Not all drafts are created equal

Posted on September 22, 2010 by

Here are some things that I hold to be pretty self-evident:

–A writer can learn to turn a crappy draft into an utterly awesome work of fiction.
–The ability to revise a draft, of whatever quality, into something good develops with time and experience.
–An experienced editor can tell the difference between a draft with a lot of potential and one whose revision into a publishable story is going to be vastly more challenging… even, perhaps, beyond the current abilities of its creator.
–None of us is Shakespeare.
–When we think we have nothing left to learn, we stop learning.

A high level of craft is never my first-draft priority. I’m not above naming my incidental characters Namity McNamepants, or CousinTwo, or even writing “Insert kick-ass detail here!” or “WTF does this house look like?” The compulsion to get the story out and on the page, to drag the character’s journey into the light, is my first and overwhelming imperative. This is why I distinguish between Frankenstein drafts and first drafts. By the time something of mine hits a workshop, I’ve gone through it three to five times. After the McNamepants are gone, and the kickass details are inserted… then I call it a draft.

As a teacher, I am very much one of those folks who advocate the fast writing, the get-it-out-and-fix-it-later. (I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but I think it’s one of those experiments that everyone can profitably try.)

This leads to an interesting challenge, which is explaining to my UCLA students that it’s not a total contradiction to evaluate their writing based on hastily written drafts. That I am qualified to say “Gee is this far along the road, while Ess is here,” even though I haven’t seen what they can do in a rewrite.

What it boils down to, in some ways, is the “To Do” list. If the author of Draft A is showing rather than telling, if they’re writing in scenes, if they’re more or less telling a whole story and the list is something like a) amp up the conflict; b) add more setting detail; c) put the pivotal scene between the main character and its cyborg mother on-stage, they’re further along than the writer of Draft B, whose list goes all the way to to q) and includes half the Turkey City Lexicon, plus also some biggie like “You need a plot.”

Even though we some of us talk about freely writing bad drafts, as writers, the fact is even our rough work gets richer as we develop. I’m not sure I’d thought this through before.

Does that mean I can look at ten drafts and say which writers will make it? No. As Marie Brennan points out in Tuesday’s Journey interview, getting published is largely a matter of persistence. The same person whose 2010 draft story suffers from insurmountable weaknesses might write a very workable story next time, whip through an intriguing third project, and then dive into an experiment that almost succeeds wildly before it crashes and burns. And then, suddenly, five drafts later, they’re the ones writing the material with the short To Do list.

So this is the less self-evident thing I’m contemplating now: if you keep writing, gathering feedback, and striving to get better, your raw work should improve, too. Even your crap should be, well, more golden.

What do you all think?

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