9 Ways You Succeed When Your First Draft Fails

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Do your first drafts always turn out exactly how you want them to? Congratulations! Keep doing what you’re doing.

For most of us, there’s a gap between the beautiful, magical book in our heads and the rough, inadequate first draft that lands on the page when we try to write that beautiful book down.

But here’s the good news—for every way your first draft fails, it gets you farther down the road to success. Here are a few of the ways it might happen to you.

1. You realize your idea in your first draft isn’t a novel idea.

The first novel I successfully wrote was far from the first one I started. But all of those early attempts helped me learn. If you write 10,000 words on your keen new idea and realize there just isn’t enough there to support a whole 80,000-word novel, that’s okay! You’ve succeeded in finding the limits. Set it aside for now and come back to it later – maybe it’s part of a novel, maybe it’s a short story, maybe it’s a novella. Maybe you strip it for parts and use your favorite lines somewhere else entirely. But by realizing there’s no novel there, you win.


greer-macallister-featuredgreer-macallister-book-coverThis guest post is by Greer Macallister. Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright, and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review, The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel, The Magician’s Lie, was an Indie Next pick, a Target Book Club selection, and a USA Today bestseller. She’s also a contributor to the excellent guidebook for writers, Author in Progress. Learn more on her website: greermacallister.com.


2. Your sentences aren’t beautiful.

This is the most common problem and the easiest one to fix. While the book is in progress, try as hard as you possibly can to not care about beautiful sentences. Some of them will turn out great; most of them won’t. You can deal with that in the second, fifth or seventh draft. But don’t spend hours writing a letter-perfect, lovingly worded scene set at the beach only to realize late in the game that your main character is an incurable aquaphobe who would never even get close to the water.

3. Your outline goes out the window.

Even if you’re a planner and you have a neat, carefully thought-out order of events you want your first draft to follow, your mind will chew right through it when you’re actually putting it down on the page. Which is okay. At a certain point in the draft you have to decide if you’re going to stick to the outline even though it no longer feels right, or zoom off in another direction. Chances are, clinging to something you don’t love is going to show. The window is a fine place for outlines, really.

4. Your first draft is too short.

Happens all the time. I like to lay down a fast, sloppy 50,000-word draft and then build in layers and subplots once I understand what the book is really about. Don’t jam a lot of extra words into your first draft just to make the count come out right. Write your story beginning to end, let it sit, and then come back. You’ll see what’s missing.

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5. Your plot takes a wrong turn.

Whether planned or unplanned, a plot point that seems great in the abstract can reveal itself as a poor choice when it becomes concrete. This is one of the more demoralizing problems. If you decide what happens in Chapter 10 of a 20-chapter book was a left-hand turn when you should’ve taken a right, you’ll have to heavily edit or even throw out 10 chapters. Which is a hard row to hoe. But which is more important – saving those words, or writing the best book you can write?

6. Oops, wrong narrator.

You might write an entire draft about a millionaire playboy from the point of view of the millionaire playboy, and then realize the observations of his quiet friend Nick would be more insightful and moving. And yes, that’s not ideal, to discover this only after the draft’s written. But when you start on the second draft, you’ll understand the inner workings and thoughts of that no-longer-central character better than you ever would have otherwise. As long as you’re willing to pitch what needs to be pitched – changing narrators isn’t as easy as flipping around “my” to “his” and vice versa – the work you’ve already put in will be a strong foundation for the work yet to come.

7. Your first draft is too long.

Once your word engine gets chugging up to full steam, you may end up producing a first draft that’s 125,000 or even 150,000 words. In most genres, that’s just too much. Still not a cause for panic. Fresh eyes or a break can help you see what to keep and what to prune back.

[How To Write Novels When You’re A Parent]

8. It’s all plot and no emotion.

A perfectly integrated story moves forward because the characters take action to make it move. But even though you know in your head why things are happening the way they are, it’s very common for actions on the page in the first draft to not quite make sense to a first-time reader. You likely know more than you were able to write down in draft one. That’s what the rest of the drafts are for.

9. You hate it.

There is nothing more natural than finishing your first draft and saying, “This is amazing!” right before you re-read it and declare “This is terrible!” Hate and fear are generally part of the process, for better or for worse. (Seriously, only really terrible writers don’t at least occasionally consider the possibility that their work is terrible.) Today, let yourself hate it. Tomorrow is another day.

There will be a gap between the first draft of any book and the book you want to write, but accept that gap. Define it. Embrace it, if you can. Most writers have to deal with it at some point or other, and we know that there is no “right” number of drafts to get a book to its full potential. All we know is that great writing lives in the rewriting. The beginning, after all, is only the beginning.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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3 thoughts on “9 Ways You Succeed When Your First Draft Fails

  1. hughti

    Such a harsh title:
    “9 Ways You Succeed When Your First Draft Fails”.

    Why do you have to look at it as a failure? It’s a first draft. It can go sideways. And it’s not expected to be perfect. You even talk about the “gap” between the first draft and a finished product. The success of the first draft, especially of something novel length, is having completed it. So many people stop long before “The End”.

    I’d have preferred a title that read more like “9 Ways to Make Your First Draft a Success” avoiding words like “fail” and “inadequate”.

  2. ChristineMorgan

    I don’t know if it’s because I’m slow, or if the 6 hours of school took too much out of me, but what is Advice 8# trying to explain exactly?

    [8. It’s all plot and no emotion.

    A perfectly integrated story moves forward because the characters take action to make it move. But even though you know in your head why things are happening the way they are, it’s very common for actions on the page in the first draft to not make sense to a first-time reader. You likely know more than you were able to write down in draft one. That’s what the rest of the drafts are for.]

    None of the sentences quite match the next as I read with my big dumb eyes. I don’t know what it’s trying to say, what the message is. Can someone clarify?

    1. Tuttle N. Tejas

      Respectfully, Ms. Morgan, I don’t think it’s you. The author committed the exact faux pas she warns against. Or: Your protagonist knows she must leave Biff Barf intergalactic doer of heroic doings because his rash has come back and his feet funk made her eyes water–but your reader doesn’t know that if all you write is, “After their triumphant victory and pledging eternal love, Tess Trueheart left Biff as the purple dawn broke over the Toe Jam Mountains.”

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