“Never fall in love with your first draft.”
People credit multiple writers from Elmore Leonard to Hemingway to Stephen King for that aphorism. Quite likely, some of them are repeating advice they heard starting out (and maybe even did not heed until later.) Just as likely, they came up with it on their own.
Of course, we fall in love with our first drafts, especially that first novel. It’s…
Full disclosure: I’ve come to loathe my first novel. Most who’ve read it like it, but I know what went into it, where I tripped up, and why I published badly despite having ten rewrites. I guarantee you, though, I loved the draft I sent to St. Martin’s-Private Eye Writers of America First Novel contest. (Spoiler alert: I lost to Michael Koryta.)
The first draft is always going to suck. I’m generally a four-draft kinda guy. I do my own revisions first, which are probably as close to a developmental edit as I’m going to get. I have a primary reader for the third draft. And multiple betas for the fourth, usually three, though the scifi novel out right now is only with two. (And I talk about what entails a beta here. Which is pretty much anything from a general critique to a full-blown copy edit.)
You could say the final copy edit is the fifth draft, but that’s production when a publisher is involved. (And I’ve heard of manuscripts getting a few more rounds.)
No one ever reads my first drafts. My brother-in-law, who recently dived into the madness, is always bugging me to read my first drafts. I have to firmly say no because first drafts are, as King insists, to be written with the door closed. Missing words or even phrases. Changing character names. Excessive sentence fragments.
I once heard Laura Lippman describe her first drafts as caveman speak. I used to know Laura. She might have, at one point, let me look at something about to go out to the publisher. (She never did.) I would never read the caveman draft. I doubt her husband gets to read them, and he created The Wire. (I have no idea what David Simon’s approach to drafts is, but he works in television, which is a whole ‘nuther beast.)
I’m finding even subsequent drafts have cringey moments. I just re-edited the Amargosa novels. Children went well, but that had a professional edit done and really needed a proofread. That was it. So, you get a cleaner version in 11 days from this posting. Storming was brutally dev edited, so errors abounded even after a few passes to iron out the kinks. You’ll get a cleaner version of that in December.
Ugh. I can’t believe I let that one go out the door. It took the longest of the three to revise and had the most embarrassing errors.
But the first drafts? Never let anyone see your first draft. Not your spouse. Not your best friend. Not that annoying fellow writer who knows everything, at least until they fling their own work at you. Think of it this way. You’re sculpting. The first draft is you figuring out how to turn a slab of marble into a dude. The intermediate drafts are you making it clear it’s a naked dude, most likely in need of a fig leaf.
The published draft is King David or Zeus or, hey, let’s go off the beaten path, Thor. (My wife would want me to sculpt Jason Momoa, but that’s between us.) No one’s going to put the vague shape of a man carved from marble in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope will want the room for Dogs Playing Poker at the Last Supper with Elvis.
I can neither confirm nor deny that either Pope Francis or Pope Emeritus Benedict go off in private to read David Sedaris.