The question I’m most often asked when I tell someone about my writing is “So when will it be ready?” It’s a fair question, though it smacks of a misconception: that writing a story is as simple as putting down one word at a time until you have enough.
It suggests, among a thousand other things, that the overall structure* of the story comes fully formed. That, from the outset, the writer has an unfailing, scene-by-scene knowledge of where the story is going—and even what it’s about. That the writer knows their characters from the very first scene more intimately than if they had shared a bond since childhood. That the difference between a first and a final draft is a polishing of the prose.
*A structure most people aren’t aware of but would still able to notice if it was absent, since all Western stories are shaped by it—from the latest news bulletin to the unfinished book on your bedside table to the television program you’re currently binging.
There’s also the ambiguity of what is meant by ‘ready’. Ready for what? To be read by friends and family? To be entered into a competition or sent off to an agent or publisher?
My response invariably summons the same one my Grandad fondly gave to most of my childhood inquiries. “How long is a piece of string?” Then I will try to elaborate.
While I may have finished writing the first draft of my short story, that doesn’t mean the story is finished.
WHAT A FIRST DRAFT ISN’T
Unless you’re Lee Child—who is most definitely the exception that proves the rule—the first draft is not the final draft minus a few flourishes:
“It’s the only draft! I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay. That’s how it was that particular year. You can’t change it.”
Lee Child is certainly a master of his craft**. But for us apprentices out there, I don’t think there is a more inspiring yet damaging quote about the writing process. It certainly shouldn’t be taken as advice. I learnt a lot through writing this draft alone (which you can read about here and here) and my experience couldn’t have been further from Child’s.
**Lee Child has written 24 books (plus an excellent short story collection) in the Jack Reacher series and has sold more than 100 million books worldwide. New titles in the series are published yearly.
WHAT A FIRST DRAFT ACTUALLY IS
Even if we can’t quite put it into words, most of us know what a story is supposed to look like. But, since we only ever read or watch finished stories, we only ever know them as such***. We see the final product, not the process, and we don’t appreciate how they come to arrive at the page or screen. (And it’s not like all stories takes the same journey, either.)
***This is something I have to constantly remind myself whenever I read an inspiring piece of writing to stop myself from being disheartened. That what I am reading is the final draft. Words that have survived numerous drafts—and, since what I am reading has been published, that’s once they have been rallied between alpha and beta readers, agents, editors, line editors and other word-wranglers.
The first draft is what the reader doesn’t see. The clutter, the discarded ideas, the redundant subplots, the bloated (and broken) scenes, the faulty character arcs. The first draft is all the workings out.
It is where you tell yourself the story. You meet characters, explore setting, test narrative threads. You try to translate all of your ideas into the right words, without losing an ounce of wonder. All of this for the first time.
You are also battling doubt, insecurities and distraction.
The writing—which is often better described as wrangling—is rough, clumsy and likely to create a sense of black, bottomless despair. To turn all of it into a story is going to require more than just making the words look pretty.
Simply put, the first draft is the worst version of your story. (If you think about it this is actually rather positive!)
Anna Lamott described it best:
“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.”
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Now I’ve finished the first draft of my short story, I won’t look at it again for at least six weeks. The plan is to move straight onto the next short story. Once I’ve finished the first draft of that, then I will come back to the first story.
The interval will give me time to think about the first draft, both at a conscious and subconscious level. It will allow me to unpick the story, to see what’s working and what isn’t, and to come up with any changes. I will also carry out any research to support the second draft and re-read my writing notes****. Most importantly, it will give me the chance to forget about it. Only then will I have the distance—the detachment—required to see the story clearly.
****A compendium of all my notes made on the non-fiction books, web-seminars, podcasts, events etc. I’ve devoured in order to help develop my craft. From Aristotle to Brandon Sanderson to Brian McDonald to Lee Child to Orson Scott Card to Scarlett Thomas to Stephen King to many, many more (which I continue to add to). The current word count is 105,000 words.
[Cassie making notes on the first lecture of ‘Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy’.]
WHAT ‘READY’ LOOKS LIKE TO ME
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.”
—Stephen King, On Writing
When I come to redraft my short story, the focus will be on making it ‘ready’ to be shared with family and friends so I can receive feedback.
There are plenty of mistakes I’m already aware of that I first want to fix. If someone is good enough to offer me their time, I don’t want to waste it. I would much rather they tell me about the mistakes I’m unaware of and what they think is and isn’t working. I will purposefully leave in the things I’m uncertain about for this reason.
Structurally, the story is a mess. I would like to tidy it up and to reduce the word count so it resembles something closer to its intended final word count of 17,000 words. I will also polish the prose, but not too heavily. The feedback ought to help me understand where some of the words need to be reduced or removed. Once I have that, then I can be more ruthless.
The second draft won’t be the final draft but it will be closer to it. (Hopefully I’ll have a title by then.) Further drafting (how much will depend on the feedback) will be required afterwards.
THE SECOND SHORT STORY
Before I do any of that, I must first write the second short story. This will help me overcome the temptation to redraft the first short story prematurely. For the second story I’m going to return to the idea that kick-started the idea for a collection of interlinked stories.
Having found I work best as a discovery writer, I won’t plan out the story like I’d originally intended. However, this idea formed much more fully than that of the first story, so it will be interesting to see how I get on.
I envision the second story will be shorter than the first (though not much, I expect it will still have a final word count of 12—15,000 words). I have set myself what I call the Ambitious Deadline of writing the first draft within twenty days—Ambitious because, unlike other forms of writing, I find it hard to gauge the time it will take to write a story (and that’s without factoring in the disruption caused by a science-fiction-esque virus). I can account for the words I produce in a set time, but not whether or not the story will be finished within them.
Once I’m part-way through the first draft and I have a better feel for how the story is developing, then I normally set the Realistic Deadline—Realistic because, well, for the obvious reason.
[A throwback to the last time Cassie stayed with me, shortly before the lockdown. I can’t wait to be able to walk her again.]