First Drafts: Messy, Fickle Beasts

As of this post, I’ve written four complete novels, six detailed synopses, and roughly one million poems and short stories. And I’m here to tell you that while first drafts do get easier, they never stop being messy, fickle beasts. In fact, I was just talking a friend about this very subject.

My first (trunked) novel was an exercise in meandering. I had no deadlines, no critique partners, and I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing until I’d finished a third of the book, which was just about when I was ready to quit because I was sure it was garbage. I went back and edited as I wrote and worked with no real goal in mind. While I’ll always love that book, it’s a mess. It took 12 months from start to finish. Avg. 7,000 words per month.

The next time around, I set out with a lot more experience and a lot more intention. I started with a hook: a world where everyone is a twin, and a character: a girl whose twin has died. But that’s all I started with. I meandered. Again. 1/3 of the way through writing the first draft, I realized I needed another POV. Halfway through, I was determined to throw it all away and go back to poetry. I revised and reckoned with my characters and spent a whole lot of time pulling out my hair before I finished my messy first draft of THE DIMINISHED. I wrote it in about 9 months. Avg. 10,000 words per month. 

When I sat down to write the sequel to THE DIMINISHED, I had a shiny new tool by my side: a synopsis. Using the synopsis I’d written to pitch Book Two as a guide, I wrote a lean (LOL. It was 110,000 words) first draft in about 7 months. It was a mess. There were scenes that just said, “X happens to Y. Make it work.” (I Tim Gunn myself a lot in my early drafts.) Characters died halfway through the book and were somehow resurrected in later chapters. But I never felt that need to give up. I had a plan. Avg. 16,000 words per month.

And then came my #SecretProject. Before I even started, I pitched my agent a few different ideas/synopses, and we settled on an idea we both liked. Because I’d loved having a loose outline so much for Book Two of THE DIMINISHED, I decided to go with a much more detailed outline this time around. I made detailed notes for every scene in the book before I started writing. And this time, it FLEW by. I wrote the first draft of that book in about 4 months. Granted, it’s a lot shorter than my fantasies, but having a plan made me both more confident and more motivated. Avg. 17,000 words per month.

So. To recap. What I’ve learned over the last few years of banging out first drafts: OUTLINE. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it makes a huge difference for me. I’m certainly not the fasted writer in the world, but being able to double my average monthly word count while simultaneously getting more and more responsibility at my day job seems like a kind of miracle to me.

When I outline, I cut less and have more usable words in the end. I have a clearer picture of the story I want to tell, and I think it makes my early drafts better. But, as anyone can tell you, everything good happens in revisions. Drafting is fine, and it’s got to happen sometime, but give me a revision any day.

P.S. My hair is pink now.
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Kaitlyn Sage Patterson

Kaitlyn Sage Patterson grew up with her nose in a book outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After completing her M.F.A., she moved to South Korea, where she taught English and started writing her debut novel. THE DIMINISHED will be published by HarlequinTEEN in April 2018, followed by its sequel in 2019. When she's not staring off into space and trying to untangle some particularly troublesome plot point, she can be found in her kitchen, perfecting the most difficult recipe she can find; or at the barn, where she rides and trains dressage horses; or with her husband, spoiling their sweet rescue dogs.

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