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.