I’ve been spending too much time polishing the first chapter of my book.
The adage ‘don’t get it right, get it written’ exists for a reason. On the first draft, you don’t need to worry about spelling mistakes, lack of foreshadowing, or a character’s name spontaneously changing half way through a chapter, because the most important things on a first draft are probably (A) momentum, and (B) allowing the story to pour out, raw and unfiltered.
I’m haven’t been doing this.
In fact, I’ve been doing the opposite. Over the course of three, maybe even four years, I’ve re-written the first part of my story an embarrassing amount of times. I’ve thrown away around 90% on each rewrite.
Sometimes there were long gaps between the rewrites. If I didn’t like what I’d written, or if I sensed that something wasn’t quite working properly, I’d figure it out and start again, or stop writing, get depressed, and start having weird dreams about getting chased by tigers.
I feel these loses of momentum are dangerous. The kind of epic fantasy books I like to read (and aspire to write) are anywhere between 150,000 and 400,000 words, so unless I want to spend two decades on a single book, cultivating momentum is an important skill to learn, so I should go easy on myself, and if I’m having an off day, just carry on writing until I get to end. That’s the advice I hear professional authors giving a lot of the time, and it makes sense.
But here’s where it starts to get tricky for me.
What if you feel yourself improving significantly with each premature re-write? What if you feel motivated by writing quality prose? What if you sense that there are problems in the first part of your story that will have rippling affects throughout the entire series of books if you don’t solve them before moving on?
I feel these are good reasons to rewrite before reaching the end of the first draft. Doing so has helped me get better as a writer. If you compare the first draft with the most recent, you’d think they were written by two different people. I’ve proven to myself that I can apply all the craft techniques I’ve learned through prose that meets my internal standards. This gives me confidence. When I feel like the story I’m telling is good, I feel excited to keep writing.
Perfectionism can be the enemy of momentum. I need to be careful not to get carried away with sculpting a beautiful first draft. It’s time inefficient for at least two reasons:
- No matter how good your outline, it’s likely that you’re going to cut material on revision. If you’ve spent time and energy writing higher quality prose, you’re more likely to get attached to it, which can make you resistant to cutting scenes that need to be cut.
- You can probably achieve high quality prose quicker through a quicker first draft, revisions and line editing than you can by attempting to write a first draft that looks like a finished novel.
What makes sense to me is finding a balance between speed of output and quality of storytelling (I say ‘storytelling’ because it’s not just about writing pretty prose, it’s about effectively applying the craft). There are so many craft techniques that it’s extremely, outrageously difficult to apply them all in the moment (maybe this is why Hemmingway said ‘The first draft of everything is shit’, which perfectionists love to quote).
I reckon a good balance would be to write an average of one thousand words per day which I can be reasonably happy with. This is something I’ll be working toward achieving consistently over the course of this year.
To end with, here’s a recent quote from one of my favourite writers. She writes beautifully, and I think part of the reason why is that she gives herself permission to write a flawed first draft.