Why My First Draft is Like a Poorly Planned Paint Job

by Rachel Brady

Interesting development here.

I was making decent progress on my new manuscript until I shared the first half of a first draft with my editors.

Quick question–have any of the writers here ever shared early pages with an editor and been told, “I love it! Keep going!” right off the bat? That has never happened to me. I get that it’s not realistic. (If this actually has happened to you, please consider my question rhetorical and we can remain friends.) Still, a little bitty part of me always hopes . . .

But no. Probably the most acute form of momentum-stopping buzzkill comes when I hear (and agree) that there are major issues with my project.

Here’s why.

It takes me a really long time to write a book. I jump over external obstacles (full time job, three children, fill in the usual excuses here) and internal obstacles (motivation, self-doubt, high propensity to procrastinate) to get those words down. Understanding that many will be re-worked, several times, feels like I imagine it would feel to cross a marathon’s finish line and hear an official say, “We’re sorry. No one saw you run the first ten miles of the course. We’re gonna need you to run those ten again.”

Recently, I used the analogy of painting a large room. You prime one wall and then paint it. The color is all wrong. Now there is a decision point.

Re-prime and repaint that wall and make sure you like the new color before going on? That’s a lot of work. Or go on and prime the other three walls and then re-prime the one you just screwed up? If you do that, the whole time you work you must suffer in the knowledge that the first wall is still there, all wrong, waiting for you to make your way back around.

It kind of mocks you.

It’s a weak analogy. Who primes just one wall? Normally we’d do the whole room, then go back and add the color.

So why is it so dang hard to finish a first draft after realizing that what I have so far will need to be re-worked? If I think too long about all the work I’ll re-do, it is paralyzing. So nothing gets fixed in the draft. And nothing new gets added either.

Ultimately, I decided to prime the whole room. Now I have to walk past those early pages every time I come around with my paintbrush.

Moving on in a story without fixing its base is hard. I pretend that the early stuff is already fixed and that all is fine. All the while, I know that when I finally type THE END, it won’t be. I still have a wall to go back and repaint.

And that’s just to get a first draft!

All the “You missed a spot” and “You dripped over here” and “Don’t forget the trim” and “Really? Cornflower blue?” remarks from the editors are still months away.

It would be so much easier to hire a good looking handyman for this job.

When you guys read this on Friday, I’ll be away at Left Coast Crime and probably unable to chime in on any discussion that follows. But I will be with you in spirit, and so will this handyman.

7 replies
  1. Maria Geraci
    Maria Geraci says:

    Oh, Rachel, I can so relate to this! I'm one of those people who while still working on the first draft has to go back and edit if I discover something wrong in the earlier pages. It doesn't matter that I know I'll still have to go back and edit some more and then some more too after I'm done with the draft.

    I've tried not to do this, but I just can't. I've embraced it as part of my process and each time I go back in and "re-edit" I learn something new about my story.

  2. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Rachel, I'm a tweaker through and through. Like Maria said above, I tinker with my draft as I write it. I cannot leave things alone. Any time I think of something that makes the plot better/stronger/whatever, I go back and fix. So I'm constantly editing as I go along, no matter that I tell myself a first draft is akin to verbal vomit. You just have to get it out. I'm learning to accept that my first drafts–no matter how much effort I put into them–are little more than skeletons of the book. I need that feedback from my editor and agents and the revision time in order to truly make the manuscript into the book I have in my head. So you are not alone!!!

  3. The Stiletto Gang
    The Stiletto Gang says:

    Case in point: while working on new manuscript yesterday (of which half of the original words were rewritten/revised before I even started writing), I decided to take a break. Break involved cleaning off book shelves in my office and replacing them with SHOES. Went back to manuscript after procrastinating, liked what I saw, and then wrote another 2000 words. So, all this to say, procrastinate, prime, repaint, revise, make excuses…whatever it takes to get to the finish line. And you, Rachel, always make it there and make it look so easy. Your books are great in the end. Remember that as you repaint. Maggie

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Wonderful post! I'm now agonizing over the entire draft to make sure it all makes sense – have to force myself not to reread the first 100 pages so many times – must focus on the last 100 pages. In the back of my mind are the doubts and the truth that I'm going to have to go through it all again and fix stuff – find stronger words, tidy up the plot a bit more and whatever else I find. But I mustn't think too much about that right now or I'll be paralyzed.

  5. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    I like to reread too because if I don't I might mix up days, repeat something I've already said, or leave out an important plot point. I read all my manuscripts chapter by chapter to my critique group, that helps a lot too.

    Good post.


  6. Vincent H. O'Neil
    Vincent H. O'Neil says:

    Excellent blog. I really relate to the nagging notion that sits in the back of your head that you're going to have to go back and re-do the earliest passages. As for me, I have to get through the first draft before I think I've even got started, so in a way I'm lucky — I know that everything I've written in the first draft of the entire book is going to need major work.

  7. Susan
    Susan says:

    It's amazing that I'm visiting your blog for the first time today. I am almost finished with the first draft of my first mystery. "THE END" is in sight! Meanwhile, our house is being painted, so your analogy sure resonates with me! I am one who edits throughout the writing process. Recently, I've realized how much reworking I'll have to do. For me, THE END will be more like a beginning. But I decided to plunge forward and worry about story fixing later. Your post made me feel better about this–more hopeful. It can be done! Thank you!

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