First drafts

How many drafts do you complete before you declare your work finished? How many times do you have to go over something until you get it right?

For me the average is five.

My first draft is hardly legible, sometimes I don’t even write in full sentences. As long as I get the gist of each sentence and know the overall story I am happy with calling this draft my first draft. Draft number two consists of me going over my work, finishing the sentences and making notes on big problems such as paragraph location, major plot holes or if a whole section needs to be cut. I normally do this on a Microsoft Word document and the Comments feature is perfect for this. (If you don’t use this feature I highly recommend it. Go to a Word Document, click on the Review tab near the top of the page, click on the piece of text you want to change and then click add new comment. It is a good way to keep track of changes. You can delete comments and jump from one comment to the next by using the buttons at the top of the page.) Drafts three and four consist of me stitching the story together, polishing it off, checking for minor plot holes and any other problems. In my final draft I add indents to the start of each paragraph, add my name in the header of the page with any other necessary details, add page numbers and print it off.

 

Here is an example of a couple of edited pages. I go through a lot of red ink.

Here are several extracts, from different drafts, of my latest novel titled ‘Empty Nights’. To give you some context our protagonist and narrator Henry is looking out from The Shard over London with his classmates. Since I am still writing the novel I can only show you three drafts instead of five.

Draft One

The London Eye revolving further up the Thames, the gold on the Houses of Parliament glittering in the morning sun, Tower Bridge down the Thames. Boats glide up and down the river, reminding me of toy boats you put in children’s baths. We spread out across the balcony ignoring Mr Barlow’s instructions and the looks of the tourists. I go to the South side and look at the railway line that we arrived on. It stretches away into the distance like a giant motorway. I wonder if my house is there somewhere camouflaged among the suburbs. If I can see The Shard from my house, then I should be able to see my house from The Shard, right? The buildings were a mixture of grey, black, dull silver and a dark red that made them look old. What really surprised me was how far the city extended, if you asked me how I would describe London from this view I would say the city looked like an old maze built of bricks and mortar.

This is the reason I do more than one draft. What is wrong here? Lots of things. To start with, I have not finished the sentence “Tower Bridge down the Thames”. What is Tower Bridge doing? How can I describe it from this angle for someone who has never seen the bridge before? The South side refers to the south gallery in The Shard but this is not made clear, you could mistake it for the south side of the River Thames. The looks of the tourists? What looks? How do they look? Angry, amused? The boats described as children’s toys in a bath is very close to a cliché. The part of describing London as a maze is okay but it could be a lot better.

Draft two

The London Eye revolves further up the Thames, the gold on the Houses of Parliament glitter in the morning sun, Tower Bridge is lowered further down the Thames. Boats glide up and down the river, barges, ferries and tug boats. We spread out across the balcony ignoring Mr Barlow’s instructions and the annoyed looks of the tourists. I look at the railway line that we arrived on. It stretches away into the distance like a giant road. I follow the track and wonder if my house is there somewhere camouflaged among the suburbs. The buildings in the city were a mixture of grey, black, dull silver and a dark red that made them look old. What really surprised me was how far the city extended, if you asked me how I would describe London from this view I would say the city looked like an ancient maze of concrete.

Things have improved but they are nowhere near finished. I have changed the tense from past to present but I’m starting to doubt if the Houses of Parliament glitter gold. Shouldn’t the gold dirty by now? I’ll need to search Google Images for an answer or have a look for myself. Where is Tower Bridge in relation to Parliament, is it up or down river? The line about boats is repetitive. I’ve removed the line I go to the south side and a few lines about seeing Henry’s house as they were confusing. The ancient maze of concreate is better but still not right.

Draft Three

The London Eye revolves further up the Thames, the gold on the Houses of Parliament glitters in the morning sun, Tower Bridge is lowered further down the Thames. Barges glide up and down the river, while ferries and motorboats zoom past them. We spread out across the balcony ignoring Mr Barlow’s instructions and the annoyed looks of the tourists. I look at the railway line that we arrived on. It stretches away into the distance like a giant road. I follow the track and wonder if my house is there somewhere camouflaged among the suburbs. I won’t say that the city looked beautiful because I don’t think that true. The buildings were a mixture of grey, black, dull silver and a dark red that made them look old. What really surprised me was how far the city extended, if you asked me how I would describe London from this view I would say the city looked vast like ancient labyrinth.

This is the current draft. It’s still not perfect but it is going in the right direction.

 

Of course my writing process does not always consist of five drafts. Some stories go through seven or eight drafts whilst others pop into my head fully formed. Here are a few examples of first drafts from famous pieces of work that are noticeably different to the finished product.

 

The Hobbit –In the first draft of The Hobbit, Tolkien had Bilbo stab the dragon, Smaug, in his underbelly and escape the cave by surfing on a golden cup through the dragon’s blood. Do you think that’s rather hard-core for a children’s book? Tolkien did too and realized that it wasn’t at all in Bilbo’s character and changed the ending. Which ending do you prefer?

The Great Gatsby – The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, is about a man called Jay Gatsby who has a taste for the high life and a mysterious past. We don’t meet Gatsby until chapter three but from what we’ve heard about him in the preceding chapters, and from the title, we can deduce he is a main character. Fitzgerald however, wanted to call his book The High-Bouncing Lover and to remove the attention from Gatsby, and instead focus on Nick – the narrator of the story. A month before the book was published he was still trying to make changes but it was too late.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – I’ve spoken about Willie Wonka before in my fan theory post, but the original draft was quite gruesome. To start with there were ten children invited into the factory every week, not five children who won golden tickets. Each of the children died inside the factory instead of meeting accidents and Charlie is trapped inside a chocolate mould and sent as a gift to Wonka’s son Freddie. Charlie isn’t given the factory as a reward either, he’s only given a small chocolate shop. Thankfully Dahl listened to his editors and the story became the classic we know today.

Harry Potter – The beginning of Harry Potter, baby Harry being delivered to the Dursleys doorstep by Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid, has arguably become iconic. It serves as our introduction to the franchise and the magical world. In the very first draft baby Harry was discovered out at sea by a muggle (non magical person) with the charred bodies of his parents. The muggle was called Mr Puckle and the father of Harry’s future best friend Hermione. This scene was re written and the opening scene as we know it went through seventeen drafts before Rowling was happy with it.

Star Wars – Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope was going to be called Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars. That’s a bit of a mouthful but at least Lucas had the numbering right. Another working title was Blue Harvest. The cast of characters was completely different, Luke Skywalker was a general in the rebel army, Darth Vader didn’t wear his signature helmet, there was a character called Zane Starkiller and Han Solo was a lizard. During writing Episode Six Lucas almost had Luke turn to the dark side and replace Darth Vader but decided on a happier, kid friendly ending.

‘First drafts are allowed to suck’ is my personal mantra. It’s also my pinned Tweet when you view my profile on Twitter. The point I’m making is don’t become disheartened when you read your first draft. It doesn’t need to be brilliant.

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