This is one of the most ubiquitous pieces of writing advice, but I’m starting to think it’s not entirely helpful. Not for all of us.
See, I have a really, really hard time with first drafts. I’ve scrapped almost all of the novels I’ve ever written, because by the time I’m done with the “first draft”, they’re such a mess I can’t fix them. Maybe 10% is actually usable. Maybe someone else could whip them into shape, but I can’t. It’s too much. It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. It’s discouraging, too, to look at something you thought was a coherent novel and see four or five different novels in there, and have to tease out which one you actually wanted to write, knowing full well that the re-write is just going to end with an entirely different set of unrelated books tangled together and you’re going to have to do it again and you don’t know if it’s possible to ever actually stick to one storyline all the way to the end.
Sticking to one thing is a problem for me, okay?
But I did something crazy recently. I started re-working an old piece this February, planning on a ~25,000 word piece with a very simple, single-thread plot that was driven entirely by angst.
I ended up with 40,000 words of solid novel with multiple plot threads and a very strong subplot that doesn’t really tie into the plot very much, but supports the theme so strongly that the entire story falls apart without it. When I hit 40k, I thought I’d gotten in over my head, but when I read it, it… actually made sense. Sure, it had weak spots, and some inconsistencies, and the conclusion was a total fabrication and needed serious support work, but it made sense. It was all the same story. Not five different ideas loosely wrapped around the same setting. Just one. After a beta read that kicked my ass, it bumped up to 50,000 words, and I’m pretty sure Draft 3 will be even longer.
I’ve never made it to Draft 3 before. I’ve never made it past Draft 1.
I did a lot of things differently on this one. For one, I didn’t force plot. I let the characters carry the story, and dropped plot twists on their heads when things got boring. For two, I added a whole lot of side characters, so that emotion could be carried through conversation instead of endless angsty monologues. For three, I went back and edited in the middle of the writing process.
What?? my writing teachers are all saying. You’re going to derail yourself! You’ll never move forward that way! You’ll get caught up in minutiae!
Yeah, well… I didn’t?
When I hit a character moment that completely contradicted the main character’s personality in the first half of the book, I went back and fixed the character’s personality immediately. Same events, but I took my cringing coward and turned him into a terrified but obstinate fool. It blew up my wordcount. He created conflict, instead of just getting pushed around by the plot, and entirely new scenes emerged to deal with the backlash. But the book didn’t get derailed. Once I was done fixing his “coward” scenes, I went right back to where I’d left off and kept going.
The setting started out with wagons. Halfway through, I decided cars would be cooler, and went back and eliminated all the wagons. Some characters gained dimension because of the kinds of cars they had, or whether or not they hired a driver. The story didn’t get derailed.
There was an attempted-seduction scene that started causing problems, because later on, some characterization happened that made it really clear that this attempted seduction? Can’t be attempted. If the MC attempted to seduce this person, sex would happen. And it was really, really important that it didn’t. Reworking that took a while. But I had to figure out what actually happened before I continued, because “doesn’t attempt seduction” isn’t good enough. I had to know what process he went through to decide not to. And yeah, it turned out really, really important later on. If I hadn’t known those motivations? That “later on” would have been an unfixable mess. Not to mention a total waste of time.
By the end of that 40,000 word first draft, I could have immediately sent it to my beta reader. No edits. I mean, he wouldn’t have been super impressed with me if I’d done that, but it would have been readable. I’ve never had that before.