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Love Letter to a Sloppy First Draft

Oh, sloppy first draft, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

One. You exist. Unquestionably, the best thing about a sloppy first draft is that it’s better than no draft at all. If there’s nothing written down, there’s nothing to fix. And sure, maybe a polished first draft based on a careful scaffolding of research, character work, and following a rigorous, detailed outline might be nice too. But I’ve never even gotten close to writing one of those. Which reminds me…

Two. You give me ideas. I do have a sense of where I’m going with my plot and characters when I sit down to write, but I don’t have things figured out every step of the way. Which is where you come in. If I’m writing fast, pouring words onto the page nearly as fast as my fingers can type them, strange things happen. A throwaway line might spark the idea for a whole new character, a bit of background, a direction for the plot. Life is like this. It’s great when first drafts are too.

Three. In the end, I think you save me time. No matter how much I plan — and believe me, I’ve tried — my novel ends up going in a different direction somewhere along the way. That means some scenes I write end up being thrown out. Now, I’ve gotten to an emotional place where I’m fine with that (Lulu’s not dead, she’s just resting!) but from a functional, time-oriented place, the less time I spend on a scene that eventually isn’t used in the novel, the better. So in that sloppy first draft mode, I pay no attention to things like, oh, actual geography. The city I’m writing about now doesn’t have a Gold Coast or a Beauregard Street or a Garden District, as my sloppy first draft claims. It might have a building at the corner of State and Main, but that’s just guessing. If a scene stays in the novel, there’s plenty of time for refining street names, along with period-accurate vocabulary, cliche-free writing, and all the rest of the polish. Save it for later.

Four. You free me from perfectionism. As an inveterate editor of sentences, if I took the time to tweak every paragraph until I was actually happy with it, I’d still be on page 10, three novels ago.

Five. I love you for what you aren’t as much as for what you are. You’re not polished. You’re certainly not publishable. (First time NaNo’ers, take note!) I won’t show you to anyone in your first incarnation, not even my beta readers or my agent, let alone my editor. You’re just the first step in the process, a necessary first step, to be enjoyed and endured in equal measure, on the way to what the novel will one day actually be.

You, sloppy first draft, are a beginning. And for that, you have not just my love, but my thanks.



About Jael McHenry [1]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [2] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [3] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.