In Which We Create a First Draft

May 2021

I finished a first draft last month. It is the first draft of The Needle of Avocation, the third book in my series The Peaceweaver, which begins with The Rules of Trade, due out in November. In terms of producing a finished book the first draft is only one of many milestones. It feels like an accomplishment because at last you have something whole on paper. You have typed the words “THE END” (at least in your head, if not on paper). But this is not the end of creating a book. It is just the beginning.

And yet, a first draft, if it comes off, is a turning point because the nature of the work changes once the first draft is completed successfully. Not all first drafts are successful though. Sometimes you have to throw them into the wood chipper and write another first draft.

And this, I think, is the problem with naming drafts by simple enumeration: first, second, etc. If you get your story right in your first draft and I get mine wrong, we both have to do another draft, but your second draft and mine are going to be concerned with entirely different issues. You are moving on to other things beside the raw structure of story, whereas I am still going to be struggling with creating a story that works.

Now, if I want to fool myself, I can call the thing I write after I throw the first draft into the woodchipper the second draft. But that is self deception. What I would be doing is another first draft. I might have to do several drafts before I am ready to move on to the issues that you were handling in your second draft.

I’ve done that a few times. I’ve had projects where I probably did ten first drafts. But as someone who spent thirty years in corporate writing environments, that disturbs me. It is not efficient. It is not productive. Writing is a craft before it is an art and it is the business of craft to be efficient and productive. Thus I’m trying to find ways to get my first draft right without doing ten first drafts. Besides, if you want to make a career as a novelist, you need to reliably produce novels on a regular basis. And if you want to do that, you can’t spend ten iterations stuck at the first draft stage.

A lot of people will tell you that you should just puke out your first draft. Anything to get something down on paper, they say. I’m convinced this is a mistake. For the rank beginner it may be the only option, but by the time you have done a couple of these, you should be more deliberate than that. The first draft is actually the most important draft, and it pays to focus on how to get it right.

The first step towards that is to figure out what the first draft is supposed to do. I think the job of the first draft is to capture the bones of the story. It is where you discover what the story is about and find its beginning, middle, and end. If that stuff is not solid at the end of the first draft you can no more fix it in a later draft than you can fix a crack in the foundation of a house at the paint and wallpaper stage. Given that, I think we would do ourselves a favor if we dropped the term “first draft” and called it the “story draft” instead.

There is a lot to do after the story draft is complete. How much depends on how much else you captured while getting the story down. There is more to a story than just the plot outline. A story only exists in the telling, so the story draft is the first attempt at telling the story. In some sense, you are trying to get everything right at once. But the thing I think you must get right before you move on is the basic shape of the story.

From there it is about improving the telling. There may be descriptions to fill out, or characters to insert into earlier scenes because they turn out to be important in later ones. There may be passages of narrative to dramatize or passages of dull drama to bridge with narrative. There may be whole scenes and threads and bits of business to remove because they go nowhere or new scenes to insert to support or develop the central crisis of the book or to prove its resolution. Let’s call addressing all this stuff the continuity draft. I’ll return to that in a later newsletter — after I have done the continuity draft on The Needle of Avocation.

The story draft of The Needle of Avocation currently sits in a drawer. I’m confident it was a successful story draft, but I need a little time away from it so that I can gain a little perspective before I begin work on the continuity draft. Also, my publisher tells me I’m to expect the line edits for The Rules of Trade this week, so The Needle of Avocation may be in that drawer for a while.

Found things

Stuff I found that interests me, and may interest you.

Popular fiction and the Catholic Literary Renaissance by Rhonda Franklin Ortiz

This article by Rhonda Franklin Ortiz, who happens to be my editor at Chrism Press, makes an able defense of the role of popular fiction (like mine) in the Catholic Literary Renaissance. “In the what, now?” you may be saying. Well, Catholic writers used to play a much larger role in western culture than they do today, and some of us are trying to change that. But, really, Rhonda’s argument is not applicable only to Catholics. Her reasoning would apply to any group that has been marginalized from the dominant culture, whether or not they were once part of the dominant culture or not.

There is a tendency from any group that feels itself marginalized and wants to make its voice heard to become deadly serious in its approach. But deadly serious is not usually the voice that gets heard. Popular fiction does not really mean fiction that is popular (though one can hope), it means fiction that is written for the tastes and interests of ordinary readers. If you want people to hear your voice, you have to write for the people.

The novel is dead (this time it's for real) by Will Self

This article by Well Self from 2014 provides a sort of interesting companion to Ortiz’s article. Self argues that the serious novel is a dead art form, of interest only to a few specialists. He may have a point, though he could perhaps have made it more succinctly.

It is, in any case, further argument for the importance of popular fiction. And popular fiction does not have to mean trivial fiction. Because, lest we forget, Charles Dickens was a popular novelist. So was Tolkien. So was Jane Austen. And they still are.

From the blog

Creating a first draft is an all consuming activity for me. I can’t really do much else while I am working on it. My head is too full of the story I am trying to tell. Which is all by way of making an excuse for the fact that I have only made one blog post in the past six weeks, and that was yesterday.

It is one, however, that I have been working on for a very long time. Most blog posts are the work of a moment. Have an idea. Bang out 1500 words on it. Proof it a couple of times and hit publish—the work of an afternoon. This one has been sitting in draft form for months because it seemed important for me to get it right.

Anomalous Now: Why it is the Present, not the Past, that is Weird

This is the first post in a series that I have been planning for a while on the things that historical novelists, but also journalists, politicians, pundits, and ideologues miss about the deep background of history. I call it, The Anomalous Now, because the main reason people get these things wrong is because of the many ways in which the present is completely unlike almost every past age. And in getting the background wrong, writers can be deeply unjust about the people of the past, and unjustifiably sanguine about themselves and their audience today.

Questions? Thoughts? Any links to suggest that might be of interest? Write to me at author@gmbaker.net. Thanks!