Normally I write to Dear Readers, but today I’d like to talk to the writers. Even though I self publish and technically make money off my writing (albeit paltry amounts especially after the Zon takes its cut), I’m not what a lot of people would consider a professional or a master or anything. I agree, I’m not, but I do have one piece of solid advice that I’m pretty certain is gold: no one gets to read your first draft.
Let me preface the rest of this by saying that you, Dear Writer, can do whatever the fuck you want, this is just an argument for your consideration. There’s no right way, this is just my way, and it works for me, so take it or leave it.
Dear Writer, keep your first draft to yourself. All of it. Every single word. Password protect your files if you have to and throw your journals in a lockbox. Just make sure when those words come straight from your brain to the page, unedited, they’re for your eyes only.
This isn’t to save you from embarrassment or to save your reader from cringing. It also isn’t to temper your ego into realizing an unedited thing isn’t as good as you think it is (it’s definitely not, but it’s probably not as bad either). You keep your first draft to yourself so that you’re totally free to do whatever the fuck you want with it.
“But I’m free to do whatever the fuck I want anyway,” I hear you say. “Ashley, you even said up there ‘do whatever the fuck you want’ which I was planning on without your permission, thank you very much!” Yup, you’re right, but you might not be quite as right as you think you are. Either that or no one is as anxiety-riddled and neurotic as me, but considering I’m addressing writers here, that is almost certainly not the case.
When I say keep your first draft to yourself, what I mean is write that first draft for no one but a future version of you who will revise without criticizing past you. That means giving yourself the freedom to explore really dumb ideas, to write cringey dialogue, to vomit up indulgent, useless scenes, to explore the deepest, darkest crevasses of your own mind. If you hesitate too much with that first outpouring of words because “this might not work,” then the likelihood of getting stuck sky rockets, and your creativity could be totally squashed.
For instance, I’m not against formulaic or trope-heavy work, but if you hesitate to take your character down a certain path because that means they’ll miss out on a beat the reader is going to expect, you’re probably not doing yourself any favors. Similarly, if you’re getting through a scene and you know the action that’s about to come up, but you need to set the place up first, don’t be afraid to drop in unusable language or descriptors you know don’t work in the moment. “This place looks like a WalMart” isn’t ever going into one of my books, but I’ll write that in a first draft and revise the hell out of it later. I’ll type up “There’s something here that smells rotten and then they find it and it’s funny, figure it out later” and then go on with the rest of what’s happening because otherwise I might have sat and thought about the rotten thing for fifteen minutes, gotten distracted for another fifteen, and ultimately decided it was time to break for lunch because I wasn’t getting anything done anyway instead of just drafting for an additional half an hour.
If you’re truly free to do whatever you want, your fear will be stripped away, and while your first drafts will probably suck a little more, two other things will happen: they’ll actually get done, and contradictorily, they might actually start getting better.
When you write all the garbage that’s in your head, you have more to edit. I know some people loathe editing (something I can’t empathize with, so I am a bit biased), but the biggest problem most writers express is the “blank page” one. I would rather have 50k words that I need to revise than a vague idea and a first line that I’ve fine-tuned to be “perfect.” And dropping the fear of someone seeing those really bad first draft words really lets you get shit moving.
I’ve written loads of ridiculous things since adopting this mindset–because that’s what it is rather than a practice, it’s a mindset. I don’t believe most writers who are serious about craft want to share a first draft anyway: they understand the writing is actually in the revising. But the fear can remain even if you know those pages aren’t physically going to someone else because so many people feel locked into the idea once it’s down on the page or are scared to work it out because they believe, in the end, someone else won’t like it. But if no one else ever sees it, it truly does not matter what anyone else likes. The draft can be trash because you can trash it and nobody ever has to know.
And to be clear, this isn’t “kill your darlings” advice. This is the advice that comes before that. You’ve got to have darlings to kill before you can go on a rampage. And, on occasion, one of those self-indulgent darlings might actually take you to an extraordinary place that makes your manuscript even better. But again, if it’s never there it can never inform the plot and hack out a new path for your characters to follow.
Maybe you think it’s counterproductive to waste time writing a scene that you cut later or following a plot you end up having to restructure. Maybe it is, and I have no idea what I’m talking about, but it’s way worse, I think, to stare at a blank screen for an hour and checking Twitter every five minutes instead of writing out something. Even if you trash the something because it turns out to suck, you flexed your writing muscle. And then the next something might be a little better.