The Meaninglessness of a First Draft

Whilst I’ve been living my normal life – walking the dogs, clearing out the kitchen cupboards, competing in swimming championships, laying plans for an orangery (I say!) – I have also been writing another novel. Surreptitiously. Almost, I might say, without noticing. I can report that I’m now nearing the end of my first draft. One big, final scene to write and then it’s all in the bag.

I have no idea what this novel is like. Really. I set out with a rough plan, a few character outlines and the main arc of a story. Every day that I could, I sat down and wrote 500 words or more. Some days I couldn’t. Some days I didn’t. Bit by bit, however, without my paying too much attention, the novel got written.

Having barely glanced back over what I’ve written, I know very little about it. I am aware of some obvious differences to my previous novel. This one has a much smaller cast of characters. There is less inter-play between characters, less dramatic cause and effect. The plot is simpler. The conflict more internal.

I have included more telling in this novel. My previous novel was show, show, show, perhaps because it was conceived during my MA in Creative Writing where we all know ‘show don’t tell’ is the overriding mantra. When I re-drafted that novel recently, I added more telling, more interiority. Sometimes the reader needs to be told, not shown, how a character thinks or feels.

Whilst on the subject of my previous novel, I’ve finally reached a point where I am, dare I say it, pretty damn satisfied with it. I’ve taken a long time to reach that point, with much processing of feedback, gaining of distance and re-evaluations.

I attended an author’s event recently at which Maggie O’Farrell gave a reading from her latest novel, followed by an interview and Q&A. When asked how many times she drafted her novels, she asked the audience to guess. ‘Twice? Three times?’ members of the audience offered. Nope. She estimated it was at least forty. Forty drafts! Music to my ears.

I don’t consider this to be the sign of a weak writer. I consider it the sign of a meticulous self-editor and someone who takes their writing very seriously: a professional.

I know from experience that, when I say I have completed a first draft, it means very little. It means I have some words to play with. A story to shape. Characters to make credible. But before I get onto any of that, I need to write the final scene. It’s a big, high drama scene. Quite a challenge, in fact. Which, no doubt, is why I’m writing this blog instead. I’m going to quickly change tabs on my computer now and see if I can surreptitiously write the finale without noticing that I’m writing it. A few thousand words with my eyes half shut. And then, once it’s done, I’ll be ready to give the book my undivided attention.

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6 Responses to The Meaninglessness of a First Draft

  1. Peter Raynard says:

    In case you didn’t see it the other day, an article by Will Self on his novel drafting process, http://gu.com/p/4y8pm?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

    • claudia says:

      Thank for that, Peter. Very interesting. I like the idea of starting to work on the second draft when you’re two-thirds through the first. I might give that a shot. I agree with Self that the third draft requires more serious, concentrated isolation. Funny old process, isn’t it?

  2. Kudos on your journey. This novel already sounds like a must read for me, but do finish the finale.

  3. Love this so much, Claudia. I had upwards of thirty drafts of my first novel- from start to the finalfinalfinal proof from my publisher. I should keep better track- in the thick of revisions with my publisher now for novel 2. But I do know that the first draft came in at 105,000 words and the current draft has 83, 600. I’m guessing the final published copy with be closer to 80,000. That’s a shit-ton of revisions, when I think of all the new material I’ve written since draft one, yet I’ve shed nearly 25,000 words.

    To me, there is nothing quite so magical as that first freeflowing draft- the one that no one sees, no one’s opinion or comments can sully. But once that is complete, the excavation begins- often revelatory and exciting, but somehow painful as well- a reminder that there is always more work to be done.

    I’m so excited for you to be embarking on a next novel. Light and love and inspiration to you!

    • claudia says:

      Ah, thank you Julie. Yes, there is something special about the privacy of that first draft. And isn’t it amazing how with subsequent drafts you write more material and yet lose more words? Best of luck with the editing of your second novel. Having just read your first, I absolutely can’t wait to read it. x

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