Recently, I wrote a short story for a competition entry on the theme of ‘Lost and Found’. I’d been thinking of the first line for a few days – I first lost my mind in March of ’53 – when I decided I had to get it down and see where it took me. Surprisingly, or perhaps by the plan of my subconscious, I completed my first draft right on the word count target. I put it away for a few days, letting my mind mull over what I had written and thinking about how it might morph into a cohesive narrative that I could submit.
Except, when I came back to it I didn’t have anything to alter. I read it over, liked it and identified a number of subtle threads that ran through it that I hadn’t intentionally realised I had integrated into the text. But, this was a first draft – I couldn’t trust it: right? I poured over the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and as a result only added a few lines to the end to make the climax less maudlin. I sighed and put it to one side.
Then, last week I decided to try out another approach. I rewrote an entire second draft. The character was the same, but I added other people and interactions, putting my protagonist in an entirely different situation. Yes, I thought, this is progress – from a passive scenario to a more active one with dialogue. This, I thought, is something I can work with; it’s flawed and imperfect and will need development. That is much more like the process I’m used to.
On Sunday I read them both through. I became confused and disappointed. My original first draft was still more powerful and conveyed more emotional context. I still couldn’t find anything wrong with it – oh no, wait, there was a spelling mistake. I couldn’t quite believe I had written a story whose shape, pace and characterisation were all present right from the start.
In the end I got my partner to read over both drafts. He didn’t see what the problem was – the first one was great, it spoke of the loss and difficulties of my character, even though it comprised mostly of internal dialogue; it was this that anchored it to the page and permitted the reader to see the world through my protagonist’s eyes. (I should note that these weren’t my partner’s ACTUAL words – he’s not really into fiction – this was my impression of the conversation we had about it afterwards)
So, today I am preparing a first draft story for submission into a competition. I am still afraid that it ‘isn’t good enough’ but can’t fathom how I could possibly improve on it. It seems like the best version of the story that I could write – so it must be the one to submit. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it is about first drafts that scare us so much? Either we think they are drivel and dismiss them, or they present themselves on the page just as we intended and we feel duped because that’s not what we’ve been told should really happen.
I guess what it has taught me is to have faith in myself. On occasion I might get it right first time. It could be beginner’s luck in this particular instance, or it could be that I’ve developed my craft well enough that, for this story, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and said it just the way I wanted. I’ve struggled so much with the short story format in the past that I’ve begun to doubt myself, not trusting in the instincts I have to tell the story in my own way. Things are different this time, though, because I trust in my words.
It makes me wonder if a draft isn’t what I thought it was; an altered version of that which went before, preferably an improved one. This time around I could argue I’ve drafted three versions, only I didn’t actually change anything in my text as I went through this process. I may have added three more sentences, fixed a spelling mistake – but aren’t these things we usually do whilst progressing through our drafts? So I didn’t actually change anything, but I did examine it, scrutinise the story and analyse the structure. Surely this is the process of successful drafting? Therefore, maybe this isn’t a true first draft at all, perhaps I’m submitting my third draft in reality even though nothing has really altered.
It doesn’t quite feel that way though, as it has all come together so easily. And maybe that’s the problem – Thomas Mann said that “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I’ve accepted this concept so deeply that I when the words comes easily I don’t trust it. But perhaps I should, on those rare occasions when serendipity provides me with the story to tell that is just right for this time and place; maybe we need to stop being so critical and realise that, as writers, we can write a decent first draft.
Have you ever been happy with your own first draft? How much do you trust in the words that you write first time around? Can a first draft ever be a final draft, or is the drafting process integral to understanding what you’ve written and why, even if you don’t change things?
Let me know in comments, or Tweet me.