‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’
I once found myself within a foot or so of the famous ‘Discworld’ author, Terry Pratchett. Through a series of extraordinary events, I found myself trapped in a hotel during a Discworld convention: the entire building was swarming with people in wizard and witch costumes, chatting incomprehensibly with each other, behaving in that rather odd and distinctly uncomfortable way that people behave at such events, a kind of half-in, half-out of character 'performance', loud and slightly off-key. Everyone in the hotel worshipped Pratchett, not unnaturally, I suppose: as he walked down the corridor towards me, I felt myself unable to avoid backing up against the wall in the same deferential fashion as the other twenty people in that rather crowded hotel, until the Master had passed.
Though I wasn’t part of the fanbase or the convention, I respected Pratchett for his output. I had at first resented him, believing that his novels were poking fun at the genre of High Fantasy - that was what I worshipped, and I didn’t ‘take’ to anyone trying to belittle it. But then I read The Colour of Magic and realised that that wasn’t what Discworld or Pratchett was about: rather than belittling the genre, he was exploring it in a new way, and his work had a magic of its own.
So when I read one of his famous quotes - ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’ - I paid more attention than I might have done before reading one of his books. It’s a commonplace ‘inspirational quote’ and you have probably heard it many times. It’s possibly easy to dismiss it. But it goes to the heart of what writing a story is, for many people at least.
There’s been an explosion of guidance about how to write stories in the last couple of decades, largely due to the internet. My own book, How Stories Really Work, adds to the pile of material new writers confront as they put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Structure, style, grammar, Hero’s Journeys and all the rest of it, are all dealt with in different ways by different people, most of whom have something worthy to say. I’ve encountered many writers for whom all of this is either off-putting or downright frightening: how on earth are they supposed to tell, they say, which bits to apply and which bits to ignore?
Well, one answer lies in Pratchett’s quote: the first draft is no one else’s business but the writer’s own. Here, unbridled by anyone else’s advice, the writer confronts the raw material which has presented itself to their imaginations in need of being ‘written’. The writer’s task at this stage is just to try to capture that usually amorphous and indistinct mass of images and ideas using a net of words. Words are such small things and the connections between them are so flimsy and gaping that writing a first draft can be much like chasing a butterfly through a meadow with a netless hoop: even when we get close to our prey, we toss our hoop at it only to see it flutter away harmlessly deeper into the trees. What we emerge with after strenuous pursuit is usually a ragged and totally inadequate effort - and that’s just one chapter. As we go on, it’s crucial that we keep our eyes on the butterfly and not pay too much attention to anyone shouting from the sidelines about rules or maxims. It’s important as well not to have too many expectations of this first attempt. The worst thing we could do would be to imagine that the first product we come up with is all that can be done.
Some writers operate differently and will protest: some, I have heard, consider that everything can be done in this first draft so that barely any editing is required afterwards. But these are rare: the most usual product at this early stage is a lot of words. In reading over it, you might find that quite a few clichés have crept in there somehow while you weren’t looking; you will probably also find a great deal of unintended incompleteness.
There’s a big difference between ‘unintended incompleteness' and ‘intended incompleteness’: the first is simply an indication that the story isn’t finished yet and that there are gaps in the author’s own knowledge about the tale; the second is a fine art, the art of punctuating a completed story with the gaps, holes, absences, risks, unknowns and other vacuum-like spaces which make it a compelling read. The real product of a first draft is really nothing like the story as it will eventually appear: a first draft can be completely overblown, more like a blueprint than a draft. Ideally, every single question will have been answered for the writer; every single loose end tied up; every gap and crevice filled in and smoothed over. Having satisfied himself or herself that all is now known and settled, a master author can go back and selectively remove certain parts of the overall thing. A loss there, a gap here, a mystery over there, an unknown at the end of a chapter here - it all equates to the creation of a reader magnet - a set of vacuums with the power to pull in readers and glue them to pages.
To use another obscure analogy, if the first draft was selecting and gathering a piece of rough stone to be sculpted, the second draft is the beginning of the sculpting process. But like a sculptor, the writer must see the shape of the final story within the stone. Anything that does not contribute to that must be shaved away; anything that is part of it must be smoothed into a cohesive section of the whole.
Unless you know the story yourself, you won’t be able to shape it so that the reader will see it. Write the first draft with as much freedom and energy as you can muster, let it wander where it will, let it be glorious and decadent and rich and large. Then pare it down so that it draws in the crowds.
Pratchett certainly did, and it did him a lot of good.
There's much more on this - including what's really happening when you write a first draft - in my book Become a Professional Author.