the limitations of the first person, present tense narrative voice – and decided to never write in it ever again. You have to write, to learn these things. I left that experience feeling that I could do better.
As an unpublished author, the writing of a manuscript involves a tremendous leap of faith; sacrifices must be made, without any hope of reward. The writing, the learning – that is the reward. In short, it makes me feel content with life. It gives me a distraction from the all-consuming nature of raising three young children.
I gather that many aspiring writers never get to the point that I have now reached twice. There are so many inspirational quotes and blog posts out there about finishing first drafts, that I have to assume that many people never get there.
This is Jane Smiley’s point. A first draft might be crappy. It probably is crappy. It probably has to be crappy. But that’s OK, because at least it exists. It’s there. Something has been made from nothing. And now, something better can be fashioned from what’s already there.
A first draft doesn’t have to be good – it just has to be.
Now, I just have to make it better.
Cass – congratulations, this is a huge milestone and you are very brave. You are putting a lot of yourself on a page. Fortunately you are quite tops so I am sure your pages are just fine. You can sign me up to read your draft, your published novel or plan the book launch party any time.
Thanks Simone. I will def be taking you up on that reader offer… and then you can confirm that this draft is, indeed, a little crappy!
A curiously apt post to read right now. I finished a second draft earlier this year, and now a publisher is saying that while they’re not interested in it in its current form, they would be interested in a re-draft. There’s a lot of pain and resistance involved in self-editing, and I’ve been trying to weigh up the options…. rework or start afresh.
Your post reminded me of how far we travel just to get to a first or second draft, and that we should celebrate.
And then, we should make it better.
Hi Riona. Congrats on getting some interest from a publisher! That’s wonderful. I find self-editing difficult, but don’t have too much problem in others critiquing my work (once I have a momentary ‘suck-in’ of breath). It’s a difficult issue. Obviously you know your work best and know what you want to say, and ultimately it’s your name on the cover. Good luck! Cassie
Oh absolutely. Everyone always says the only important thing about a first draft is getting it done. So well done. I have 50,000 words I did in NaNoWriMo last year that I need to do something with but haven’t opened the document since 30 November. You’ve done far more than that. You’ve finished! Congratulations on such a fabulous achievement!
Thanks Deb. Who knows? Maybe it’s all rubbish – but at least it’s finished rubbish. I sincerely hope you pick up your MS again. 50,000 words is a massive commitment – you’re so close!
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