Friday, 19 November 2010

In defence of the first draft...

'The first draft will always be rubbish'

'Finished your first draft? Now comes the hard part'

'Writing is all about rewriting'

These are things I read again and again from other writers on blogs and in interviews and just about anywhere they let writers talk about writing and stuff. I'll be honest, I'm sick of hearing it. I'm not taking issue with the sentiment, but it's the kind of advice that's not particularly helpful when you're actually writing a first draft.

I'm writing a first draft at the moment. It's a tricky one - lots of characters, lots of exposition, lots of things that need to happen by certain points in the narrative. I've been doing a lot of editing as I go along, particularly on the first 30 pages which I must've gone back over and rewritten five or six times now. I've spent the last few evenings working on it pretty solidly, but my progress in terms of page count has been minimal - I think I was on 39 pages on Friday and by the end of last night I was on 42. It's been tough, but it feels like I'm making good progress and saving myself a lot of hassle further down the line. The last thing I want to hear right now is that the first draft is rubbish.

I'm going to try to put this in perspective. The fact is that script you're working on right now probably won't get made into a film. Even if the work is through a production company, even if it seems almost guaranteed, it's not guaranteed until you get on the set and even then...I'm sure you've heard all this before. The point is it probably won't happen. But you can't think that when you're writing. You have to be able to see it as a film and you have to believe it's going to be a film one day otherwise there's just no reason to do it. I've worked on things that I really haven't believed were going to be films and those jobs have always ended up going horribly wrong (ironically one of those is now in production, which shows what I know). And maybe this is something that only really relates to those of us writing unpaid in our spare time, because the sacrifice is greater. If I'm going to give up my free time outside the day job to sit at a computer then I have to believe it's worthwhile.

I think the same applies to the first draft. I know it will end up being rewritten. From my track record it's usually at least ten drafts before the thing is finished. Often it's more than ten. I'm not naively suggesting that this time, this one time, my first draft will be absolutely perfect. But right now, I need to believe that it is, because I can't put the hours in on something I know is ultimately going to be scrapped. And the fact is, the work you do in the first draft is some of the most important work you do. Contrary to popular belief, it's not all about rewriting. Some of it is about building a solid enough base so that when you do start to tear some of it down and rebuild your structure is still standing. That's why the first draft is important, and that's why I'm tired of people telling me it's inevitably going to be horrible.

6 comments:

Mark Moynihan said...

Every first draft may get ninety percent dumped, but there'll always be a line, a moment, an exchange that you hadn't even planned for, that you'll look at and think; "You know what, I really like that".

That's what we write them for

Andrew Green said...

Seems like every time I read anything I've previously written, I find more glaring mistakes that need to be fixed. Doesn't matter how many times I go over the piece, either.

Chris Regan said...

Both good points! I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that even though I know that it's not going to be perfect, I have to pretend it is to get through the very act of writing it. Speaking of which I should get back to it...

hels said...

I know what you mean, and I have my own reasons to be sick of it, though of course I'm a nube so I'm not really to be listened to. I'll say it anyway though, I agree, if a good writer has the sense as they are writing their work, that the stuff being written isn't good enough to make it the screen, then why would a good writer carry on writing those very words?

The problem for me is who is speaking when they say this. Same goes for writers who claim that the more scripts you have written clearly the more experience you have with honing your craft. Sometimes I find myself desperately wanting to say, no no, you have experience writing, not honing; I've read your scripts and they are all bad, you didn't develop from one to the other. I would like to say :)

It's the same for me with the first draft is junk opinion. Some writers say this and what they mean is 'my script never had any spark because I'm not a good writer so I kept writing new drafts putting in changes, I call them improvements, but really I just kept changing without improving anything.'

Personally I only listen to the people who explain in more detail, because that is really what matters; the detail of what kind of a writer are you? Some people say they wrote their script, had a flash of inspiration that required the whole script be rewritten, and they do because it'll be a better movie, and this may happen numerous times. Or perhaps another writer spends an eternity retreading their script because the finer details can always be made better, and they hone description and dialogue endlessly. Or perhaps one character or some drag the whole thing down, and the writer chooses to keep tackling the why to create a better character. For me, I'm great at premise, logic within universe, set ups. But I know I'll probably spend an eternity fixing weak characters and honing dialogue, as well as research...

Anyway, I agree, the first draft theory isn't always helpful, especially without context. How can you know with some people why they had to rewrite to much, maybe they were shit? Maybe they were a genius missing one piece?

Ross said...

This is an excellent posting mate, and it's resonating with me primarily because, as you know, I've just written my first ever first draft of a feature - the version I've sent out is really draft 2.5 (ish) but I'm really interested to get the feedback on it because although I think I've got some stuff right I really can;t detach right now to see what else I can improve/develop properly.

Chris Regan said...

More good points! I think it at the heart of it is the fact that everyone does things differently, and that's why these general rules and pieces of so-called 'advice' are of no help. Some people may prefer to race through the first draft to get the page count, then go back and fix it. I prefer to fix the structural problems on the first draft and spend the susequent drafts working on characters and dialogue, but even that tends to vary from project to project. There is no right way to do it, but I guess what I'm tired of is people telling me there is.