Let’s Talk about 1st Drafts: A (Hopefully) Gentle Post-Nano Pep Talk

A week or so ago, I blogged about progress–thinking about what people would be feeling as they came to the end of NaNo. Now that NaNo is over & authors everywhere are actually looking over what they did produce in November, I’m feeling the need to talk about things a little bit more. Actually, this post is prompted in part by the disappointment an online friend was (hopefully, not is, anymore) feeling about her 1st draft. So this may turn into a bit of a rant.

Qualifier: I very much like the idea of NaNo. I did a variant in Book in a Week a few years ago, and I was thrilled with the results–with where that week got me, in terms of understanding my story and in terms of having actual material to move forward with.

Note that I did not say I was thrilled with the draft.

That first draft was–well, let’s just call it an Anne Lamott-approved 1st draft. I sat down to read it after the week, and started scribbling notes and thoughts, and then I stopped reading. Because it was just that bad.

I did not stop revising. By maybe 1/3 of the way through, I’d seen that my hero was being a totally passive observer, letting his sidekick drive the choices and actions of the story. I didn’t have to read the whole manuscript to find out whether he continued that way; I knew he did. And I knew that, before I could do any other revising, I had to tackle this major problem.

So I wrote a second draft, in which I pushed that hero to the front. I made the story goals his goals, and I threw the obstacles in his path. Did I work on other, smaller issues as I went through all the chapters? Of course, I did–I’m human! But that was the revision focus. And when I finished that draft, I had something I thought I could work with. Something I thought I could pass through my critique group without too much humiliation and embarrassment.

What’s my point? That first draft–whether you wrote it in a week or a month–is supposed to be bad. REALLY bad. How could it be otherwise? Unless you have the brain of, I don’t know…Stephen Hawking? Albert Einstein? William Shakespeare? ______________ ? (Fill in the blank with the name of any famous author you’ve heard say they DO write a beautiful first draft!), you cannot write a manuscript that fast and THINK about it at the same time. Yes, I know, you did think. So did I during the Book in a Week process. But I thought for seconds and minutes. I did not think for hours, because I had none of those to spare. And neither did you.

What do you have, from your NaNo work? Do you have crap? If you answer anywhere near “Yes,” I want you to step away from the computer, give yourself a hug and some chocolate, and do the happy dance. Because you’re supposed to have crap. And you got it in a month–many of us take a YEAR (or more) to reach that point! You get to start turning that horrible stuff into something better 11 months ahead of schedule. Are you on Twitter? Did you see all the tweets from agents and editors, in varying degrees of tact, asking you NOT to query them about this manuscript on December 1st? The fact that you recognize how bad your first draft is proves you have the skill level and the knowledge of the craft to see that.

Okay, rant finished. But seriously, if you’re feeling disappointed or discouraged or–please, no–like you’ve failed in any way, well, just don’t!  Is there something you particularly hate about the story so far? Wonderful! Take that element and fix it. Figure out what you hate about it, why it makes you want to take the whole manuscript and use it to heat the wood-burning stove this winter, and revise around that problem. Save the AL-approved 1st draft, if you want to reassure yourself that you’re not losing any treasures (but really so you can show yourself how much BETTER that next draft is–and the next, and the next…).

I love NaNo and BIAW. I love the idea of tackling this big a project in such a short time, of riding an adrenalin wave, of producing more words and ideas than you ever thought possible. I browsed through NaNo’s website before writing this blog, and that’s really what the month is supposed to be about. I do not like all the bad feelings that come to some NaNo writers when the adrenalin leaves, and the crash comes. No matter how bad those words look on the page, you have achieved something wonderful.

Let yourself believe that.


  1. Jenn Hubbard says:

    As they say, you can’t revise a blank page. 🙂


  2. I love Annie Lamott and I love your last line. Very Polar Express (the movie). It’s always good to have something to believe in, even if it’s just yourself 🙂


    • beckylevine says:

      Ack–I haven’t seen the movie! 🙂 In this industry, if we don’t believe that we have the potential/possiblity at least of getting where we want, it WOULD be too discouraging. 🙂


  3. P. J. Hoover says:

    Wait, I recognize my first drafts suck. Does this mean I’m good?


  4. Amy G. says:

    Wonderful post! One of the things I love about writing is that it’s not a performance art — you can revise as much as you want. But you are absolutely right that each draft is valuable, even the terrible ones (although that can be hard for me to remember sometimes).


    • beckylevine says:

      Especially at the end of the first one, I think. But, yes, there’s something to work with in every pass, I think.


  5. Great post! First drafts are suppose to stink and the sooner we get over it the better – so I tell myself.


  6. Wonderful post, Becky. It’s so important for us to remember this and for some reason we tend to forget it from book to book.


    • beckylevine says:

      Probably because the last thing we finished doing on the previous book was revising & polishing. 🙂


  7. claudine says:

    Great article, Becky. Thanks! Nice dose of encouraging realism. 🙂


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