A first draft of a book is supposed to be crap.
A first draft is where you’re supposed to just put ideas to paper and not worry about unimportant things like character development, plot, or even correct grammar.
A first draft is supposed to be a frantic, undisciplined dash to the finish line, where you’re running all sloppy and clumsy, splashing sweat everywhere as you pant and wheeze uncontrollably, all the while flailing your arms around like a drunken octopus.
A first draft is supposed to be The Phantom Menace, not The Empire Strikes Back.
Over the years, I’ve shared this piece of advice to other aspiring writers, and it’s typically been music to their ears. After all, the pressure to write a first draft that’s perfect, polished, and ready for the New York Times Bestseller list is suddenly gone.
Now, they have permission to write total, utter, horrific crap, content with the knowledge that the second draft is where they’re going to change all that total, utter, horrific crap into something readable.
Soooooo, in the spirit of transparency, I freely admit that for the past two years, I’ve been dishing this advice out but not necessarily following it myself.
Since late 2017, I’ve been working on Draft 1 of an untitled book I’m simply calling Quality Jones. You’d think that, given everything I just preached about uncontrollable sweat and The Phantom Menace, I would have zipped by the first draft in a matter of weeks. You’d think that, by now, I’d be on Draft 1 of the third book in the Quality Jones series.
But here I am, not heeding my own advice or the advice of many other writers. I was trying hard, way too hard, to write a very good, if not perfect, first draft. I kept grinding the creative process to a halt over every little issue that came up.
The main character isn’t likeable enough? Wait, let’s stop and make her perfect now and not risk, you know, organic character development.
The plot’s not making sense? Hold on, let me pause for several months and map out an airtight, perfectly plausible plot about time travel and talking cats.
The writing is terrible? You’re right. Let’s just stop writing altogether until my writing magically improves in my sleep.
Hmmm, maybe this is why Draft 1 of Quality Jones has been stuck in development hell for over two years now.
At last, thanks in large part to conversations with my wife, Coach K, I decided it was time to fully embrace the advice I was so happy to give to others.
I finally decided to write pure, 100% all natural, unrefined crap.
The result: a first draft of Quality Jones that is complete garbage. Don't believe me? Here's where we're at so far:
There are at least three different plot shifts throughout, moments where I came up with a better idea and decided to go with it only to decide four chapters later that the idea actually sucked and so returned to my original idea--and never going back to fix any of it for, you know, continuity.
There are scenes that are out of sequence and make no sense, and scenes that cry out desperately for any kind of transition.
There are plot holes large enough to sail an aircraft carrier through, and most of the main characters are about as fleshed out as any of the White House’s latest public health proposals.
The book’s antagonist is practically twirling her mustache and gloating over the heroine she’s tied to the train tracks. (Of course, the antagonist is an evil, profane nine-year-old girl, so maybe the mustache twirling is a bit more figurative but you get the idea.)
But after racing to complete this first draft through January and February, on February 29, I was able to write the two sweetest words known to any struggling writer. And no, I don’t mean, Save Me.
Rather, The End.
Yes, my completed first draft is a steaming pile of shiitake mushrooms. But it’s completed. And therein lies the victory.
Draft 1 might be garbage, but it’s put me in a position to write a Draft 2 that will work. I’m taking March off to regroup and clear my head, but new ideas are already racing through my head. Ideas to tighten up the plot, deepen the main characters, and put me in an even better position to create a marketable Draft 3.
The moral victory alone is worth the price of admission, though. Quality Jones is no longer this random project with a funny name floating in my head. Now, it’s a living, breathing draft of 95,000+ words, and it’s one step closer to becoming an actual book.
And it all came about because I was finally able to shut up and take my own advice.
I wrote total crap. And I couldn’t be more excited about turning that crap into something I will absolutely love.