Max Gladstone: “First Drafts Suck”
First drafts suck.
Does that sound too fierce for you? Too general?
Let me try again: my first drafts suck. And in all probability so do yours.
That piece where as you wrote “The End” you heard angels sing to you from on high, and saw Gabriel hisowndamnself descend from shining clouds to thank you for your contribution to world literature? Odds are it sucks. Trust me. I’ve been there.
I don’t mean that there’s nothing in what you’ve written that works. I don’t even mean that the piece you finished and feel great about doesn’t hum with inimitable bassy deliciousness or read like a chocolate milkshake drinks. I just mean that if you’re anything like me, the piece, as a whole, is probably busted.
Maybe your characters cough too much. That’s happened to me—ruined the effect of a perfectly good final chapter. Maybe you use the word “fire” forty times in one six-page segment. Done that, too. Maybe your central character’s a total cypher, and her big turn doesn’t make any sense even though it sang in your head. That’s, like, every other draft of everything I’ve ever done.
You may be sensing a pattern here: this is written as much for my benefit as for yours. But current run rate indicates I am not alone.
First drafts are, well, first. Even when you’re proud of them, they’re not done yet. And this is good.
This is good, because first drafts can be made better.
You can spot word overuse. A shower-revelation will fix your story structure. A sudden lightning bolt will inform you there’s a missing scene between your tenth and eleventh chapters, or that the eleventh chapter should be the sixth (it’s happened.). The fourth read through the story you’ll realize there are too many scenes where characters contemplate the stars—or that you’re using cigarettes or coffee cups like commas, that your rhetoric’s gone stale or your sentences are all the same length. On your eighth read you’ll spot the glaring hole at the center of your plot.
And you’ll fix it. Each and every time.
Some days you’ll despair, because dammit, how can I be doing all this work to produce a first draft that will require the prose equivalent of full facial reconstruction and a heart transplant before it’s worth reading? You’ll come back to old manuscripts from which you thought wafted sweet ambrosial perfumes, only to catch a whiff of something else entirely.
But it’s better than the alternative.
Because for every draft you think is great when you put it to bed that first time, you’ll write one that just doesn’t work. Where you know, when the last line comes, that you’ve committed a crime against God and literature and the only thing for it is slink into a tiny shadowy cubby hole to stew in your own sweat and hope nobody notices.
The funny thing about those drafts is, I mean, yes, sometimes they need more work than the ones that flow like honey. Sometimes. But they both need work, and when you start off thinking, no matter what this is, no matter how I feel about it now, I’ll need to work to make it better? Then the despair isn’t nearly so sharp. If the book is broken, and you know it, that’s just one more reason to throw yourself at edits. In a way it even helps. Because you have less attachment to the first draft, you pay more attention to structure, timing, language—to the architecture of acts and the necessities of character and plot. You tweak everything you can in a bad draft, because the book needs all the help you can give it. You’re Rocky up against Apollo Creed on pub date (or submission date, or “date you ask your crit group to read your MS,” or whatever). Training isn’t just a chore; you need it to survive. There’s potential in the story, somewhere, or you wouldn’t have pushed through to take it this far. You just need to bring it out.
I went through this whole rodeo with my most recent novel, Full Fathom Five. On writing “The End” after the first draft, I almost wept. The book was too long by half. The ending landed funny. The first act’s pacing was, charitably, off. There was a whole middle section that went nowhere. The theme was muddy.
But I could rebuild it. Make it better. Faster. Stronger. I’d seen how much I could improve first drafts I thought were, if not perfect, at least in the neighborhood; now I turned my hands to flaws I knew were there, and others friends and first readers and editors illuminated.
The work was hard. I wrote 20,000 new words, then deleted 80,000. Prose tightened. Images sharpened. Characters found their light and voice. The plot slipped into the right key, and the tempo tripped into time. And one day, reading the book through again, I felt it hook me. And when a book you’ve read twenty, thirty times does that, you know you’ve found something special.
I’m as proud of this book as I am of anything I’ve ever done. It’s golden. It’s right. And as for that first draft…
I’m glad I knew it sucked.
* * *
Max Gladstone has sung in Carnegie Hall, been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published the first two books in the Craft sequence are THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE.
And now, just released, is the third in the series, FULL FATHOM FIVE:
On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World.
When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.
[editorial note from cw: the first book is amazing — when I once again grab hold of that mythical beast known as ‘free time’ I will ride it straight into the rest of the series]