First versus foundation (steel cage grudge match)

There’s been a pretty excellent blog post making the rounds lately. No, not one of mine, he chuckled… oh, no-one suggested it was one of mine? Oh. Okay. That’s fine.

No, no, just something in my eye.

No, it’s the very smart ‘How not to write a novel’ essay over at the Momentum Books blog. Go read it if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.

I have fulfilled pretty much every single one of these points, including the top-secret-banned-from-public-consumption item #5 (hint: bourbon and marmosets), and I pretty much agree that all of them are problematic. But I want to talk a bit about item #4 – ‘Edit first, write later’ – because maybe things aren’t that cut and dried there.

An accepted piece of writing wisdom is that the first draft does not need to be good, it just needs to be written. Just slam those words out with little or revision, because the important thing is to get them out in the first place – the second and later drafts are when you refine your ideas, polish your prose and edit out all the crap bits. Some writers call the first draft the vomit draft for just this reason (I call Boags Draught the vomit draft, but that’s neither here nor there). That’s a bit extreme, okay, but we can all agree that energy and momentum is more important than polish in the first draft. I’ve agreed with that premise, I’ve told other people to just get in there and write; when I coached the EWF Rabbit Hole Online team a couple of years back, I told them not to bother even correcting typos or obvious errors, just to write write write so that they have something finished to do the real work on later.

But see, here’s the thing:

I can’t do it.

I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve written the first thing that came to mind and moved on – and then I’ve come crawling back, blocked from moving on because all I can think of is a better way of writing that line, of enforcing the tone, of avoiding repetition of overused words. Of writing something that I’m happy with, rather than something I can tolerate for the moment.

So yes, I edit as I go. I edit a lot. I’ll rewrite a line three or four times, and then rewrite back and forward from that point so that the new line sits right on the page. If I introduce something new into the story, I go back to the start and revise things so that there’s textual support for this element and it doesn’t feel out of place. If I’m on chapter 20 and I realise that I’m not happy with chapter 1, then I stop writing chapter 20 and I damn well rewrite chapter 1 – and probably 2 and 3 – until they’re right.

Yes, I know. I know.

It’s this habit – along with procrastination, video games, socialising, mental fatigue, drunkenness and an appalling work ethic – that explains why it’s taken me nearly two years to write 80% of the draft for Raven’s Blood, and why I still need to nail down the last 20 000 words (and possibly revise the first 20 000 words again) before it’s finished.

But here’s the other thing:

It’s a good draft. It hangs together, it makes sense, the characterisation is (fairly) consistent, the voice is (mostly) consistent, the pacing is pretty much spot on if I say so myself… this is a draft that I can show other people right away, rather than needing to rewrite it one-two-three more times to make it fit for public consumption. There’s work that needs to be done, obviously, but I’ve saved myself a lot of later work by doing that work already. (Two years’ worth of work? Well, let’s not sweat that detail.)

Because of that, I don’t refer to this as a first draft; I call it my foundation draft. It’s something I can build on, but it’s something that’s already solid and stable, rather than the collection of raw materials that a quantity-not-quality first draft would give me – concrete and timber, not putty and pencil shavings. (I’m not suggesting that all first drafts are like that – just that mine would certainly be.)

So with the final act still to write, deadlines blown and most readers’ interest looooong gone… I still keep working on my foundation. Because if I build this house – and damnit, I want to – then I want it to stand. At least long enough for someone else to check it for woodworm.

So that’s my approach to long-form writing – foundation, not first; strength, not speed; sumo, not karate.

Disagree? Tell me about it; leave a comment and tell me why you find the breakneck pace of the first draft better for your work.

Think I’m on the right path? Leave a comment and validate me – and get ready for me to argue the exact opposite next weekend.

3 replies on “First versus foundation (steel cage grudge match)”

That’s pretty much exactly how I write articles. Write a bit, polish, write a smidgen more, polish that, back to the beginning, get rid of extraneous paragraph, polish, write more, etc etc.

This probably dates back to the time when I was committed to publishing something every day. I had no time for multiple drafts, the first one had to be good enough to kick out the door.

But I find I still rather like it, even for longer pieces like workbooks. It adds a nice consistency to the work that is hard for me to summon when writing something out over many many writing sessions.

That’s pretty much where I’m at with my novel too. Every time I attempt to re-engage with it and work out where I need to write next, I find myself revising and editing earlier chapters (but at the moment, it’s tinkering with the small stuff that doesn’t really need it).

But this month, I’ve forced myself to read over everything again, without doing any editing, and only note-taking as I get myself up to speed on the novel again.

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