I have just finished reading the full first draft of my critique partner’s MS. The story had me riveted and I finished it in an afternoon’s setting. I realised how much work and energy goes into a first draft and how close a writer can be to that first draft. It takes great courage to release that first draft from your safe hand to the hands of a critique partner or beta reader. I think it must feel something like dropping off your child at nursery school or hiring a baby sitter to look after your child for the first time. We writers have the same attachment to our stories as a mother to a child. There is that same protective streak and a sense of pride and love when we think of our WIP. This is even more the case with the first draft.
I think the first draft is the closest to the writer’s heart because it is written not only with ink but with emotional angst, blood, sweat and tears. It is written alone and maybe even in secret. It is actually just like a secret. The writer may have spent months with it, maybe even years, and then the point comes that someone else has to read it. At this point I am sure there are writers out there that fail to show it to someone else, instead they keep this first draft a secret. But for those who do need someone to read it to tell them if it is any good, it takes the courage of a warrior to take that first step and let someone else read it and then judge both them as a writer and the work on its own merit.
So if you are a writer who has just finished their first draft or perhaps you have buried it for a while; take it out and air it. Remember why you wrote this first draft in the first place. What drove you? Was this story begging to be told? Now you could bury it right back again but then you would not know whether your first draft was the bones of a great story that needed to be told or whether it is indeed just a story.
For me writing a story in first draft is like deciding to mine some soil. You don’t know whether there is anything under that soil. You could just dig deep down and find nothing but sand. But you could dig and find a vein of gold or silver. You could dig deep and find oil or water. You could dig deep down and find precious stones. You could dig deep down and find that most precious of gems: a diamond in the rough. The point is that you do not know what you are going to find, you know only that you have to dig. So you spend every precious moment you can spare to dig and dig, all the while writing down the bones of something that is becoming bigger than just a faint idea. Everyone around you at this point may be cheering for you or you may be doing it furtively. You could be that miner who is going out in the dark of night digging up the land behind your house and then covering your tracks. You might be that miner who is digging in plain sight of all your neighbours and friends and people are tut-tutting at the suspicion that you may be mentally unstable at the worst or fanciful with your head in the clouds at best. Either way, you keep on digging. Slowly you start striking a few things, you decide you have to write further and dig deeper to find out if there is a treasure at the end of all your digging. You get to the end of your first draft and you have struck something. You peer at it intently and wonder if this is it, you dug and dug for a dirty stone?
Now you are faced with a choice: You can either decide this was pointless and re-bury the stone, fill up the mine again and walk away. Or you can decide to see if there is something more to this stone, maybe it just needs to be washed clean of its crust of dirt?
If you take the second option, you take your stone and go to wash it. It still looks like a stone. You look at it under a magnifying glass. You cannot see anything but then again you are not an expert miner. What would you know? This is when you need to have some advice or another set of eyes. So you take it to someone you trust. It has to be someone you trust because in your heart of hearts you are hoping that they will tell you, “Job well done. Wow You have found a true diamond.” and all your work will not be in vain.
You find your person you trust. This may be a partner, a friend, a writing partner or a beta reader. You ask them politely and with your heart in your hand that they read this and give you their honest opinion. Is this just a stone or could it be a diamond in the rough? You ask for them to be gentle with it as you have spent months maybe even years mining at it.
You wait anxiously as they read your precious first draft. You know that they will try to be gentle but that they will be honest. It is this honesty that you fear the most. Will everyone be right, are you mentally unstable and just fooling yourself? Or even worse what if it is a diamond, what do you do then, the pressure would increase exponentially?
Finally they come back to you with the read story in hand. They look at you and give you their opinion. They tell you that they enjoyed the story but that there are some issues. They don’t understand certain things and some parts you put too much detail in and lost their interest. With each of these words, you feel like something is piercing you. You now know you were hoping they would say it was perfect. It is a diamond already cut, shaped and gleaming. Instead they are telling you it needs more work. Then you realise that this may not be a bad thing. They are saying this is a diamond but it has to be cut into a shape. The cuts may shave quite a lot from the stone, it may even cut it to half its shape. Then it needs to be polished. After all a diamond in the rough looks just like a dirty misshapen stone. You listen and then thank them because you realise they are trying to help you. They have taken time to critique your find, your work. You need to take the time to listen.
Now the hard work begins. You need to cut at the stone to get its true shape. There are a few external flaws that even you can see and then there are finer flaws that your expert pointed out. So you begin the process of the second draft and this is the cutting, the shaping. You know this will also not be the end. You will need to polish once you have the stone cut. Then you will have your true reward: a diamond. Sparkling, precious, flawless and a stone to be admired and coveted.
Remember the choice you had after finding the stone: if you are still at that crossroads, I urge you to not re-bury the stone. You may just have a stone in the end but you may also have a diamond. If your courage fails you and you don’t show it to someone else and don’t do a second draft, you will never know. Many writers have tried and tried many times and failed many times before their first success. But think if these writers had not made the choice to take the stone from the ground. Their diamonds, the books and stories we now love and learn from, would be lost forever. That would be a tragedy. So take courage. Remember why you wanted or needed to write this story or start digging in the first place. Let’s see if you have found a stone or a diamond mine?
© All Rights Reserved Kim Koning.
- Reader Question: What to do if I’m having trouble starting and finishing script projects? (gointothestory.com)
- Writers on Writing ~ Bird by Bird (dragonflyscrolls.wordpress.com)
- Colouring outside the lines (dragonflyscrolls.wordpress.com)