on discovery drafts (aka: your first draft isn’t “shit,” you just don’t know what your story is about)

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

I’m over this axiom. Not necessarily because of the message it’s trying to get across, but because it does so in a way that’s designed to shock and dishearten. Perhaps for some people this is helpful, but that tactic always rubs me the wrong way. First of all, there’s enough disheartening obstacles in the storyteller’s path, and second, because the first draft ISN’T shit…it’s just not what it could be. It hasn’t reached its full potential. Perspective is key. Sure, a baby bird looks like a piece of used chewing gum stuck with feathers, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “shit” bird. It just hasn’t grown up yet.

Stories are the same.

(Caveat: Everyone’s experience is different, so I am only speaking about my own. Perhaps the process will be different for you.)

No matter how much I daydream, brainstorm, plan, and outline, the first/rough draft of any given story emerges as a somewhat different animal than anticipated. For me, stories are like living things: you can give them the best care and nurturing, and they will grow up to be completely different than all of your careful planning. Perhaps other, better authors don’t experience things this way, but I’d reckon that more than a few folks can relate to the feeling of looking at a completed first draft and going, “Huh. Didn’t see that coming.”

I’m here to tell you that is okay. More than okay; it’s normal. Writing a book is really hard. Writing a great book, with a compelling plot, interesting characters, and everything else that readers want, is damn near impossible. But you can do it. You just need to be patient with yourself and with the process.

I don’t write first/rough drafts, though I will sometimes refer to them as such to avoid confusion when talking to others. I write discovery drafts. This is the magical time when I ignore my inner critic/editor and simply play in the sandbox that is my WIP. Yes, I stick to my outline as much as I can (while often changing things around as I come to them), but I don’t edit as I go (aside from a few little bits here and there), and I don’t read over the entire story until after it’s written. I do this because, for me, it’s impossible to know if something is working until I’ve written “the end.” Elements that may seem out of place when I’m halfway in suddenly make sense at 3/4 way in, and I’m able to bring them all together by the ending.

Beyond that, though, it’s impossible for me to do the high-level editing (relating to themes, character arcs, plot, pacing, etc) before I have a sense of what the story is *about.* Not what I think it’s about, (per my outline), but what it IS about: the truths it reveals; the struggles and the triumphs, how they fit together, and what they mean.

The only way I can discover what my story is about is to write it. Hence, discovery draft.

So in the end, my advice to you is to keep doing what you’re doing, but don’t be so hard on yourself if you feel like your first draft is “shit.” Don’t berate your story for not being what you think it should be. Find out what it wants and needs, nurture it, and your words will grow wings.

Take care and stay awesome,




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