The Perils of First Drafts

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but I like complaining. Yeah, I know, a lot of people like complaining and I think I know why: it’s kind of therapeutic. When you can’t change something (with the minimum effort), you sit back and start complaining about it, and eventually feel better. It’s bizarre, yes. My latest complaining target is the first draft of what I’d call “my second novel” if only “my second novel” didn’t sound so professional-writery.

When I wrote a story titled “Dansk Finanzbar” last October it was because I’d dreamed of a place called Dansk Finanzbar that was a hybrid between a bar and a bank. Then a second story kicked the door down and rushed in, followed by a third, and a fourth one. By the fifth story I had resigned myself to the fact the Dansk Finanzbar will be a series of stories, good to be read standalone but also related in hopefully subtle ways. Three stories later I had to accept the inevitable: DF had evolved — or devolved — into a novel. I had a first draft of a novel on my hands and I just knew it would be problematic. I just didn’t know how problematic.

While I wrote the story I really liked the way it flowed. I deceived myself into thinking that first draft I’d ended up with would require more or less cosmetic intervention structurally. You know, tweaking the semi-standalone stories so they become chapters in a novel. Easy, right? Right? I could not have been more wrong.

The stories could not be tweaked to become chapters. The stories were overwhelmingly boring with a few exceptions. I’ve always known first drafts tend to be horrible but I honestly did not expect this one to be that horrible. When I remembered what the first draft of “The Lamiastriga” looked like I felt a little better but only for a while: you’re supposed to get better at a thing the longer you do it, for blip’s sake.

With much regret, therefore, I once again accepted the inevitable because I’m the kind of person who accepts inevitable stuff instead of being dramatic about it because drama takes up too much brain space and expends too much energy I could find uses for.

DF Draft 1 was not going to be used in any way except as soil for a hopefully better Draft 2 that would tell an almost completely different story. Before I turned the 147 pages of it into recyclable paper material, though, I took pictures of some of the most obscene instances of bad writing I came across.

Horrible simile:

Underwater AND custard. Yes, custard does contain water but this looks and sounds ridiculous and is definitely not the best way to describe how difficult Lars found speaking. Similes are slippery and not always your friend.

Unwarranted streams of consciousness:

Basically, what we have here is a protagonist who is feeling bad, thinking about how bad he feels and going off on various tangents so we are left with no doubt whatsoever about how bad he feels. Bad writing at its, well, best.

Verb rule violation:

Yes, we all know writing rules are only guidelines but the rule about using only “said” in dialogue is one I respect and try to adhere to because it makes a lot of sense. As you can see here, breaking this rule leads to unpleasant consequences. Not once but twice.

Bad description:

This one is so embarrassing I’d rather forget I’ve ever written the sentence but I probably never will. Of course, describing movements and facial expressions helps the story flow, usually. It’s how you do it that matters. This is how you do not do it. You’re welcome.

Wrong story:

This is from a chapter/story I titled “The Perfect Sauce”. It’s about a sauce the protagonist’s love interest is trying to make. Eager to impress her and at a loss how to do it, his dreaming talent comes in handy: he dreams a special yogurt into existence and this yogurt will make the sauce unique. The end. Contribution to the main story: 0.1 out of 100, all in the fact He meets Her. This darling has been slaughtered.

Twist but no explanation:

Okay, this one’s typical for first drafts, I imagine. It’s one of the things that you fix in subsequent drafts. In this case, a secondary character reveals he knows Lars’ secret but doesn’t say how. That’s because he doesn’t know how. I don’t know either, so this one’s on the chopping block, too.

Word overuse:

All of my characters glance a lot at each other. All of them. Everywhere. They’re all glancers but also lookers, starers, and glarers. I suppose it’s part of the process of learning the craft but this doesn’t make it any less annoying. A bonus here: a character who’s very economical in terms of verbal and non-verbal behaviour suddenly starts wagging fingers. That’s called character inconsistency, I think. I’m watching myself so closely for this crap now, Captain Vimes would be proud.

Wrong word:

I blogged about this common semantic problem in a separate post and I believe lifting eyes was one of the examples. This here just goes to show the critic is seldom better than the criticized, at least in first drafts. This here “lift” would have been perfectly fine had Lars’ eyeballs been gauged out of their sockets and thrown on the cover. Which they weren’t, so he must have raised them.

Author intrusion:

This is brutal. Apparently, I must have felt this particular scene needs some boring details and incapable of inventing some relatively good ones I’ve gone for inserting my own time preferences into a character I do not identify with in the least. To make it worse, the context is completely inappropriate: Lars has just got news his friend may be dead and is in a rush to get to the hospital. Not the time to tell us about his girlfriend’s quirks.

Lazy author:

This should be a criminal offence, throwing in some fundamental fact about the world you’re writing and leaving it unexplained simply because you couldn’t be bothered to pressure your brain into inventing such an explanation. It’s unacceptable even in first drafts. Luckily for me, I’m dropping the whole concept in the second draft, which is the way lazy authors turn a defect into an effect: by changing the story completely. I’m sure I will be punished, though. Stories are mean that way.

The notes I made in the manuscript are not there for blogging entertainment purposes, by the way. They are spontaneous bursts of anger and that’s anger well deserved. After the initial shock, however, I decided I’m not throwing the idea away.

I’ll start from scratch again, only it won’t be exactly from scratch because I know the characters better now and I think I might have an idea about what will happen to them. They will be glancing at each other a lot less in Draft 2, I hope. And I also hope nobody will be waving arms in a sign of frustration or if they do it, I’ll try to tell readers about it less crudely. With so much hope, there will be much plotting as well. In fact, I’ve already started. I’ll just use the ruins of Draft 1 to build Draft 2. They’ll make a good foundation.

3 thoughts on “The Perils of First Drafts”

    1. Oh, wow, that’s the highest praise I could imagine. I thought it was overdone in addition to the water/custard thing bothering me. Thank you for this. Always good to be reminded how differently we see the same text.

      Like

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