First Drafts


I confess.  I write truly terrible first drafts.  Especially for projects that aren’t part of a series.  A six thousand word short story takes me a month, minimum, because the first draft is so lousy.  An entire novel is even worse.

I bring this up because I am approaching the end of the first draft of my current project, which I like to describe as The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress meets Contact.  It’s been a rough ride, as I’ve never written straight SF before, and I’m still not sure I’ve found the right voice for it.

That’s an example of my problem right there.  Here I am, nearly at the end of a first draft, and I’m still not sure the voice is right.  That’s how bad my first drafts are.  Unreadable only begins to describe them.  First drafts for me are a mishmash of plot, pov, characters, the whole megilla.  Because I am unable to outline effectively, and because I refuse to do any revision while working on a first draft, my first drafts emerge more as a set of longhand notes to myself than anything else.  Longhand notes that I will have to spend a great deal of time and effort translating before I can turn them into an actual readable piece.

I have never shown a rough draft I’ve written to anyone, and I never will.  Which makes it very difficult to be a regular contributor to crit group.  A year can pass without my having anything to show the group.  And then I’ll dump a hundred and twenty thousand word novel on them.  Which is hardly the way to endear yourself to your fellow critters.

How do you do it?

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  1. 1. Steve Buchheit

    Unless the group is geared toward novels, that would be a rough thing to do. Normally for novels we run them through in chunks (say 20-25k words for each consecutive meeting). However, having a group that specifically does novels is great. Did that last year, it was fabulous (first 50s from everybody, full novel from a smaller group).

  2. 2. Bree

    The people in my writing group tend to do a chapter or two at a time. Or a short story.

    We meet each week and we have about 10 members. Meeting less frequently or with fewer members would give the time for longer submissions.

  3. 3. Mary

    Once you’ve shown your work to your group, you will never again get a first impression from them. I make it a rule to never show anyone anything which I could still improve myself.

  4. 4. Kate

    I’m so glad you posted this, because it made me feel better about my first drafts – it takes me a long time to produce anything decent.

    Question: how do you go about revising the first draft? I feel like no matter how hard I try to make a first draft good, it’s really going to be little more than the bones of the story. It can be overwhelming to go back for revising, even though that’s really where the art happens for me. Do you rewrite from the start, do you tweak sentence by sentence, do you start at the beginning or skip around?

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Steve, Bree, Mary – Didn’t mean for this to be a post about crit groups, but that seems to be the way folks have taken it. But I have found that online crit groups work great for novels. There is no schedule, you can post when you want, and you can keep reviewing other people’s work the rest of the time. I still say I never would have gotten published without OWW.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Kate – My rewriting is almost as laborious as the first draft. But at least by the time I rewrite I know every last event in the narrative, which means I know what to emphasize and what to excise. Specifically, I go back to the beginning and go over the entire draft a chapter at a time. I revise each chapter completely. If I retain 50% of the first draft, that means that part of the first draft was almost perfect.

    A good example lies in my word counts. The first draft of REIFFEN’S CHOICE was 275,000 words. The published draft was 160,000. Of those 160,000, 80,000 at least were brand new. Which means I tossed nearly 200,000 words of a 275,000 word draft.

  7. 7. Andrew A. A.

    I was just having this discussion. I love finishing a story. I don’t mind finishing a second draft because it makes the story stronger and catches 75% of my schizoid-grammar mistakes. I despise every draft after that.

    I’m a little like you, Sam… Only slower. I’m lucky that my first reader is my wife who reads all my crap, reading chapter by chapter which helps a lot.

    Three novels in the works, with no motivation to get over the 30K hump. Here’s to finishing first Drafts!!!

    Yay! Sam Congrats! Waiting expectantly…

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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