Michaeline: Where “One” Becomes an Imaginary Number

One of my biggest misconceptions about writing a novel was that I thought “first draft” meant one coherent all-the-way-through-to-the-end draft. I thought that after I sat down and wrote that, everything else was crunchy snacks and tweaking word choices.

And perhaps some people’s first drafts are like that, but my first draft was 44,000 words written during the 2010 National Novel Writing Month . It *was* coherent, in that one event followed each other in a logical fashion. But I was nowhere near the snack-time, word-futzing stage. After my manuscript’s encounter with the conflict box in our McDaniel’s class, the story was better and stronger, but almost all of the words were gone. A few random “the”s and “stalagmites”s survived, but that was it.

The experience shocked me. But it helped me learn what a first draft is and isn’t. A first draft is a place to explore your world, it’s a place to learn more about your characters, and it’s a place to put your characters in situations that may wind up as major plot points (or just dead ends). The important thing is that you see how they react, and you learn more about them.

It’s not a place to spend days on a pretty sentence. It’s not a place to worry too much about the plot coming together. It doesn’t even have to be a logical, linear place. You can write the ending first, and the beginning last, if that’s the way you and the Girls in Your Basement want to do it. And it’s not one, extravagant writing session. It’s part of a process, and you may have to write the same scene five different ways. You may have to write the entire book five different ways, if it’s that kind of book.

I’ve come to think that the first draft is that rush of joy that comes with creation. You are making puzzle pieces. Sometimes you draw blood when you slip, but you are making stuff.

The second part of the process is the joy of putting that puzzle together. You may have to go back and make some more pieces. You may find it extremely frustrating to see that these two pieces don’t belong together after all – or that this piece belongs to a different puzzle. But when two (or four, or even six, hallelujah) pieces come together, it’s extremely satisfying.

Finally, near the end, you get to brush off your puzzle, varnish it so it stays together, and then put it in a frame for everyone to enjoy. (Or maybe I’m naïve – I haven’t got that far with a novel yet.)

“First” in this case doesn’t mean a solid, one-time affair. It’s an imaginary number with a variable range. Don’t get caught up too much in the semantics or numbers or even numerology – just go out and write.

7 thoughts on “Michaeline: Where “One” Becomes an Imaginary Number

  1. I know just what you mean Micki. I started out thinking the first draft was where you did all the heavy lifting and after that it was streamlining and tightening things up. Now I know better. For me that first draft is an exercise in discovery. My current draft only slightly resembles the draft I started with. I’m sure the process is different for each writer though. I have some friends who outline and plot to start with so that when they write that first draft, it’s pretty solid.

    • I start with characters in my head interacting. Then it’s a series of ‘what has to happen to get them from point A to point B.’ And then I took some classes on writing good fiction and realized that is the easy part. Making sense of it all so that it becomes good fiction is the hard part.

  2. LIke the rest of you, my understanding of the term “first draft” has changed beyond imagining in this class. I guess it was my first draft of the term “first draft.”

  3. Hey Michaeline, I had a completed draft coming into the McD program and I really thought I was at the tea and tweaking stage. Not hardly! I guesstimate I need to re-work about a third of my story, which isn’t so bad.
    The hardest part is explaining to my friends and family that I’m behind where I told them I was a year ago, but that’s okay because the end result will be much better 🙂

  4. Well, that’s good to know, because I think that only a couple of scenes from my 100,000-word novel first draft are keepers. There is so much to redo, especially as I just had an epiphany about my character the other day. It’s kind of hard to accept that I may have to do even 20 revisions of my novel, but it sounds like that’s not unusual and takes some of the pressure off.

    • Skye, I don’t think any of us had the same basic story after the Conflict Box lesson. A lot of us had a new protag, or a new antagonist, or our protags and antags underwent major personality changes to make them people who could start a conflict and finish it. I think Jeanne put it really well: we had to redefine our terms.

      I didn’t take the realizations very well, so if you need to stomp around a little, burst into tears, go yell in remote corners of the internet . . . do it. You can’t get to the next, better set of 100,000 words without going through the first set of 100,000 words.

      (-: Although, since you took things a little slower with your first draft than I did, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you could salvage more from it. Sometimes, though, it’s just easier to write a new scene than to try to strip the paint, pull the nails out and otherwise prep the old scene for revision.

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