On Writing First Drafts: What Queen of the Garden of Girls Has Taught Me - while writing my WIP and reading self-published books, I've learned a few things about what first drafts are

On Writing First Drafts: What Queen of the Garden of Girls Has Taught Me

There was a time, back in my early twenties, when I thought my first drafts were pretty darn good. I thought a bit of proofreading and some light editing was good enough. I did not see them as first drafts, which meant I didn’t see them for the horrendous train wrecks they actually were.

As a book reviewer now for over 2 years, I’ve read a lot of polished and not quite as polished books. I’ve gotten some really great books from traditional publishers and self-published authors. I’ve also gotten some not so great books from traditional publishers and self-published authors. Not every book is for every reader, but it really comes down to the writing. Sure, some styles won’t speak to everyone, but there’s an underlying quality that I’ve picked up on. There are some books that feel like they’ve gone through hoops to get to where they stand at publication time, and then there are books that make me think of all those “finished” novels of my early twenties. You know, the ones that should be called first drafts AKA nowhere near publication-worthy.

Currently, I’m posting a bona fide first draft. It’s called Queen of the Garden of Girls. It posts almost every Wednesday. Maybe you’ve seen it. I’m still actively writing it. It’s only about half written and already I can identify areas that need more work. Not only does the writing sometimes make me cringe, but sometimes the story does, too. Oh, and let me tell you the direction of the story changed about 25% of the way in, so now I have at least 25% of it to rework. That also means I need some other POVs to be worked in.

First drafts are messy. They’re not meant to be anywhere close to the final product. I know there are some writers out there who would disagree and say their first draft is amazing (I’m pretty sure I’ve read my fair share of them, which is why I can write that). But it’s true. The story needs to be massaged. It needs to be handled with care. It sometimes even needs a hammer, a screwdriver, and some good kitchen knives. Actually, it probably needs the latter more than anything else. And then it needs to be smoothed out. Each word needs to be selected with care. Each scene needs to shine and add something, has to say something. The characters need to have a useful place and not exist just to exist. And even then they deserve to be handled with care. None of that is usually found in a first draft.

First drafts are meant to be written with haste. It’s the only real way of getting the whole story down, to see what works and what doesn’t work. It’s the only part of writing that’s meant to be fast. Everything is super time consuming. It takes time to rewrite and edit, time to find readers who can give their honest opinion, time to incorporate feedback, time to make the story shine like the jewel it is. A first draft is not a jewel. It’s a pile of rock with the jewel lurking somewhere inside. Hopefully. Not every first draft is meant to see the light of day. Sometimes it’s just writing practice and that’s fine. But, really, it shouldn’t be published.

As a writer with more first drafts located in too many places to count these days, it pains me to be harsh in a review if the book feels like little more than a proofread first draft. I know those stories. I’ve written those stories. I cringe when I get a book that sounded amazing from the description, but then turned out to be so rough I could break my literal teeth on it (my husband’s love of big rocks has rubbed off on me, so please excuse all the rock references).

As a writer, I get it. When you’re young or new you think your story is amazing and maybe genre-bending or different or avant garde. Experimental. I’m sorry, but that’s atypical. If you write long enough, mature enough, you’ll start to see them for what they really are: first drafts. Nothing more, nothing less. But, you know what? That’s kind of amazing. It’s amazing you stuck with it long enough to finish, to think it has some merit. Don’t run out of steam now and call it done. Keep going, polish, rework, get feedback, and maybe then it can be really amazing.

I regularly read self-published books even though I run the very real, very frequent risk of reading a proofread first draft. But I do it anyways. If the story sounds really good, if the author seems really excited about it, I’ll do it. Sometimes I’m floored because it’s that good. Sometimes I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed it even though it wasn’t perfect. Sometimes I do cringe. Sometimes I want to write a scathing review. Sometimes I want to murder the book and the author. And then I write a well-balanced review pointing out the good and what could be worked on in the hopes the author will care, see it, and at least think about making their book even better.

First drafts are important. They’re the foundation for any story. Once it’s written, it can be manipulated, which is, I think, why the advice is to just write it even though some part, or all of it, is still hazy in the author’s mind. I love writing first drafts. Most of my stories have not gone beyond a first draft. But I love them because then I learn if it’s really interesting to me, if I’m actually truly excited by it, if it takes a life of it’s own. My absolute favorite part is being surprised by a character. It happened in Queen of the Garden of Girls recently. I thought Robert would react one way, but he took it in a totally different direction and gave me a problem I had to solve. First drafts force the writer to really explore the characters, setting, and story. They bring the idea to life, but they really shouldn’t be published.

So, what has Queen of the Garden of Girls taught me about first drafts?

All of the above. Now I finally know what a first draft is meant to be. It wasn’t just writing that story that has taught me. It was also reading published first drafts. It’s fascinating to see the same things I’ve done in all of my first drafts on display in the books I’ve read. But it also told me exactly what a first draft is. I love that Queen of the Garden of Girls has taken on a very different life than what I had envisioned (it absolutely wasn’t going to have any more fairy tale to it other than being inspired by Beauty and the Beast). I think that’s normal in first drafts, which is also why some published first drafts have me cringing and scratching my head: because the story changed and the writer didn’t notice. The excitement is too present. Which, I think, is why there’s also the advice to walk away from the first draft for a while.

I’ve learned that Queen of the Garden of Girls still needs a lot of work. It’ll still read as a full story, but there are definitely some holes that need to be filled in order to make it full and fleshed out and, hopefully, pretty darn good. There are characters I need to bring back in, more stories I need to tell, relationships to rework, and probably details I need to reconcile. It’s really those details, the ones that travel through the whole story, that really need the attention. If they change or their meaning changes, the whole story can be thrown off and the reader left feeling off-kilter. As a reader, I’ve been there, and it’s not a good feeling. It affects my rating, which isn’t good for the author or the book. I really hate down rating a book when it has so many 4 and 5 star ratings, but I think I’m too much of a book reviewer to not look beyond what the author wants me to see. I read for fun, but it’s also serious reading. My favorite part is always when an author will reach back out to me and let me know they’re having it professionally edited, because then I know they also know it’s not quite ready and I know they’re going to be great one day.

20 Comments

    • kat

      That bit me every time for years, so now I’ve turned to just writing it fast, even if it takes over a year to actually finish the first draft. It involves a whole lot of cringing and never wanting to see what I just wrote again. But at least there are words there and I can move on to the parts I really want to write.

  • Lisa R. Howeler

    By the time I’m done with my stories, they have been rewritten and reworked a dozen times, probably. I write a chapter or two, go back the next few days and tweak it and sometimes rewrite it. Then I rework it and edit it again before I publish the chapter on my blog, knowing I will most likely redit and rewrite it again before I show it to family so they can help me edit it until I can afford a professional editor. I legit, no matter how I rework our budget, van not afford a professional editor at the moment. So I have to do what I can do. If we get a tax refund this year, I very well may ask if I can have a good portion of it to have The Farmer’s Daughter professionally edited for release next year. It’s quite aprocess that sometimes I think is a total waste of time if I’m not going to try to sell something professionally, but that is incredibly hard these days — first you have to get a literary agent and that agent has to accept you and then they submit your work and then the publisher wants you to change things and then…..I don’t know. I guess I just feel I’m too old for all that drama so sharing on my blog and self-publishing is just a fun side thing.

    • kat

      I’m jealous. I wish I could write and rewrite at the same time, but then I end up working on the same section almost like I’m in a time loop. I would never have known that’s how your write your stories before you post them to your blog. It’s great that you have family who can help you edit. A lot of writers choose to go it alone and it always makes me cringe. Editors are really expensive, though, so I get it, and then I try to write helpful reviews to point out the good and what could use more work. Though I get the feeling most authors would rather not be bothered about having to edit an already published novel. As you said, it is quite a process, though much easier and faster to publication than the traditional route.

      • Lisa R. Howeler

        I can’t always do it. Sometimes I have to go several chapters ahead and then go back. I still end up in loops that way too at times. That’s when I just walk away for awhile and work on the first draft of the other chapters. I guess the rewrites before I post don’t show 😂😂 I always end up ripping it apart again before I post it on kindle. The Farmer’s Daughter will probably be dismantled in many ways before I share it on kindle for friends and family, even though they are the only ones who will read it. I will probably edit my past novels when I can finally afford an editor. I know they’re worth it but I don’t have extra money for something that will probably end up costing me more than it makes me — the same way it was for photography with me.

      • kat

        Nope, I can’t tell! Your stories always read a lot better than some of the self-published books I’ve read, so, whatever you’re doing on your own, is really great! A lot of writers can’t afford a good editor, but publish anyways, so I always feel it’s kind of my duty as a reviewer to try to help out a little.

      • Lisa R. Howeler

        Actually, I need to clarify. I write it, proof and edit it again before publishing on the blog and sometimes rewrite it again before putting on the blog. Then, after it’s on the blog I go back in and rewrite again before I throw it on kindle for fun. I actually just wanted to offer the books for .99 cents for people who read my blog but Amazon said it had to be $2.99 or higher (I guess the book was too long?) and then I told some friends and they all wanted paperbacks and the whole time I’m cringing because I don’t have a professional editor and I know that typos kept popping up, even after family read it. I’d love to hire an editor for this particular book and the next few ones and I even have the editor picked out but I just figure I’ll never be able to afford her. I’m going to take her up on her offer for a free example and a quote to see how much I have to try to save up for.

      • kat

        Wow, what a process! Back a few years ago, that was how I used to post a lot of my writings, but it just became so much work, so I’m really impressed that you can do it week after week! My fingers are crossed for you that the editor isn’t too expensive.

  • brookejcutler

    I’m saving myself until you’ve written the whole thing! I can’t wait! And I totally agree: the first draft is where the soul spits out the magic, the edit is where the mind puts it all in order. ☺️👌✨

    • kat

      Oh, gosh, I’m only halfway through! Haha, I guess I’d better write faster. I’m really enjoying spinning magic from my fingertips, though, and the editing part just kind of scares me! Or maybe my mind just isn’t interested in making order from magic.

      • brookejcutler

        Ha ha ha! Take your time. I can wait for the beautiful Kat magic. ❤️ And you know what: you’ve got a point. Maybe those who are meant to connect to your writing would prefer it not so polished! I love all your magic, so I guess you’ve got one unconditional fan, at least! Ha ha ha. 😘

  • bitsanddragons

    I don’t plan when I write. In my group we call it “writing with a compass”, versus the pro mode, “writing with a map”. The compass tales are fun to write, since you don’t know what is going to happen (only the direction you’re going) but they are hard to finish. Anyway, what I wanted to say: the most important part of the story for me is the title. And the most difficult one. And you have very good titles for your projects, so kudos to you!

    • kat

      Writing with a compass sounds like fun, but also really hard. Though I imagine it must be really interesting to discover what happens as you go along. And, thanks! The titles usually come to me first and then I have the difficult task of making the story fit.

    • kat

      Oh, wow, I’m both honored and somehow a bit more stressed out about writing them. I always wonder if my reviews ever actually say anything worthwhile, but, if it’s helping in any small way, it makes me glad. Thank you.

      • Autumn

        Sorry, didn’t mean to put pressure on you! The other day while I was writing, I suddenly had your imaginary voice pop into my head and say, “They’re described as good friends, but the reader never gets to see them interact.” All because I read your reviews, lol.

      • kat

        Oh, it’s okay! I work with a lot of self-published authors and some of them have used bits of my reviews to help promote their books, so the pressure seems to be like a glued on shawl. Haha, I think you’ve read one too many of my reviews!

  • jennifermzeiger

    I’m always impressed that you post your rough drafts for all to read. I know how much work my rough drafts need before I’m willing to share them…although admittedly the adventures on the blog are only lightly edited before posting. The books, however, need those kitchen knives. =)

    • kat

      It’s only because I’m really incredibly terrible about not finishing my stories. Sharing them gives me the kick I need. I would never guess your adventures are only lightly edited; they’re fantastic! And missed, but you have other, better things to work on and I’m really looking forward to your novel.

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