What is The First Draft of a Novel?

What is a first draft? What do you need to know in order to start writing?

As I mentioned in an earlier post. Dwight V. Swain, in his book “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” a book you should have, says that all you need in your story outline is:

A focal character
A situation in which the character is involved
An objective the character wishes to obtain
An opponent who strives against the character
A potential climactic disaster on which hinges the resolution.

Otherwise, writing goes from fun to drudgery, and “the idea lies dead as a skinned and gutted rabbit in a freezer…”

Add to this outline an understanding of story structure and the archetypal characters, and you’re good to go.

I look at the first draft the same way an archeologist looks at a dig site the first time he approaches it.* They have an idea of what they expect to find there. What they are really looking for is a story. Who or what lived there? What did they eat? What kind of buildings did they live in? How were they buried? And so on.

They start to dig. They use the techniques and procedures they were taught. They begin to uncover artifacts. Pretty much what they expected. And then something odd shows up. It changes their whole view of what might be there, or the way these people lived, or even who the people are.

So it is with a first draft of a novel. Whether you have planned it to the nth degree, or whether you have the bare-bones outline Dwight Swain suggests, you are going to discover things you didn’t know about the characters and about the story itself.

As you write, an idea comes to you. Maybe it’s a new character. Maybe it’s an existing character who does or says something unexpected. Like the artifact taken from the ground, you dust it off and hold it up to the light. You explore it. It changes the direction of your story. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you toss it out now, maybe during rewriting. Maybe you keep it.

But that’s the fun of writing. That’s why writing a detailed outline is a waste of time, or at least not necessary. Once you start writing, unexpected things begin to happen. Things that cannot happen while writing an outline. Writing an outline is largely a mechanical process, whereas doing the actual writing is organic. If you turn the writing of the novel into a mechanical process of hanging words on the skeleton of your outline, then it is no longer fun.

The first draft, to a large degree, is the outline, at least for me. By the time you finish, you’ve explored the characters and the plot. You have a good idea of what the story really is, and who the characters really are. You have some semblance of structure.

But it is not ready to go. In fact, no one should see it. Somewhere in there is the plot and the turning points (i.e., the structure of a novel), but it’s not perfect. It has to be rearranged. Things have to be cut. Things have to be added. 

The first draft is like the hairball an owl hacks up after eating a mouse. It’s got the bones and the fur, and maybe some meat. Your job as the writer is to reconstitute this thing into a mouse, all flesh and blood with the structure of a mouse, and then like a god, breathe life into it.

I’ve read forum posts by authors with lots of self-published books on Amazon about how they still had ten-thousand words to go, but they hoped to have it published next month. What? No. Do you know what they are going to publish? The first draft. They are going to take the hacked-up fiasco of a hairball and publish it as their work. And we wonder why self-publishing has a bad reputation. It deserves it. (I digress)

There is no way you can take the newly finished work and publish it. Oh, these writers will go through it and “edit” it, maybe making a few changes, correcting typos, and such. But that is not a second draft.

For me, the best way to get the first draft done is to write it as fast as you can, then put it down for at least several weeks. The flaws will not be visible to you until you’ve done that. You’ve got to hack up the hairball, then go back later and massage it into being a mouse.

Then it’s time for the second draft… to be continued.

*I’m sure this analogy is presented in more eloquent form in Stephen King’s book “On Writing.”