What is Your Writing Process? First Drafts

A non-writer may ask you, “How is your book coming?” A fellow writer may ask you, “What draft are you on?” To the first question I usually reply, “It’s going well, thanks,” and then quickly change the subject. To the second, my typical response is, “It depends.”

writer-1421099_1280Many creative writers plow through their WIP in one draft without looking back. You see it every November during National Novel Writing Month, when a multitude of writers set a goal of churning out 50,000 words while filling my Twitter feed with the #NaNoWriMo hashtag. In a challenge like that, it’s counterproductive to stop and polish each and every chapter to a fine gleam before proceeding to the next. But beyond such challenges, I know many writers resist editing while in the process of producing a first draft because they fear losing their momentum.

Numerous writers in my MFA program took the opposite approach. They would work and rework a scene, sometimes going through so many drafts that I’d see a new variant of the same chapter in a workshop six months after encountering its predecessor. They were pursuing perfection, but often at the cost of generation.

As for me, I resist the perfectionist in me and seek to focus on generation during a first draft. That said, I seem congenitally incapable of daily producing raw drafts without occasionally pausing to reassess–and rewrite–my prose. I believe that’s because, as I wrote recently, I am largely a dictation device for my subconscious.

I may tell myself that I will write new scene X the following morning, but it’s possible when I awake that my subconscious will insist otherwise. It could prefer to write the new scene Y, or perhaps it wishes to revise scene A, B, C, or D. I’ve learned it’s best not to resist my subconscious, because the most creative results come when I ride its current rather than swim against it.

student-849828_1280So take my current WIP, an urban fantasy novel of which I’ve reached 70,000 words. The scene I wrote yesterday, and the scene before that, are first drafts. The lengthy scene just prior to those two, which sets the two new ones in motion, is a second draft. The opening scene of the novel has gone through three revisions.

Why am I doing so much revising, thus delaying the growth of my word count? Because the evolution of the novel through generation is leading to the need for substantive changes to previous chapters. For some reason my subconscious resists moving forward on a trajectory that isn’t completely in line with earlier parts of the book until I realign those portions to reestablish a straight narrative.

Thus, if you ask me “What draft are you on?” I cannot give you a straight answer. It means I can’t participate in a daily writer question along those lines on Twitter, or boast on a Reddit feed when I complete a certain draft. The only true marker I’ll have is when I declare the novel is finally done (“Pencils down!”), but anyone familiar with the publication process knows that my declaration will likely be premature.

What is your process? Is your inclination to ride the momentum of your creative energies and worry about revision later? Are you more inclined to work on existing prose to better hone the story and voice before generating more prose? Or is it a hybrid like mine, sometimes plowing forward and sometimes jumping back?

There is no “right” way, of course. That is part of the magic of creative writing, and one of the reasons I love it so much.

(FYI, in my next post, I’ll posit a question about whether one writes linearally along the book’s narrative trajectory, or writes scenes out of order.)

4 thoughts on “What is Your Writing Process? First Drafts

  1. pjreece

    Patrick… I’ve been teaching a class called “Don’t Get it Right, Get it Written,” but do you think I follow my own advice? I’m with you when it comes to being a slave to the hypnopompic direction that follows me from sleep. Or perhaps it was the hypnogogic images I remembered as I went to sleep. You’re right, you can’t dismiss this stuff, or you do so at your own risk. “What?” the muse says, “You don’t want my help? Then go f— yo’self.” I’m a sucker for layered stories, and the layers don’t all come at once, but over time, especially as I re-read a draft — my design mind is getting all excited about the possibilities of connecting disparate dots, etc. It’s this intricacy of plot and motifs that enable me to happily exist in these fiction worlds at the expense of so-called real life. Real life is overrated. But that’s an esoteric conversation we’ll save for another time. Write on, bro!


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