First drafts serve different purposes for different writers. I know writers who describe their first drafts as embarrassing, and would rather die than show them to anyone; I know writers who revise as they go and end up with a “first” draft that is almost ready to send to an agent. (Note: almost. I don’t know anyone who sends in a first draft without any revision.)
I’m between those extremes. For me, a first draft is where the magic happens: where my characters come alive, the plot become twisty, and the sense of wonder makes itself felt. If none of that happens in the first draft, I’ll abandon the draft and, upon occasion, the project. But if it does… then I have something to work with.
And I do mean work.
My first drafts are complete messes. They tend to be littered with notes to myself, anything from “think of a better word” to “need a motivation for her to do this” to “explain stuff about sorcery here.” And that’s just the stuff I knew was problematic as I was writing. Once I sit down to revise, I quickly realize that I’ve invented contradictory rules for my world, one character suffers from a personality change halfway through the novel, people knew things in chapter 2 that they discovered for the first time in chapter 10, and I’ve used the phrase “narrowed her eyes” approximately three times per page.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when I realize just how full of holes my manuscript is; but now that I’ve been through the revisions process several times, and realize just how much my draft is going to change along the way, I know better than to panic. The important thing, for me, is not to start in on the manuscript itself – at least not right away. Instead, I create a couple of new documents, which might include: (1) a timeline, (2) a character-motivation chart, (3) a list of over-used words (I actually have a semi-permanent one that I use for every manuscript – I tend to be a repeat offender), and (3) a compilation of various scenes where I need to make sure the descriptions/information is consistent. And most importantly, I make one of these:
This chart, specifically, was made for Nightspell – a novel told from the point of view of three different people, with the motives and knowledge of various other people to take into account. Each column represents what one of my characters knows at every point in the book, and the colored post-its represent the various plot threads and plans winding through the book. I got the idea from Lon Prater, a fellow writer and member of my online critique group. (Diana Rowland, another writer, said she uses post-its on the living room wall. Maybe when my kids are old enough not to be way too tempted by that...)
Eventually, of course, I do plunge back into the manuscript. But with my folder-full of charts and outlines to help me, I find it much easier to see where my story has gone wrong, and what I have to do to make it right.
Leah Cypess used to be a practicing attorney in New York and is now a full-time writer in Boston. She much prefers her current situation. She writes adult and young adult fantasy, and enjoys traveling, hiking, and spending time with her husband and children. Her two published fantasy books are MISTWOOD, about an ancient shapeshifter trapped in the form of a human girl, and NIGHTSPELL, about a country where ghosts come back from the grave to solve their own murders.