For the Love of the First Draft

I love writing first drafts.

I’ve always been the kind of author who prefers drafting to editing. There’s just something about the empty page that entices me – the freedom to write whatever I want, the knowledge that I am growing something new and fresh and exciting from nothing. And watching a blank page fill up with my words is delightful.

Sometimes it can be hard. Sometimes a blank page is also terrifying, because I have no idea where to start and I know that the first draft is going to be bad, because that’s the nature of first drafts. But I still love it. My favourite part of the entire writing process is the daydreaming and building the world slowly, watching my characters come to life in their first conversations – because my first drafts are always inevitably dialogue-heavy, no matter how much I try and shoehorn descriptions in there.

(Note: I’m a pantser through and through. I hardly ever outline my stories, though I do now make sure I at least know the ending before I start, after writing myself into circles many, many times in the past).

No first draft is perfect. I have to remind myself of that a lot while I’m writing – that this is just me figuring out how the story goes, and watching the characters interact for the first time, and seeing how my settings come to life. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It isn’t supposed to be perfect. On the days when I hate everything I write and am tempted to throw the whole thing in the bin, I remember this – the first draft isn’t meant to be perfect. That’s what editing is for.

Having said that, I definitely suffer from attempting to edit as I go along. I often have to be very strict with myself about reading my first draft back, because as soon as I start reading it I notice all the mistakes, the typos, the plot holes, the not-fleshed-out descriptions, and I itch to start fixing them. The problem being that when I start editing before I’ve finished the entire draft, I end up rewriting and rewriting and rewriting the same scenes, and not actually moving forward.

Handwritten text in a journal dated 21/2/2020. The text reads: 'Ok, so I failed at reporting back, but - TODAY I FINISHED MY FIRST DRAFT!!!! It's just over 100k of Life-Giver and of course there is a lot to edit and change and fix but!! It's MINE. I wrote  a book! And it's a whole complete story! I AM SO PROUD OF MYSELF RIGHT NOW!!!
Entry in my writing journal from the day I finished the first draft of The Life-Giver

Writing the first draft is a rollercoaster of emotions. When I was drafting my debut, The Life-Giver (out Spring 2022), I went through all sorts of phases – fear that I wasn’t going to get the whole story down, love of my characters, pride in my writing, horror at my writing, deleting entire scenes and rewriting them before I even got to the end, before I forced myself to just carry on even if I hated everything on the page so far, because I could fix it later. I kept telling myself: I will edit this to make it better. It can be a mush of word soup right now, because I am going to edit it later.

Then, the next time I read it back, I didn’t hate it as much.

I really think that when you’re in the middle of drafting, when you’re so close to the story that you can’t untangle yourself or look at it objectively, then it’s really, really hard to keep perspective. I tend to oscillate between thinking that my draft is absolutely terrible and completely unsalvageable, and thinking that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I don’t need to change a thing.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. But I always forget that until I take a step back, disentangle myself from my characters, and realise that of course it isn’t perfect. But it isn’t the worst thing in the universe either. With a bit of tweaking, it could even be a decent story.

I’ve heard it said often that first drafts are meant to be written quickly, without looking back. I agree with that to an extent. Some drafts are written super quickly (I once wrote 80,000 words in a little under two weeks. Don’t know how I managed that honestly) but with The Life-Giver, it took me two years to write 101,000 words. This is down to many things – my health, for one, because I’m chronically ill and frequently have weeks (or months) where I can’t read or write at all. But other things play a part in the speed of a draft, too.

One factor is how long I’ve spent with the story, the world, and the characters so far. The Life-Giver went through many changes prior to me writing it, and during the first draft too – I actually first started writing it when I was 15, eleven years ago! And in those eleven years I have gained wisdom and ideas that I didn’t have as a teenager, and that shows in changes in the story. I had to spend a lot of time reworking the worldbuilding, which made the draft slower.

Another factor is how much of the story is planned out before I start writing. As I noted earlier, I am a pantser, meaning I usually start writing without a plan, or with a very loose outline at the most. The speed of the draft depends on how much I’ve planned beforehand, and how much that plan will inevitably change once I get stuck into the characters and the world and the plot. Seriously, even if I loosely outline all the major events, things will change without my knowledge (case in point: in The Life-Giver, there is a key that changes hands that later comes to have a lot of importance. I did not plan for that key to exist; it just appeared as I wrote the scene).

A large pile of paper titled 'The Life-Giver' by Julia Puddicombe (Julia is Jase's birth name)
My first draft, printed

I also tend to write in bursts, again largely because of my chronic illness. I am not and will never be the kind of writer who writes 1000 words every day consistently. Instead, I have weeks of no writing at all, then a period where I can get 10,000 written in a matter of days. There are also slow days, where I battle to get 200 words on the page before I have to stop, and it’s like drawing blood from a stone. The speed of the first draft depends on how many periods I have of being able to write fast, or not write at all. With The Life-Giver, there were over eight months where I was too unwell to write anything, which is partly why it took so long.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the speed of the first draft matters too much. Whether you can get it done in a month, Nano style, or whether it’s a slow simmer over a number of years, you will still end up with a complete first draft. And that’s the first major milestone to becoming an author. You need something to work with – much as I love the empty page, it’s much easier to edit something that already exists than it is to write something perfect from the first letter.

But that’s partly why I love the first draft so much. It’s the time to get all the mistakes out of the way, and to properly see your characters come to life for the first time. I love seeing the scenes I’ve been carrying around in my head finally play out on paper, even if they’re far from perfect the first time around. It’s a thrill to see my story come to life. And that’s why I will always love the first draft.

So, if you are first drafting right now – keep going, keep going, keep going. No matter how long it takes or how awful you think it is right now, you can fix it later. Just keep going until you have a story you can work with.

That’s the beauty of first drafts – they’re the beginning of the story, not the end.