What to Look for in the First Draft

When I was in college, the first writing course I took was in poetry.  My professor – who taught fiction as well as verse – had a specific way of running the workshops.  First, you had to read your work in front of everyone.  If you were too much of a pussy to read your material, you were too much of a pussy to write a grocery list.

Second, regardless of all the marks we gave each other’s drafts, we had to write at least six things – three positive, three negative.  The idea was that every draft had its strengths and weaknesses.  This has stuck with me ever since.

Once the first draft of anything is done, I forgo the fine tuning.  There will be plenty of time later to deal with comma usage or passive versus active voice.  Sculptors break of large chucks of rock before going in with finer tools to carve out intricate details.  Writers should do the same.

So although I had hundreds of pages written for the first draft of Ain’t No Grave with a few comments here and there about what I thought of this or that scene, everything boiled down to a set of notes scribbled down on the last page of the manuscript.

Good Points:

  • Good sense of pacing.
  • Natural dialog.
  • Excellent details and descriptions.

Bad Points:

  • Plot meanders around way too much without a strong drive.
  • We don‘t get to know the characters too well, not even out three major characters – Donny, Megan, and Allen.
  • Not nearly as perilous and hard-edged as it ought to be for apocalyptic fiction.  The shit seems to rarely hit the fan!

It might look like there are more problems with the first draft than there are strengths, but don’t let the relative wordiness of the negative points fool you.  It’s still three for three, and while I like hearing what went well in the first draft, I always find the criticism more useful.

The positive points allow you to pat yourself on the back and reassure yourself that you’re not a fuck-up, and they’ve got the added bonus of telling you what you’re doing right; keep that up.  But the negative points show how you can do better the next time around.

Now go do better.

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