The danger of writing competent first drafts

‘Competent’ is an odd word to use for a first draft. For me it means technical competence – quotation marks, spelling, commas, ellipses and dashes, paragraphing; plus basic competence – pov control, movement, dialogue, action, some stabs at emotions; plus enough of a plot so that a scene or a short story or a novel has the ineluctable ‘feel’ of a finished story.

The writer knows what she’s doing; she’s done it before; it flows.

Anyone who reads a lot is halfway there already. Some instruction, some practice – 10,000 hours or 1,000,000 words – and you’re there: competent first drafts. Heck, my whole first novel is competent.

I’m finding MY competent first drafts are an almost unvaultable barrier. To the revision which MUST be done.

Because a competent first draft, in this day of computers and wordprocessors, can LOOK finished. And who messes with finished work? ‘They’ tell you people always want to fiddle with their work, but at some point you just have to cut the cord, and let your baby out into the world, go on and learn some more, and produce the next child of your heart.

I know a lot of writers in that category: their work flows just well enough. Their beginnings lure me in. Their scenes alternate, give me interesting bits, if they use a multiple pov. Or if they are writing in first person, I get lulled by the obvious voice of an interesting narrator to go along with for the ride. They have a good idea, decent execution, a mildly interesting ending.

It is, in my terminology, a ‘competent FIRST draft.’

And there’s the rub: I STILL want to throw the book across the room.

The problem – why I don’t like ‘competent first draft’ stories

Because something major is missing. The idea – many times a strong, valuable idea with great potential – has been SKIMMED. And now it is ruined: I can’t use it, they won’t use it again, and I rail against the waste.

It went out unfinished.

My reading calories have been wasted: I have eaten, if not junk food, diner food. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE diners – NJ is full of them. But they serve HUGE quantities, and the quality is adequate-to-good. The dining experience – if you don’t quickly have them package 1/3 to 3/4 of what is served (thank God for the concept of the American ‘doggie bag.’ i.e., tomorrow’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is an overwhelming example of ruining whatever quality there is by the sheer quantity, at least as a gustatory experience.

The concept is basic: after you consume what your body needs (which unfortunately carries a 20-minute time-delay switch), food no longer tastes good. Not really. Your stomach stretches; your digestive system prepares to cope with the overload (we’re designed for it by evolution), process it, and turn the excess to fat as quickly as possible – but it isn’t going to be pleasant.

Do the same thing with a competent first draft story, and you reach the end, oddly stuffed and uncomfortable, sated but not satisfied, wondering what happened.

I have my list: these writers do it to me every time – and I will no longer trust them. They get no more of my reading time, and every time I get an offer of a freebie, if I don’t turn it down immediately, I regret it.

But darn it, their stuff is so attractive, and they put it out in such good quantity and quality, that I keep getting tempted. To carry the silly food analogy further: it SMELLS good.

So does a local bakery I will NOT name – some people must like them, as they’ve been in our area far longer than we have – but every time we have bought something there, it smells wonderful – and then sits in my stomach like a lump of raw dough.

My solution

I wish those writers well – they are often doing quite well, thank-you-very-much, and see no reason to change. It hurts to see the waste, but it’s not my problem. Either they have enough readers, or they stop writing. What they don’t seem to do is IMPROVE – and that’s their right.*

My choice is to mistrust my competent first drafts. To put them through the difference between Basic and Navy SEAL training. To keep a list of all the things that can go wrong, and all the things that need to go right, and to keep adding to those lists.

Scenes do not go out until they answer questions such as ‘What is the heart of this scene?’ or ‘Where is the major emotional twist in the pov character that got this scene approved for the story, and assigned the pov to that character?’ or ‘Why is this scene absolutely crucial to the plot?’ or ‘How do I justify the opening and how does it form a perfect bookend somehow with the ending?’

Sounds incredibly arrogant, doesn’t it? Who am I, an unpublished novelist, to argue with success? How can I say this, when there is so much cr*p going out over Amazon (including that from traditional publishers) that the competent first draft story is a marvel of beauty and light by comparison?

The standard is individual, and it goes like this for me: ‘I know what I like when I see it.’ ‘Competent’ isn’t good enough. I want ‘quality.’ And I’m willing to work for it. Which is only part of why I’m slow.

It isn’t finished until it is as good as I can make it.

Thoughts?


*NOTE: After I finished this, I popped over to The Passive Voice, and was led to Scott William Carter’s post about The Tsunami of Wonderful. Methinks we are copacetic. Carter comments that some of these competent writers who were doing six-figure incomes a couple of years ago are now suffering in the four-figure boondocks. There is no Schadenfeude here: I just hope I can eventually do what I want to do – and there will be people who want to read it.

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4 thoughts on “The danger of writing competent first drafts

  1. Claire Chase

    I’ve never read a blog about writing and the ideas and concepts you write about are new to me. For example, I’ve never heard of a competent first draft before, so I find all this post informative and interesting. It made me think.

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  2. donnainthesouth

    Alicia, I found you from madgenius which I went to from Sarah’s political stuff- anyway read about your wanting to incorporate illness into your books without it being about the illness – at least that’s what I came away with – you asked for feedback, to get with you so here I am – not sure if this is what you’re about but just finished reading a children’s book called Saint Ben by John Fischer, which is about a kid with a heart condition – that’s the area of my interest, having had a granddaughter with it – but what I liked about it was that’s not why I got the book because there was nothing in the blurb about it and it was only brought up about half-way through – was not the focus of the book or at least not blatantly – you learned about the kid first and then found out about his heart condition and only because it got to him, not because he was some sickly kid who used it for one excuse and another – if anything, he used it in the sense of always fighting against it because he didn’t want the pity, etc. and even then he kept up that attitude; it still didn’t take over, he was still a/the kid with a personality, if this is making any sense – I really liked it, it wasn’t about his illness, it was just a good fun kids read only just happened to be about a kid with a severe illness.
    Possibly interested in being a beta reader for you as well, as you asked. Just dipped into what you’ve got on here, will try to do more

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    1. ABE Post author

      Doesn’t everyone?

      I freely admit I’m different – which is why I do these posts. I try not to repeat anything I’ve seen elsewhere – if it’s standard advice for new writers, available in books from Writer’s Digest, there’s no need for me to talk about it. I have lots and lots of those books, and even now still consult one occasionally.

      I enjoy reading about the quirky writers, the ones who don’t use the standard way – and still manage to write their stories.

      I’m hoping there will be SOME people who work the way I do.

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