Wildcards · Writing

Following Your Gut in a First Draft

The weather is cold; Christmas songs suffuse the radio. We are halfway through December and NaNoWriMo is a few weeks behind us. If you’re like me, as a result of that annual November typing frenzy, you have a pretty rough first novel draft waiting for you to attack it.

By rough, I mean incredibly rough. When people, after hearing that I wrote a novel in a month, ask when they can read it, I have said, “Oh, God, not for a while–it’s a pile of crap right now.” And it can definitely feel like that when you’re in the trenches of novel-writing, hating every word you put on the paper. But the other day I ran across Kelly Sedinger’s blog post, “Your First Draft is Not Crap.” He made, I think, a very fitting analogy about first drafts: they are the plywood skeleton of a house. Not anywhere near finished or livable, but they are a solid start.

2015 was my sixth NaNoWriMo, and even with a crazy thing like NaNoWriMo, practice makes perfect. My first-draft house has become a little more polished over the years–maybe with drywall thrown up or a roof over the plywood skeleton. My NaNo drafts are never anywhere near perfect, but they’re closer to it than they were six years ago when I began.

At least, that was the pattern until this last NaNo draft.

You see, something strange happened with my most recent NaNo draft. I laid out the scenes in my outline, like usual. And then I started to write. Everything went great until I hit an issue–my main character’s motivation was based on a sensitive plot event. And I thought, “This is YA fiction–do I really have any business putting something like this plot event in here?”

I made the mistake of thinking of future readers before I thought of my own vision for the story. So I changed the event–watered it down significantly. But that, in turn, changed character dynamics, the suspension of disbelief, the plot itself. I kept writing, but at the end of November I had the shortest, weakest first draft of a novel I’ve produced in years. All my NaNo-practice seemed undone; the bones of the house I was building were rickety with a few nails missing. I still believe in the story, but it’s going to take so much more work now, because I didn’t follow my gut and my initial vision.

Sure, I may have had a point about the sensitive plot event. But the first draft is no time for editing–NaNoWriMo itself is the antithesis of editing. If I had written the draft like I had intended to–like my gut told me to–I would have a much stronger novel to edit. I could have made appropriate substitutions after establishing strong characters and a cohesive, believable plot and a writing style that could carry the story.

And I would have had more fun writing it, which is probably the most important part.

In the end, though, the flop is probably a good thing. We learn from our screwups. Even if this year’s NaNoWriMo draft is not my sturdiest house, I have learned an important lesson about following my gut–at least for the first draft. And in the end, learning is what writing is all about.

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