Writing a First DraftMay 09, 2021
‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ said Ernest Hemingway. I’ve always liked this line because it’s a great equalizer: we’re all capable of writing terrible first drafts. And it’s freeing too: it’s about getting the words down, generating material, discovering the story … no pressure to be anything more than that.
From the desk of Emylia Hall.
This is not my first draft rodeo... (not that you’d know it).
Nevertheless, whenever I turn in a first draft, I still always think … but what if, this time, it’s not? What if it is, in fact, nearly there? Just needing a nip, a tuck … and we’re good to go? And although all my experience tells me this will not be the case – that this is almost never ever the case for anyone – I find myself absurdly hoping anyway. Because, typically, I’ve finished that draft on a real high, a crescendo of energy and inspiration – and every ounce of my own disbelief is suspended by this point too. I’m deeply in it.
This last time, just a few weeks ago, I typed the words ‘The End’, even though no novel closes that way, because I wanted to feel all the intensity of that final flourish. Then I snapped shut my laptop and walked down the stairs to join my family, feeling faintly heroic – hell, not even faintly, fully – and poured myself a large glass of wine. Collapsed on the sofa. Glowing.
My husband started reading my draft the next day (and here I’ve consciously flouted our rule at The Novelry of never showing your raw work to anyone: The Big Edit is, instead, the guide you need). He’s been my first reader for all of my books, and we’ve come to an understanding: things will get ugly – he’s too blunt, I’m too thin-skinned – but it’s worth it in the end. This time, I was delighted when he got down to reading it so soon. I busied myself playing Lego with my son, one ear cocked, all the while, for any sounds of his enjoyment (don’t ask what I was expecting here … the odd guffaw? A fast intake of breath?). At one point I even absented myself to scroll through the manuscript on my phone, trying to see what section he might be reading at that very moment, if he might be getting to one of the ‘good ones’. When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I poked my head around the door. ‘How’s it going?’ I asked, and my voice came out wheedling, dripping with need.
‘Well, I’m on chapter three and you haven’t irritated me yet.’
I laughed heartily – and walked away with a veritable skip in my step. I hadn’t irritated him yet! Joy! At this point I’d take any compliment, however backhanded. Because, too, I knew what he meant. After four published novels, two more in drawers, I know the holes I write myself into by now. And I can even joke about it (how big of me!).
But an hour or so later – after more Lego, more self-serving enquiring – things had changed. I can’t remember what he said, but it was purely critical; something about character or story that wasn’t working for him. And just like that, my wick was lit. ‘Stop! I don’t want to know! Just give me 24 hours, 24 hours of thinking this novel might actually be perfect as it is!’ And I was stomping, seething. Laughably so, of course, because hadn’t we been here plenty of times before? And what did I expect anyway? But ego can be such a fragile thing. We agreed that he’d continue to read, but just not voice any thoughts until I was ready to hear them. And I would stop with the asking; stop looking for a pat on the head and a cookie and to be told that, actually, it was perfect, just a nip and a tuck and …
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had feedback from two other writer friends, as well as my agent. I was now under no illusion that the book was nearly there. It would need considerably more work, just like all first drafts do. And the way that I felt about this work-to-be-done seemed to vary from day to day. On one bright morning, I dropped my son at school and instead of hurrying back to my desk, I kept on walking. I stopped for an almond croissant and coffee, and then again to pick up some lunch supplies, and headed out from the city to wide open green space. With no one around but the odd dog walker or jogger I talked to myself, inhabiting different characters from my book, untangling what they thought and who they were deep down (this is, I’m sure, a predilection from childhood, when I used to stalk the edges of the garden, head bent, ever-murmuring). With all that motion, all that freedom – physical as well as mental – I started to feel emboldened: to feel up for this next draft. I was excited by the possibilities. I stayed out for hours, on a hillside that felt more like a mountain, so beautifully removed from my day to day that eventually treading back down onto the old familiar routes of the city made me feel like I was returning from a far wilder space: that of the imagination. When I got home, I sat out in the garden with a notebook and filled it with pages of jottings, energy and intention in every stroke of the pen.
The next day, what was my first thought upon waking? God, there’s a lot of work ahead. And this thought stayed with me the whole day, bearing down on me with a physical weight. I started to tell myself a story (occupational hazard) and it went like this: I’d used up all my energy in getting that first draft down, that was the problem, what with the 6am starts, the pushing through home-school, the juggling of work, the dark winter lockdown months, there was nothing left in my locker, nothing left for this next draft, zilch. And here’s where the fantasies started to edge in … what if I just… left it? No one was making me write this novel, after all. I have no contractual obligations. And then the question: why are you even doing this anyway? What do you want from it?
One of the things I find eternally fascinating about the novel-writing process is that we simply can’t escape ourselves. I don’t just mean in the words we put down on paper, but our attitude, our approach, our relationship with our own creativity. And not just creativity, because the minute we’re writing with publication as a goal, then there’s a whole host of other factors to stare down: the possibility of failure and of disappointment is every bit as likely as the chances of reward; writing of the movie business William Goldman said ‘nobody knows anything’ and surely it’s true of publishing too. So, it’s about our relationship with uncertainty as well. And understanding our motivation – what we really, really want from this writing lark – goes a long way in helping to manage our expectations and organise our ambition.
The stakes are raised with a second draft. It’s no longer about just getting a story down, writing a novel-length narrative, typing ‘The End’ – it’s about conscious betterment. We proceed on the basis that we understand there is work to be done and that we will gain something of value by undertaking that work: artistic satisfaction, evidence of mental agility, proof of commitment, and, perhaps ultimately, if it’s our endgame, publishing success (but nobody knows anything, right?). And we all know that the moment we set our sights on achievement of any kind, we must also make our peace with the possibility of failure. It’s at this stage in the process that we should become not just writer but reader too, and in order to pull this off it means training an objective and interrogative eye on our work. And the more prepared we are to entertain wild possibilities, the better. Because here’s the thing: our novels can still be anything – anything we want them to be. All we need to do is have the bravery to imagine it and the strength to get it done. And to me it’s always felt physical, the rewriting at this point. Every significant change I make feels like it requires a deep breath, a flex, and then … in.
At The Novelry, we advise at least a month’s break after completing a first draft. A big part of this is about replenishing our depleted stocks and gaining emotional distance. If I’d tried to start editing on the same day that I was still mentally running through all the feats it’d taken to get the damn draft down in the first place I’d probably have started peevishly spouting Kipling (‘watch the things you gave your life to, broken/ And stop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools’) and then collapsed over my keyboard because I just didn’t have it in me after all.
So instead we replenish, read, recharge. We carry our notebooks and scribble down thoughts in a free-flowing manner. Thus energised, we’ve a better chance of quietening that sabotaging inner voice – the one that only ever wants us to play safe, and maintain the status quo – and slowly we’ll begin to feel ourselves opening up to the thought of the great wide unknown, and all the possibility it holds. We’ll start to feel curious about our own work-in-progress, for we’ve begun to create a world, it’s already part-made, it didn’t exist before and, with our focused attention, it could become fully realised and maybe even something quite beautiful. And now? Well, it’s game on.
It’s at this point that I like a sports-movie-style pep talk. I think of Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, as he addresses his losing team, the Miami Sharks, in the locker room, ‘We can fight our way back into the light, we can climb out of hell, one inch at a time.’ Progression by inches. That’s a sentiment that’s perfectly in tune with what Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird (one of my favourite books on writing craft), where she tells us that she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk, to remind her that all she ever has to do is:
...write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.
So, I make lists of what I know I need to fix in the next draft. And I tell myself I’ll pick them off one by one. Inch by inch. Still on a sports tip I think, too, of Friday Night Lights, and Kyle Chandler as Coach T, saying ‘clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.’
So, I vow to try to be clear-eyed: objective and cool, appraising. I’ll keep a full heart, to feel connected to the essence of the story I want to tell and to see big changes as opportunities. And I’ll tell myself that if I do both of these things to the best of my ability then, simply, I can’t lose; it will always be time well spent, knowledge gained, and, as George Saunders says (writing in The New Yorker, My Writing Education: A Timeline):
We have to learn to honor our craft by refusing to be beaten, by remaining open, by treating every single thing that happens to us, good or bad, as one more lesson on the longer path.
One of the benefits of working with tutors at The Novelry is that we all have lived experience of the pain and the pleasures of this process. Whatever problem you encounter, you can bet we’ve met it too. Whatever you’re feeling about your work, we’ve almost certainly felt it as well. In that spirit, here’s a list of observations, and some of the things I know I need to fix in my next draft – and, yes, they’re all things I should have known from the off. But whoever does? Because that would be unnatural in a first draft, wouldn’t it? Just ask old Hem.
- The character who most resembles me has the least purpose in the narrative. I can remember thinking, just a few lines into writing the character in question, ‘ah yes! Now I’m on safe ground!’ With her, I felt like I’d hit my stride and for the first time, I felt at home in my own novel. But that sense of familiarity was a misnomer because unlike other characters I’d consciously designed, this young (ish) woman was given no job to do, other than be herself (her lovely, likeable, charming self! Haha). When it came to appraising her value, I was deeply biased.
- The characters that are least like me, on the other hand, are the ones that have the most vigour and vim. By not trying to make them anything akin to likeable, I’ve made them entertaining and interesting instead.
- I wrote out my story without enough thought for the reader. For instance, I, the author, knew who would ultimately be redeemed. I knew who was actually a nice guy, despite their behaviour to the contrary. I knew who we needed to worry about, and who we didn’t. But, apparently, I kept this knowledge so much to myself that I didn’t give half enough signals to the reader (and we’re not talking conscious sleight of hand either – more of an, er, misinterpretation vibe).
- A lot of my characters sound the same. There’s not enough differentiation between young and old. Almost everybody is liable to use an expression that I might use myself; no one is safe from my own speech habits.
- I repeat descriptions. Three different people in the manuscript feel, at one time or another, a panicky sensation in their chest akin to birds flapping their wings. I mean, come on! But hey, it’s a first draft. This is what a first draft should be. Lots of flapping.
- I take leaps to suit my own ends. Stretch plausibility. Reluctant to spend time on non-inspiring research – like an element of institutional procedure, for instance – I make something up that fits the plot. I can already hear the future Amazon reviewer (if I’m lucky) correcting me in no uncertain terms – and likely with great wrath.
- There are not enough twists and turns: especially at the end, where things happen too quickly, and in too straightforward a fashion.
- The stakes could be higher.
- The word count could be lower (cut, cut, cut).
And on and on and on.
It’s around this time that I sit back with my notebook and I ask myself ‘Why do you want to do this again? Because, you know, nobody else really cares if you do or don’t. This whole endeavour is on you.’ And cue the fleeting fantasy of just closing my laptop and quietly walking away. ‘But I care,’ I counter, then louder, ‘I care.’ Until I’m thinking it so loudly that I’ll continue to hear it through most of my waking thoughts, and probably in my dreams too – which is just the way I like it. But getting to that point? Well, it’s a journey. One that will include, Any Given Sunday movie-style, fighting my way back into the light.
Inch by inch.
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Emylia Hall is the author of four novels. The Book of Summers, a coming-of-age story inspired by childhood holidays, was published by Headline in 2012 and was one of the bestselling debuts of the year. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, and went on to be voted the favourite read of the summer by readers. The first in her new Cornish coast set crime series, The Shell House Detectives, will be published in 2023. Finish your novel with writer coaching from Emylia.