First drafts are a process not a product

As I race to increase my word count for November, like so many others this month, I am learning one very important thing: that writing a first draft is a process, not a product.

First drafts are for exploring the story; getting to know your characters, seeing how they react to circumstances and embedding yourself in their lives. First drafts are for making mistakes; getting distracted by storyline tangents that we didn’t know existed, introducing strong characters and letting go of weaker ones. First drafts are for our eyes only; allowing us to write terrible sentences, use lazy words and skip the scenes we just can’t be bothered with.

Product vs. Process

First drafts are about process, not about product. 

I don’t think I ever realised this before. I must have been aware of it, but until recently I hadn’t explicitly acknowledged it. Not until I worked out that my first ever attempt at a novel – NaNo #1 – would be better served by a rewrite rather than an edit.

For the month of November I need to allow myself the freedom to really explore my novel concept. If that means that after 12,000 words I have not yet written the inciting incident, instead focusing on the back story that sets up this conflict, then so be it. At least I’ll really understand my protagonist and her motivations when it comes to destroying all that she holds dear.

I’m learning that part of my process is making my characters real. Not for a reader, but for me – the writer. If I’m going to be writing a 90,000+ word manuscript about them then I need to care about what happens to them. To do that I have to convince myself that they really do exist somewhere – be that in my head and/or on the page. As a result, I’ve spent most of my November writing dialogue between my protagonist and her best friend, discovering how she really feels about losing her birth mum on the day they met and how she discovered she was adopted in the first place.

I’ve been writing a lot of exposition too, to give myself the opportunity to understand the landscape of the story I’m trying to write, to contextualise and legitimise the acts I know are going to come up at some point soon. My first draft process is to write all of the story, so that at the end I can decide which bits are the most significant and which parts are for my benefit only.

My process might involve a rough outline, but I have the option to take it slow and really delve into each plot point and justify it in my head. Until today I was questioning that approach, thinking that it was taking too long, that I was writing rubbish to stall the action, that I was afraid to really write the ‘big scenes’ I had originally planned.

Now I know this is just my process. In order to write those big scenes I need to understand what led my characters there and how they really might react to these things I’ve already decided for them. Most of all, I’ve realised that the first draft is entirely about the process of writing this story with these characters at a certain time and is less about the final product itself.

For all those taking part in NaNoWriMo, or just trying to write a novel themselves, remember this: You might create a final product from your first draft, but that initial manuscript is all about discovering the potential of your idea. No one ever has to see your first draft. Instead let it be the mechanism that drives you to create that final product you eventually share with the world. 



9 responses to “First drafts are a process not a product

  1. Pingback: 2013: In Review | Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer

  2. Hey, Cat, this is a great post. Hope your NaNo experience is still going well. I’m feeling much better about it all now and I’m happy with the progress I’m making. Good Luck this week 🙂

    • Great to hear you’re making progress! 🙂 I’m at a stumbling block at the moment (hence my recent post) but I’ll make it. I’m stubborn like that.

      Glad that you enjoyed the post. Even glad-der (NaNoWriMo always inspires me to make up words) that you commented. Makes me smile. 🙂
      Take Care, Cat x

  3. Thanks so much Cat! I’m learning so much from you! I’m over 13k into my draft right now, but still haven’t figured out much of the NaNo site. I am not sure how to buddy you. My NaNo user name is lilicasplace. Can you buddy me and explain to me how it works please? Oh and by the way, I nominated you for WordPress Family Award about the time NaNo started, but I’m not sure if I notified you. I am such a mess right now! So sorry if I didn’t. You don’t have to do anything for it if you don’t want to; just accept it in the spirit in which I gave it. Lily

    • Thanks for the nomination doll! NaNo can make us all a little forgetful, we’re so focused on those 50k words!
      I’m really pleased that my posts help you. Will definitely look you up and buddy you!
      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  4. Great post. I’ve been writing a hell of a lot of dialogue between my main characters and worrying a bit about it because it’s all talk and not much else. But it does mean I’m getting to know them better. It’s going to need one hell of an edit, or more likely a re-write, if it’s ever going to be really readable but NaNo is all about getting that first draft written in the first place isn’t it?

    • This is very true. NaNo is the time for a first draft and nothing else.

      As I mentioned in my post, I’ve recently realised my original NaNo novel (#1, from 2011) will need a rewrite, but that’s okay: because the first draft let me explore the story and will allow me to re-write a much better, stronger second draft that (hopefully) won’t require too much structural editing once I get it down.

      As they say at NaNoWriMo – write with abandon. You never know what might be useful until you get it all down.

      Keep writing – and enjoy your dialogue pieces. After all, you can’t edit a blank page.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂
      Take Care, Cat

    • Thank you! I wrote it mainly for myself, but glad that sharing it proved positive.
      Thanks also for the ReTweet too. Appreciate your kind words. 🙂
      Thanks for reading, Cat

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