Approaching Messy First Drafts

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigTangled Christmas Lights

One thing that’s nice about having older children is that they can take over household tasks that we’re either not excited about, or just don’t do well.  This is the way it works for me and Christmas decorations.

My daughter put up all the decorations inside the house.  They look amazing.  My teenage son ordinarily does all the lights on the tree and outside.  Unfortunately, since he had four wisdom teeth taken out over Thanksgiving, he was knocked out of the equation.  My husband was swamped with work, so I took on the outdoor lights.

When I pulled out the box from last year’s Christmas, I just stared at the jumble on the inside.  I’d put away the lights before the New Year last year (some Southerners are superstitious about not putting away Christmas stuff by Jan. 1) and I’d thought I’d done it in an organized way.  But looking at the lights (pictured above), I wondered if I might have been on drugs when I put them away.  What on earth?  Clearly, I’d tried to do something about keeping the wires separated…but tying plastic produce bags around groups of cords?  What?  And those rubber bands floating around in the mix…they weren’t actually providing any sort of function.

It took a while to straighten them out.  And quite a bit of muttering from me.  But finally, I spread them out on the front yard, methodically untangling the wires, and then put them on the bushes.  They aren’t perfect…but they’re done.

The disastrous jumble reminded me (sadly) of my current first draft.  I also wonder as I read it if I were on drugs when I wrote it.  :)  I suppose what I was writing made perfect sense to me the day I penned it.  I suppose.  But now it resembles just as much of a mess as the lights.  I knew from the beginning, though, that this particular first draft was one to be reckoned with.

My approach-starting out with a time-consuming revision:

Read the manuscript straight through.

As I read it, maintain a second document that lists issues that need to be worked out. Mine are very brief, usually.  Here are a couple (shouldn’t be any spoilers, if readers are here): Page 33—Mentioned that Jason had left town 5 years ago. How many years ago was it?  What made him return?  Page 47—Martha mentions John approached her after the retreat in the parking lot.  Did this happen?  Did I write this in or only plan on writing it in?

I make minor changes to the document as I read through, but I’m maintain speed because I need a really cohesive assessment of where the problems and continuity issues are—and I won’t get that if this reading through takes too long.  Most of my changes have been for improved word choice.

After reading it through and making notes, I’m going to methodically work through the list of issues.

Then I’ll read it through again to make sure it makes sense with the changes.

After that, I’ll layer in my usual late-draft additions of setting, chapter breaks, character description, etc.

More reading through (checking for things like echoes of certain words, other continuity problems, characters who seem out of character, etc.)

How do you approach revising a messy first draft?

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28 thoughts on “Approaching Messy First Drafts

  1. I like to get a TOC set up pretty quickly and get those hyperlinked chapters going. That gives me a basic framework and I can see the end. Then it’s just a matter of going through with Track Changes to fix things. Sometimes I’ll leave little notes of scenes to put in later.

    1. Greg, I’m with Elizabeth, what a great idea! I use a TOC in my columns all the time but had never thought of creating one for a manuscript’s chapters — you could even move scene-to-scene this way, what a great thought. Thanks!

  2. Elizabeth – I think we have to accept that first drafts don’t always look spiffy. They’re not supposed to, really. First drafts where you just write your ideas and the basic stream of the story, so no wonder they can be awfully messy. But it’s not until you get t he first draft out there that you can straighten it out and really tell a story. Same with the lights. You can’t organized and string them up ’till they’re there.

  3. Did I write it or only plan on writing it – funny!
    That’s why I spend so long on my outlines. Less mess in the first draft. Although there’s always a lot that needs to be fixed.
    We’re supposed to take down decorations before January 1? We mess that up every year…

    1. Alex–Now that you’re a Southerner, you need to pay attention to these things! Yes, you have to have decorations down by Jan. 1, or you’ll have bad luck. :) And collard greens and black-eyed peas on Jan. 1 for good luck in the next year. Sooo superstitious here. And somehow I always seem to go along with it!

  4. I agree with Margot. I just start writing and try to make sense of it later. Even though I hear a lot of good about outlines, I still can’t make myself do it. When I get an idea I start typing it into the story. Later, I will cut and paste it into the area it sounds best in. As far as a web site, I don’t have. My son says I should at least have a blog to promote my book. I hear from others that say I should have the book first, then the blog. Any one’s opinion on that?

    1. Hi Jane–I think you need to pick some sort of online presence as a writer–it could be a very basic website or a blog, if you don’t mind posting every week or so. Or it could be a type of social media that you enjoy–Pinterest or Facebook or Twitter. Just make sure the profile is Writer Jane so that you can start branding yourself/your books.

  5. Love this post so much. I obsess, at times, on process, and love reading what other writers do.
    I also think revising, fleshing out and making the words come to life, is the best part of writing.

    1. Kristi–I should probably think more about my process. I’ve just sort of got a workhorse mentality toward it–attack it, plow through, get it done. And you’re right–revising is the best part. Once I get into it, I always enjoy it.

  6. Interesting.

    I hate the dreaded “synopsis” so much that i decided to cover my bases in my rough draft with elaborate notes. In effect, these notes contain the “writer’s intent” scene by scene. I call these assembled notes and snippets of dialog/action/description my “rough.”

    When I craft it, I’m telling myself the story. It has to live through a couple revisions at that level for me to go on and craft a full prose “first” from it. However, even in third or fourth revision, these notes from the “rough” provide the roadmap of intent. As the draft progress, all the little hooks I invent to back-link elements of the story are added as little bullet points in the scene listing.

    I end up with more supporting material than prose in the end – but for me this working outline makes the synopsis – and its focus on the substantial developments of story – much easier to create. It’s a week of craft and consideration rather than a multi-month effort of horror and shame (I wrote it like that? Surely not…ugh…better revise again here….ooops).

    We’ve talk before about “writing to the outline” but when I am telling the story for the early revisions, I’m really telling myself the story as it evolves and taking notes about how those turns might go rather than writing “Jane enters a room. Confronts Carlson on his infidelity, and flees in emotional agony.”

    Short version: I’m always in the mess. I have to have a roadmap or I could never put it down for those cooling periods it needs.

    Oh – love the revised website. Wonderful.

    I’m going to have to put a picture up on mine someday. I dread it. E-hermit and all. I think there is a photo around the house from a couple decades back. Maybe longer. Oh – I should hire a model! Yes, that’s it. Who knows what an author looks like, anyway? This could work. I’ll call Clooney tonight. Maybe Miss Snark can give me his number.

    1. Synopses…yuck. Yes, those notes could be gold when you need to put a synopsis together.

      I like your roadmap! Actually, I wish I could do something similar. I *could* do something similar, if I weren’t always a foot away from a deadline. This book’s deadline is Jan. 1…blehhhhh. And there’s a major holiday right in the middle of the time I’ve got left. But if I could look at my rough draft that way–labeling the elements and seeing what’s lacking and what I’ve got–that would be very useful.

      Yeah, the dreaded author photo!

      The happy realization that I had about headshots was that if I took one every single year…the aging process seems to go very slowly. :) I plan one day to animate the collection of headshots to see my decline….ha!

  7. Are you kidding? It takes me a lot more than a first draft to get the mess cleaned up. I’m usually up to third and fourth draft and even then I’m thinking maybe I’m not starting my novel at the right place. Or maybe my story would be better told in third person or what about present tense instead of past tense? And then, I start reading books on character development, inner conflict and negative traits and that just messes me up even more.

    1. Carol–I think I’m lucky in that respect because I’m working within the parameters of a particular sub-genre. There’s definitely a pattern of events that need to happen within certain time periods in the book. And I’m on book 13, so I’m really familiar with the structure. Ohhh…book 13. Well, no wonder I’m running into trouble. :) Superstitions again!

  8. Elizabeth, I love the new site!

    That ball of lights cracks me up. You know what we found in our Christmas bins today (we decorated today)? We found old “time capsules” we’d created started back in 2006. Just empty paper towel thingies with notes inside. We’ll open them on Christmas day.

    Anyway, I make minor changes in the first read through, then dig in with a list of notes…kind of like you!

    1. How cool! Hope you make some fun discoveries in there. We’ve got a time capsule here that one of my kids made at school, but the date it was set to be opened is *far* in the future. Wondering if I’ll remember or if I’ll even be around!

  9. Hi Elizabeth – so delighted your daughter helped out, while I hope your son has improved .. wisdom teeth never seem to give us an easy life! A mess of Christmas lights – there must be a new word we could create … tangled wires – surely someone has some bright ideas! Well done on achieving that task – in your methodical way .. the way it should be done …

    Cheers and enjoy your Christmas lights .. Hilary

  10. Christmas lights and headphone leads both seem to have a life of their own, can’t stop them from turning into a big knotted mess.

    As for revisions, mine tend to require a slow, methodical readthrough to catch all the inconsistencies. Painful but necessary. Once I get through that stage it tends to go a lot smoother.


    1. Mooderino–Headphone cords…yes! Oh my gosh, those things drive me batty. I try using those twist-tie things that wrap around the bread, but that doesn’t really seem to help.

      And…knowing our process is a comfort, isn’t it? Then we know we can get through it…that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.

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