Good Enough for a First Draft

You’ll often see writing advice about good first lines. It’s important to hook your readers right off the bat, to make them want to keep reading and find out what happens next. It’s important for finding a publisher too. A lot of publishers get hundreds of submissions and they have to sort through them very quickly to figure out which ones they’re going to reject, so you want to have a really strong opening that grabs your reader’s interest and makes them want to know more.

You need an engaging and interesting opening sentence and opening paragraph.

But the problem is that if you spend ages and ages trying to make the first sentence absolutely perfect, you might never write the second one. For me, because of my approach to planning, I often end up having to rewrite the opening to my books. For example, in Shadows of Tomorrow, I initially thought that the main character would be the one who became Cassie, so I started the book there, but I later realised that Gareth was the one making all the important plot decisions. Gareth turned into the real protagonist, so I went back and rewrote the opening to start with him. I could have spent ages and ages making that first scene with Cassie have the perfect opening line only to find that it didn’t need to be the opening line anymore.

Knowing this about my writing style, I generally don’t fuss too much about the opening sentence until the end, until I know exactly how the story is going to end so I can write an opener that ties in with that. When I’m writing my first draft, I will just write whatever fits with the first scene as my opening sentence, knowing I can come back to it later. What I write is good enough for a first draft.

And that’s the point. A lot of the time, you can write something knowing you can come back and fix it later. If you’re not sure how to get a piece of information to a character, you can write a clunky bit of exposition for the first draft, knowing you can come back and fix it in a second draft. I’ve seen someone advise just summarising what needs to happen next in square brackets: [and now the hero does something clever to escape]. There’s a large chunk of a scene that’s summed up by that one sentence, but you don’t have to figure out the perfect escape plan right now. You can keep writing and figure out the details later. I tend not to use this square bracket summary approach – I prefer to just write a clunky version of the scene I can fix later – but I can see why other writers might like it.

The thing I do use though is ??? in place of details. I might want to think of the perfect name for a location, but I haven’t figured it out yet, so I’ll put ??? in every time the name would come up and I can easily find these parts and insert the name in a second draft. I do the same with details I need to research. ??? basically means little detail (usually a word or a name but sometimes a sentence) that I need to add later. It stops me losing my flow of writing to go and look something up there and then. Using the same set of punctuation every time I reach one of these points makes it easy to search through the document later to find the bits I missed.

My first drafts tend to be pretty rough as I’m generally figuring out the plot as I go. I know I will have to come back and rewrite chunks later, so I don’t sweat the details. I can fix these little detail gaps later. I can find the perfect first line when I know the overall shape and themes of my story. I can fix the awkward dialogue exchange.

If you fret about having every sentence perfect before you can proceed to the next one, you’ll never get the first draft finished. So write something that’s good enough for now and worry about making it perfect later. This means writing a second or third draft is critically important, but you can always improve a thing that exists more easily than you can make a perfect creation out of nothing on the first go.

Draft 2

I finished the first draft of the next Codename Omega book a while ago and I took a break to give myself some distance, so that I could come back to the story with fresh eyes. The problem is that I’m now struggling to find the inspiration to pick it up again when there are other shiny, new stories I could be writing.

This is a problem I have, because I always find the first draft the most fun part of the writing experience, as it’s the part where I’m figuring out the story and see how it all works. A second draft is an essential part of the process, but it’s more about fixing things, and I know with this book that that’s a large chunk in the middle that will need strengthening in a serious way. It will either need to be given more emotional impact or trimmed down so that the section doesn’t last as long. Or both.

I’m hoping that by publicly admitting on my blog that I need to get on with the next draft will nudge me into doing just that. After all, the book will never be finished unless I sit down and work on it, and I do want it to be finished because I had a lot of fun with a shift in perspectives in this book, compared to the rest of the series. I want to see how other people react to this change.

But I can’t publish it for readers until I’ve finished the writing process.

So this is a message to myself: get on with draft two.

Codename Omega Update

This week, I finished the first draft for the next book in the Codename Omega series. The working title of this book is Codename Blank Slate, but that may well change before it comes to publication. The story carries on from the events of Omega Rising, Traitor in the Tower, and Hidden in the Signal. It actually starts shortly before the end of Hidden in the Signal and we get to see some of the events of that book from a different perspective.

That’s actually the big difference between this book and the others in the series. The previous three books have all been from Jenny’s point of view, but in this story I switch and we get another character as the protagonist, telling the story of Jenny’s war from a different angle. I don’t want to give too much away, especially in case anyone hasn’t read the earlier books in the series, but it’s been a really fun perspective to write and we get to find out a lot more about some of the characters who have been a mystery in the earlier books. I’ve really enjoyed writing this book and I hope that comes across on the page.

I think it’s a really good sign when I finished this draft already knowing how the next book would begin.

There’s still a lot of work to do – I really need to tidy up some scenes in the middle – so it will be a while before this book becomes available, but I’m still really excited and I thought it would be good to share my progress with you.

Watch this space.

The Importance of Drafts

I’ve recently finished the first draft of the next book in the Codename Omega series so┬áthis seemed like a good time to talk about drafts. No one’s first draft is going to be perfect. There may be minor issues where wording isn’t ideal, or major issues where the whole structure of the book needs to be reorganised. There could be sections that need to be cut to keep things from getting dull, or areas that need to be expanded with explanations because character motivations are unclear. You might need to add more descriptions or trim out superfluous adjectives.

How many issues and how big they are will vary enormously from writer to writer and from book to book, but it is always important as a writer to look at the first draft with a critical eye and decide what changes need to be made. In some cases, those changes might be sustantial. When I wrote Shadows of Tomorrow, I started with a character who I thought would be the protagonist of my story, and realised several chapters later that all the important plot events were happening to someone else. This meant I had to go back and rewrite the first six chapters of the book to focus on the character who was my real protagonist in order for the story to flow properly.

I also changed the gender of one of my characters because the book felt too masculine. This wasn’t as simple as just doing a find and replace on the character’s name – I had to go through extremely carefully and correct all the pronouns (I was still finding incorrect pronouns when the book came back from editing at the publisher). This change also involved making adjustments to scenes where the character interacted with others and the creation of a couple of completely new segments.

With Traitor in the Tower, I felt like there wasn’t enough of a climax at the end of the book, so I made substantial changes to the last few chapters. I went even further with Between Yesterdays, when I was advised by a reader to change a section of high action because I introduced a few new elements too near the end of the book, so I ended up throwing out a few chapters and writing replacements.

It’s not always so bad though. Omega Rising had no major changes between the first and second drafts.

For me, writing the first draft is all about getting the story out of my head and figuring out what the important elements are, who the characters are, and what needs to happen in the plot. The second draft is about fixing the big problems – sorting out the plot holes and the structural issues. The third draft is about making minor changes – clarifying things, making dull sections more gripping, removing unnecessary scenes. Three drafts is usually what I need to get the story ready to go out to the publisher.

If as a writer you spend more time on plans and outlines before you start the first draft, it may be that you will have less structural issues that need fixing. If so, you may be able to get away with two drafts. I would be confident in saying though that one will not be enough. Unless you are astonishingly lucky, talented, and careful, there will still be problems and weak parts of the book that need addressing.

I think one of the traps writers can fall into, especially when self-publishing, is to stop after one draft. They will write their first draft, give it a superficial edit and a bit of proof-reading, and then put it out their to meet the world. As a reader, I find it immensely sad when I’m reading a book that has great promise but that was released to the world too early. There are books out there that have great premises, interesting characters, and some beautiful writing – but they also have plot holes, confusing sections, and dull points. It’s sad to read books like that because they don’t quite live up to their potential. Do another draft of your books and don’t be scared to make big changes if those will make your book better.