≡ Menu

First Drafts, for Perfectionists

This weekend, I completed the first draft of my third novel. My agent cheered. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. First drafts are grueling for me. Whereas I enjoy revising and editing, first drafts are a slow torture. But if what Hemingway said is true, that the only thing that matters about a first draft is getting it done, then I suppose I should celebrate this accomplishment.

Nothing will prevent you from finishing a first draft like perfectionism. Nit-picking over the exact word, niggling the plot just right, these are for later. Your inner editor will get her chance. But if you let her out of the basement during the first draft, baby, you’re in for a slog. Which is probably why John Steinbeck advised,  “Write freely and as rapidly as possible, and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with the flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

Steinbeck strikes to the heart of what often slows me down: Rewriting as I go or Editing during first drafts. It doesn’t help that one of my favorite writers, Dean Koontz, does this. In an interview with Brad Crawford in 2008, Koontz said this, “I don’t write a quick draft and then revise. Instead, I write 30 or 40 drafts of each page before moving to the next.” As much as I love Koontz, this has really screwed me up.

It’s been said, the last draft is always the most important. But for the perfectionist, there’s never a perfect last draft. So even the writer who writes “30 or 40 drafts of each page before moving to the next” must, at some point, move to the next. And this is what digs at the perfectionist’s heart: Moving on when you know it can be better.

I know my first two novels could be better. I know it, I know it, I know it. But dammit… I had to move on. Unless you actually believe you can write THE PERFECT NOVEL, at some point you must concede imperfection. In this sense, “the most successful weapon against perfectionism is imperfection.”  We must face the fear of a flawed plot, inferior prose, critical rejection, and just plain looking stupid. Finishing your novel means surrendering to imperfection. It is the monster you will never slay.

But there’s something else. Part of my “first draft inertia” is the need to know where I’m going with a story. Not sure this is true of every perfectionist, but it’s one of the heads of the hydra I personally battle. I have a hard time moving forward on a draft if I don’t know how the story ends.

If “stories are relics,” as Stephen King said, “part of an undiscovered world,” and the writer’s job is to excavate the fossil, I want to know if I’m picking at a mouse or a mammoth. It’s absurd, I know. I need to just keep digging. Nevertheless, that’s often part of machinery that makes us perfectionists tick.

E.L. Doctorow once said that, “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Which explains why I so struggle with first drafts. I want to see past the headlights. That’s reasonable, don’t you think? I mean, I never just get in my car and start driving aimlessly — I have a destination. So why in the world should I just start writing a novel without a destination mind?

Stephen Koch, in his excellent book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop counters this nonsense. He opens with this advice:

It would be nice, I suppose, to begin at the perfect point in the story, in the perfect way, using the perfect voice to present exactly the desired scene. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to be wholly clueless about all of this. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect, and you’re unlikely to know in advance what is right and wrong in a story that has not yet been written.

I “have no choice but to be wholly clueless”??? Egads! Nevertheless, venturing into the “fictional fog,” knowing not what you will find, is part of the “imperfection” the novelist must surrender to. (Note: Koch’s chapter on Working and Reworking: Early Drafts and the Techniques of Revisions is worth the price of the book.)

In the long run, perfectionism may help a writer. That is, if it doesn’t kill them. Finding the right word, nailing the scene, bringing that character to life — this stuff does not happen without some attention to detail. Problem is, too much attention to detail can bleed you to death. At some point, you must cage your inner editor, suture the story, and move on to the next.

Unless you believe you can write the perfect novel, at some point you must concede imperfection. Which is, perhaps, the perfectionist’s biggest problem.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on Reddit
{ 12 comments… add one }
  • R.J. Anderson July 18, 2012, 8:08 AM

    I write the same way you do, Mike — I hate the first draft and would love to blow through it as quickly as possible, but I need to excavate slowly to find out exactly what kind of story I’m telling and what parts of it are important. And like Koch says, a lot of that is only clear in retrospect. You think you’re working with this theme or that motif, and you get to the end and realize that what you thought was so important wasn’t really important at all, and some little thing you hardly even noticed has become the heart of the whole story.

    What kills me is that I just turned in what seemed to me the most unpolished and imperfect first draft I’ve ever submitted, and everybody seems to love it. I still see a million things I want to do (and will do) in revisions, and my critiquers have agreed there are elements of the book that can be clarified and improved, but on the whole it’s as solid as any first draft I’ve ever written — including the previous book in the series, which I agonized over and rewrote in chunks for three years. Go figure.

  • Kevin Lucia July 18, 2012, 8:12 AM

    I agree – first drafts are hard.I LOVE working on my fourth and fifth draft, though.

    I think this is one of those things – what works for one writer, doesn’t work for another. I myself have become a real advocate of the basic outline, which I never thought I would, but I kept tripping myself up over the same thing, Mike: I had to know the end. If I didn’t, I kept rewriting and changing things halfway through. I literally spent five years re-writing half of a novel because of this.

    But for me, I feel no need to STICK to the outline. It’s more like a safety net. Something that pacifies that “need to know where I’m going” vibe. And if the story changes, takes me to a new ending, I do a quick re-outline and adjust.

    Whatever works, though…at the end of the day, whatever produces words on the page/computer screen.

  • Jill July 18, 2012, 10:02 AM

    I work like Tolkien. I never stop editing. I don’t know if this is perfectionism so much as getting lost in a detailed, complex world. But, still, it seems to me that my writing is never quite good enough to see publication. So maybe I am a perfectionist. Do you think it’s possible that a feeling of incompetence masks itself as perfectionism?

  • Iola July 18, 2012, 2:15 PM

    I’m a member of a writer’s group on Facebook. They recently had a poll, asking what did people enjoy most about writing, and what did they like least. Almost everyone liked the creative writing most, and the revising and editing least. Hmm. So are you strange – or are they?

    And I like your comment “Unless you actually believe you can write THE PERFECT NOVEL, at some point you must concede imperfection.” This, to me, is the sign of a mature writer (and person). Because it implies the ability to accept criticsm, something too many authors (particularly self-published) seem to have problems with. They don’t accept that they haven’t written the perfect novel, so they get upset when someone points out an imperfection in a review.

  • Lyn Perry July 18, 2012, 7:05 PM

    I’m writing my first novel this summer and I’m discovering that I edit as I go, a cycle-back writer. I write the first draft, get it on paper longhand, let the creative voice flow. Then later, I type it into my computer and add/edit (since my rough draft might just say something like, “more dialog here” lol). I let that set and then plow on to the next scene or chapter. I’ll then cycle back to my earlier chapters, edit some more, get a running start and plow forward again. I do have a basic structure/outline I’m following, but am always adjusting as I catch up and overtake my original notes. It’s a lot of fun right now, so I have to say that I’m enjoying the whole process. Once the novel is complete, then I’ll figure out what the next step is! 🙂

  • BK Jackson (@BKJacksonAZ) July 19, 2012, 7:05 AM

    Concede imperfection. If I ever learn those two little words I will have conquered the world.

  • sally apokedak July 19, 2012, 7:41 AM

    I hate first drafts….

    Well, I hate first drafts when my headlights go out.

    If I can see the next scene, I’m fine, though writing from scratch is never as fun as making pretty what’s already down.

    I know the end of the story before I start. If I don’t know the end, I wander around going nowhere and wasting too much time. I brainstorm first, so I know what my character wants, what stands in his way, what he will lose if he fails, and if he will fail or succeed in the end.

  • Heather Sunseri July 20, 2012, 6:18 AM

    I’m on draft 5 of my current WIP, and I’m just now finally writing my ending. I’ve known in theory how the story was to end, but releasing information the reader needs to know at just the right time without a big Scooby-Doo info-dump has been a challenge for me with this story. I’m definitely very calculated and analytical when it comes to plotting. I know when something isn’t working, so the perfectionist in me insists on fixing something (esp. if it’s a big something) before moving forward. I wish so often I could just sit and write an entire story, 1000 words or so a day, without editing until the story was down. But so far, that just doesn’t work for me. Maybe next time. 🙂

  • Jason H. July 20, 2012, 12:38 PM

    Fiction writing presents a new challenge for me since most of my experience is with non-fiction, expository and narrative essay where my endings were almost always known in advance. Writing fiction without an ending in mind has been liberating, especially for shorter pieces. I love those mid-thought detours that inspire something new! However, that liberation can paralyze me if I can’t effectively channel the possibilities. Some people are exceptional at channeling things only in their heads, but I am not one of them. For me, I like the small victory of seeing an idea fleshed out on paper. It may be garbage, but it’s my garbage darn it, and that inspires me to keep going!

    For my current WIP, I have a very strong impression of the protagonist, her convictions, and world in which she lives. However, I had no idea why those things were important or would mattered to anyone else. So, I was stuck with a great idea and felt like free-writing was getting me nowhere. After stepping back from focusing on her, I was able to outline a stronger story surrounding her. With that framework in mind, I feel as though I have more freedom to take those wonderful detours, and oddly enough, break the framework that I have created.

    Am I crazy, or is there anyone else like me? Am I killing spontaniety?

    • Thea July 23, 2012, 5:29 PM

      You’re only crazy in the sense that writers are generally a bit bonkers. 😛 🙂

      When I write shorts stories, I don’t need an outline. If they’re long enough, I might write a bit about the end, or a few hundred words about the story, but those I usually just write until they’re done because I can keep them in my head.

      When it comes to novels, I’ve found that I need an outline, but I don’t like to kill spontaneity, either, so I’ve tried to find ways to make it so that I have lots to discover, and so that I’m okay if a character messes up part of my outline and does their own thing. Because of this, the phrase “and then a miracle occurs” pops up quite frequently in my outlines now, and usually at rather important turning points. It’s like you said: “With that framework in mind, I feel as though I have more freedom to take those wonderful detours, and oddly enough, break the framework that I have created.”

      So, you’re not alone. Having something of a plan helps, and then let the story do its own thing if something better comes up while you’re writing. Especially if your characters are being smarter than you gave them credit for while planning. 🙂

  • Todd Michael Greene July 20, 2012, 2:08 PM

    You touch on a problem I have, Mike. I’ve been writing a story for want a while now and I really want to finish it. Only one problem. I have no idea how to end it, how to resolve the main plot points. I just haven’t found it yet. Everything I come up with seems to easy, what Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes would have called cheating.

    I have another story which I have the middle and ending for, but have been struggling with the opening scene. Earlier today I was thinking about that opening scene and it fell into place out of the blue. It was like a “Duh!” moment.

    I say all this to say, I’m moving on to the second story. Perhaps by the time I complete it I’ll have had a “Duh!” moment with the one that I’ve been working with.

  • Patrick Todoroff July 26, 2012, 1:21 PM

    I’ll be tattooing this on the inside of my eye lids now, so thanks for that.


    Good post. Much appreciated.

Leave a Comment