#1 Rule of First Drafts

My friend and fellow ITW member Tosca Lee returns to TKZ to share her #1 Rule of First Drafts. Enjoy!
Joe Moore
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I’m a second or third draft writer. That’s the point in the process when I get to see what kind of clay I’ve really got on the wheel, when I can crimp the edges and pull out my high points, and make the dire ones worse. When I’ll stay up twenty hours straight and, after imagejust enough sleep to make me more tired, go at it again. Because by then I have something to work with. But that first, initial draft? Pull my fingernails out from the beds with pliers, why don’t you.

I have friends who turn on their playlists and lay down first drafts in a state of euphoric bliss—the weird literary equivalent of women who experience pleasure in childbirth. I have never written like that. I have moments of stream-of-conscious ecstasy that churn out sentences as coherent as word salad. But most of the time I sit in silence, stare out the window, pick at my lower lip and wonder if my last book, which may have won some award, was the last good thing I had in me.

Eight novels in (ten, if you count the unpublishable ones), I have an instinct about the basic material I need to get down, more or less in order. More importantly, I have trust in the writing and editing process and faith that I can patch up the leaks—later.

For now, in the early stages, I’m only interested in one thing: getting the clay on the wheel. I trust that there are seeds in there—of things real, from me, that will resonate in another soul in months and years to come. I don’t know what they are yet and it’s not my business to force them into shape.

I have a few rules for this process but the first is the one I go back to every time, and it is this:

Write like no one will ever read it.

“But what about the audience? You have to think about them!” Forget them. Everything you do from your edits on will be about them. But for now, write with the candor you would in a secret journal. This isn’t about pantsing or plotting. It’s about capturing the grit you need without worrying that it’s pretty or eloquent or clean enough. Don’t be pretty. Be raw.

If you are an aspiring writer whose end goal is to be published, let me tell you something: you will never be as bold and daring as you are in those first years before your work gets published. Before critics post public reviews of your work and readers rank it alongside blenders on Amazon. Before even accolades usher their own kind of doubt into the next endeavor. This undiscovered period in your life is an advantage you won’t have twice. Use it.

These days, I have to trick myself into following this rule. I know my agent, editor, and a movie producer are waiting for my first draft. I want them to like it. Oh, who am I kidding—I want them to tell me it’s the best thing they’ve ever read, that they wept, told their therapist, and pre-ordered 100 copies for friends and distant acquaintances.

But the only way I will touch one cell of their soul is if I banish their faces from my mind. No one will read this. It is my mantra. This is me, writing secret stuff, dealing some audacious literary badassery in private. Time to edit, censor, and make coherent later. The good stuff happens now.

TL1Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of ISCARIOT; THE LEGEND OF SHEBA; DEMON: A MEMOIR; HAVAH: THE STORY OF EVE; and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestseller Ted Dekker (FORBIDDEN, MORTAL and SOVEREIGN).

Tosca received her B.A. in English and International Relations from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts with studies at Oxford University. She is a lifelong world adventure traveler and makes her home in the Midwest. To learn more about Tosca, visit www.toscalee.com.

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9 thoughts on “#1 Rule of First Drafts

  1. “Write like no one will ever read it.”

    If you could only have one guiding principle applied to writing the first draft, this would be the one I would choose. All but a few write a first draft that will need further revision. That’s a given. But it’s so easy to give yourself anxiety to the point of immobility if you start fretting in your first draft about rules, marketing, and all the rest.

    Which leads me to my over-arching writing principle—Write what *I* am interested in. In the end, I don’t care if my books are popular. I have specific stories in mind because they interest ME. Yes, I have to hone them, but there’s no point in trying to write someone else’s vision of a good story. It’s a massive waste of my time.

  2. For me, unlike Kris, the fun is starting something new, even if those beginnings will never be in the final product. I let my characters develop, and I change as I go. When I write, I follow the advice of (I think) Reed Farrell Coleman who said to start at page 1 every day and edit/tweak/fix/discover as you go until you get to page 50. By then, you should have a good idea of the story.

  3. My first draft is for basic storytelling. Keep going forward, get the story done. Later, I go through several rounds to polish and revise. When I give advice to new writers, I tell them to give themselves permission to write crap. Then forge ahead and don’t look back until the first draft is done. Otherwise, perfectionists will never get beyond chapter one. Finish the story and fix it later.

  4. Tosca, thank you for sharing your heart! I am a fan. I stumbled on your book Demon A Memoir in between a book series from another writer. I fell in love with it. Iscariot is on my short list. Again thanks for bringing to light your passion in the writing process!

  5. {{{thunk!}}}}

    (sound of someone or something hitting me aside the head.)

    Thanks, Tosca, I needed that.

    Write like no one will ever read it. Really good advice. Sort of like the dancing like no one’s looking thing? Or singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in your car at full bellow?

    Am going back to work on chapter one now.

  6. LOL PJ. I have to literally fool myself into thinking of this rule, because I forget it every time I sit down to write. I like to chalk my memory issues up to the beautiful chaos of having four new step-children in my life, but at the end of the day, the real reason, for me, at least, is fear.

    Phil, thank you so much. I hope you enjoy Iscariot!

  7. Pingback: First Drafts | Nancy Faltermeier

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