First Drafts vs. Final Drafts

In the last four years I’ve drafted (and revised and rewritten and revised again…and again) two middle grade manuscripts. I love the revising stage because every decision and change improves the story in some way (thank goodness). Drafting? Less of a delight. The product is such a hot mess and such a far cry from what I’m hoping to achieve that I cringe opening up the document. I spend more time questioning my writing skills (do I have any? Why is each sentence more terrible than the last? Why is this scene boring and undeniably the worst thing I’ve ever written? Even worse than that English paper from 9th grade that I purposely reread just for comparison sake [not procrastination, no of course not]?! Am I getting WORSE at writing? Is that possible? What am I even doing?! 😂) than getting words on the page so the process is slowwwwww and excruciatingly drawn out. Also, my characters are usually completely mute in my head during the first draft, I have absolutely no idea what their voice is like or what they’d even say in a situation, they’re resistant to all of my pleas to just “tell me what you want and why and oh for the love of brownies why won’t you reveal anything about yourself why are you giving me the cold shoulder I don’t understand can’t we just be BFFs–”

(Yes, it’s dramatic. But they’re my real and true feelings. For months!)

While the secret to finally (finally!) getting a full manuscript down on the page was very different for each project (I will never tell those secrets, I promised the troll I traded with for my first and second borne) (jk) (but sort of not), they did both involve months of bribery (of myself: chocolate, wine, caffeine, Netflix, whatever it took), craft books, crying into my coffee with writing friends, and hair pulling.

And they always end with a messy first draft that I sort of side-eye with fear and mild loathing.

But I’m starting to notice a pattern in my first and final drafts. Which I actually find very reassuring as I start thinking ahead to the next story idea and drafting in general. Instead of hating drafting/considering it a failure, maybe I can just appreciate it as a very predictable first step towards a polished manuscript I love.

First draft is ALWAYS:

  1. Bare bone/short word count (like, really short! Think 35-40,000 words). Woe is me, I think. There’s nothing else to say. That’s all she wrote, folks. There’s no hope.
  2. 95% descriptions, 5% dialogue. Argh!
  3. Cluttered with lonely scenes where the main character is totally alone with their thoughts, while participating in completely solitary activities (hence contributing to the 95/5% ratio referenced above). This also often leads to very melodramatic main characters. Stop whining! I want to shout and shake them by the shoulders. I’m so tired of your repetitive complaints and worries!

Then there’s some of this in-between. Rinse and repeat until the book makes sense. Throw in some critique partner reads and opinions.

So much purple! Always so much purple 😭

To my great and utter relief, I’ve now twice been able to replicate that the final draft is ALWAYS:

  1. So much longer! After layering in more and more with each revision, manuscripts start clocking in at the much more standard/acceptable 60-70,000 word range. Can it be true? I sniff the air, refresh the Word word-counter half a dozen times, just to be sure. It lives! It grows!
  2. Sooooo much more dialogue! I don’t know the exact ratio, but a chapter never goes by without someone talking to someone. Hurray! They speak!!
  3. Except for maybe in the dark night of the soul, very little totally solitary scenes. New side characters and relationships have been layered in and the main character now has a PERSONALITY (hallelujah!) so he/she actually has things they want to say and people who want to listen/talk back! Slow down! I want to shout, but don’t, to avoid jinxing it, fingers flying across the keyboard to catch everything they’re yammering so fast and loud in my head before I lose it. As a result, the melodrama dial is turned wayyyyy down and while it takes two to tango, it also takes two to joke! So there are actual jokes and humor in final drafts which make the stories so much more fun to reread! (And reread…and reread again.)

Thank goodness for revisions. Maybe (just maybe) I’m willing to admit my writing has improved since 9th grade. 😂

–Hannah

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