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The Funny Thing About First Drafts

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I just started writing the first draft of a new book. When all's said and done, this will end up being the sixth book I'll have written for my publisher, Bethany House.

I spent a couple of months this past summer doing the research for my new book. Then I plotted out the chapters because my publisher wants their authors to turn in a synopsis of the book before we start writing it.

No, you didn't read that wrong. I have to write the synopsis first, before I begin the first draft. I'm expected to flesh out my book idea and get it "approved."

Yes, I realize some writers might balk at the idea of having someone else approve their story before writing it. Some may think that's too controlling, that it denies self-expression, or inhibits creativity. At times I've even heard writers sarcastically say something like, "Do those publishers believe they're God, thinking they know what readers want and telling authors what to write about?"

The truth is that in traditional publication, the publisher DOES make it their intimate business to know what their readers are enjoying, especially what's selling and what's not. No, they're not God. But they try to keep a pulse on the industry, and they usually have a big picture of sales and trends that help them make decisions the average writer doesn't always understand.

The beauty of today's market is that if a writer finds the process of traditional publication stifling, if they don't want to have anyone else telling them what to do, if they want to write the story that's burning inside them regardless of what anyone else thinks, then they can.

With the ease of self-publishing, writers can publish anything they want and get it into readers' hands anyway. They can even prove that readers truly are ready and willing to try new things. It's possible, but not necessarily easy.

On the other hand, traditional publication requires team work. My editors and I have the same goal—to publish a book that my genre readers will love. I come up with the ideas and the story, but then they're able to give me the necessary feedback on what will work and what won't (and that process isn't always flawless, because even after all the feedback, sometimes books still flop).

I've learned that the more detailed I can make my synopsis the better. The one I recently turned in was approximately seven pages single-spaced.

My editor takes some time to read the synopsis and then offers his feedback either via an email or phone call. He shares his concerns. And then we often brainstorm together ideas that may work instead.

Finally, I revise my synopsis and resend it to him. At that point, I'm ready to start the first draft.

But a funny thing happens with first drafts . . .

Even with the best laid plans, once you start writing, the story takes on a life of its own.

When we let go of our plans and get into our creative zone, when we allow the breath of life to blow into our words, everything takes on a new dimension. And it's at that point, when the story comes truly alive, that I find the most joy in the process of writing. I love when a story evolves and grows, turning into something more complex and beautiful than I could have imagined when it was still just a dream.

I've learned that "letting go" during the first draft is a skill we have to hone just like all the others. When we first start writing, perhaps we're nervous, wondering if we're doing everything "right." We second-guess ourselves a lot. And in the process, we inadvertently let our internal editor out too soon.
And when the internal editor comes out, it can zap the joy of writing and dry us up until we feel like we've got nothing left to give.

Over the years, I've had to consciously make myself NOT stop, NOT nit-pick, and NOT worry about my first draft. I've learned to release the need to make the first draft "fit" my pre-conceived plans or to make it perfect.

Instead, I let the first draft be a time of falling in love with writing all over again. I use my synopsis and plot plans as a guideline. But I give myself the freedom to make mistakes, to try new things, and most importantly to let the ever-formulating new ideas bring extra depth to the story.

Yes, that means my synopsis and my first draft don't always match perfectly. And it means that I may get off track with what readers expect and like. I've come to accept that I'll have to make some adjustments during the rewrite phase.

But that's okay. When we can truly find joy in the writing process itself, then all the other difficulties pale in comparison.

How about you? What is the first draft experience like for you? Are you finding joy in letting the story come to life? Or are you too worried about how it's all going to turn out?

_____________________________________________________________

During the month of September, I'm sharing secrets about myself during my "Fun Secrets" Blog Tour. On each blog stop, I'll also be giving away a signed copy of my newest release, Unending Devotion:

Thursday, Sept. 13: Secret #8: My worst injury. Faye Oygard’s blog

Friday, Sept. 14: Secret #9: An aspect of my personality that I’ve struggled to accept. Jill Kemerer’s blog

For a list of all my secrets, check out my Events Page!

35 comments:

  1. Interesting post - I'm currently writing a first draft where I wrote the pitch before I started. I'm finding it works because the main focus of the book is set out. And there's still plenty of scope for exciting and interesting things to happen along the way!

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  2. I LOVE writing first drafts. It is my absolute favorite part of writing! But I do indeed find writing the synopsis before hand extremely difficult, because really, my synopsis is just a guess. Since I haven't put my characters on paper and scene how they interact with each other yet, I'm only guessing what their personal growth and various interactions are going to look like, right?

    It's harder for me to take criticism over a synopsis than over a completed manuscript. I can understand comments about maybe beefing up the plot in a couple places. But not so much the ones that refer to character development and so forth.

    To have people tell you something's wrong before you've even written it??? Really??? How can it be wrong if it doesn't exist? And I know I'm not the only writer who struggles with this.

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  3. I'm still at the aspiring-writer phase (meaning I haven't published anything yet) and every time I try to start a new story, I find myself pressing more delete more than letters. It's a constant struggle. Now, I take a sip of wine before starting, just to loosen my mind and control the "editor" in me. :)

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  4. Jody, My situation was a bit different, but with the same outcome. My publishers have wanted to see a synopsis before I get a contract and write the novel, but once I get started writing, changes are inevitable. For example, I recently turned in the final manuscript for my next novel, then went back and read the synopsis I'd submitted. Sort of like the difference between a baked potato and potatoes au gratin--same basic stuff, but very different in execution.
    Excellent post that makes a good point. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. This is a wonderfully encouraging post about how to marry the artistic side of writing with the business side. I appreciate your balanced presentation, Jody. And wow, your point that learning to let go is a skill we have to hone is an epiphany for me. Rather than beating myself up (well, I'd really like to beat up my internal, nit-picking editor, lol) because I can't shut out the Perfectionist Police, it's more within reach to practice letting go a little bit at a time. Not sure I make sense to you, but in my brain I learned something new today, so thanks. :)

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  6. I do detailed outlines but not for an editor - for myself! And once I'm happy with that, I STILL have to let go and let the first draft be what it is.

    Great post! And thanks for the mention that self-pubbing is a way to get around the restriction of editor's ideas of what will and will not sell - I think it's one of the great freedoms of our day (and I blogged about it)! :)

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    1. Susan, Tt is a wonderful freedom in our day! And hopefully the freedom of self-publishing will lessen the restrictions all around as readers try new things and develop broader tastes!

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  7. Jody...the link to Faye Oygard's blog is not bringing up your post for today's blog tour. Can you send a new link, please?

    ~ Betsy

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    1. Hi Betsy,

      Changed it! Hopefully it's working now!

      Delete
  8. You are so right; I have a love/hate relationship with my first drafts. I enjoy when the story starts to flow and take me in interesting directions but it's frustrating to end up in blind alleys or untenable situations. My current WIP involves llamas and it is briefly annoying when a plot line or action I have come up with proves untenable. Llamas can't dance!

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  9. Thanks so much for this!! I'm so happy to see that if along the way your book takes a slightly different path than your original synopsis all is not lost. I worried that maybe that would be a problem.

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  10. I recently finished my first novel and yesterday I sat down to write the synopsis for it before I head off to ACFW. I don't know if I'm just tired of this particular story, or if I hate writing a synopsis - but I am not having fun with it! I think if I had a bit of time to "relax" and then come back to it, it wouldn't be so bad.

    It would be interesting to write the synopsis first. Maybe I'll try that as I step into my second story. I have so much to learn and I think a lot of it is just trial and error - what works for me and what doesn't.

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    1. I can relate to what you've said SO much. (Except the publishing part):-)

      Excellent post, Jody!

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  11. I did something similar when discussing the sequel to my first book with my publisher. What I'd submitted just wasn't holding up as a strong enough follow-up, so I effectively pitched the idea of turning my planned 6-book series into a trilogy and explaining how this would change what the second book would be about. My publisher loved the idea and I started working on it right away.

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  12. Yup learning to let go is hard but necessary. Great post, Judy!

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  13. I think I enjoy the first draft sometimes, but I really struggle to keep that internal editor at bay. I'm a perfectionist, and it's hard to know that what I'm writing kind of stinks. :P But you have to have the first draft done before you can revise/edit...my favorite part!

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  14. I'm in the same boat as you. I have to turn in a synopsis to my editor before I write, though mine are usually just one page single spaced. I don't think I'd be able to flesh out much more than that ahead of time. Luckily, my editor is fine with that and also is fine when the book turns out to be quite different from the original synopsis, lol. Like you said, the story takes on a life of its own. The last book I turned in I was like, "So you'll notice the main character's name is different and she's now the sister of one of my previous heroes. And oh, the plot goes in a completely different direction than planned a third of the way in..." Lol. I'm guessing my editor is used to me by now and hasn't had an issue with it. But I do find it challenging to "let go" and quiet that internal editor during the first draft. I find first drafts painful and much prefer revising. But I'm under an extremely tight deadline this time and I'm having to force myself to just push forward. Maybe it will train me out of my bad internal editor habit. We shall see. :)

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  15. Jodi,

    This one is so hard for me. I find that even between my first drafts and my first revisions there are sometimes HUGE changes. For instance, I may need to take someone out altogether, or someone's behavior isn't consistent with the rest of their lifestyle and it changes the way the crisis is handled, or even with this last one, I needed to add a kissing scene...which changed the way the two main characters acted the rest of the MS! - so writing a really good synopses usually comes after my first revision/edit. Writing one before (yes, I do sorta do this) is more like brainstorming for me, because like Richard Mabry says, it's like a baked potato going in and au gratin coming out.

    I guess it's one of those skills I just have to keep working on!

    Thanks for the insight,
    Becky

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  16. I echo what Lindsay said. First drafts are a challenge for me. My Internal Editor is constantly trying to chime in, reminding me of the "rules." Her pal the Doubt Dragon loves to tell me that my ideas aren't marketable, believable, or original, that my writing itself is lackluster, that my characters are flat.

    I have to bind and gag this pesky pair, throw them out of my office, and close the door. Only then can I immerse myself in my story and let the words flow. Once they do, I have a good time drafting a story. But my absolute favorite part of the process is revising and editing. I love watching a story get better before my eyes.

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  17. I write to a detailed, scene-by-scene outline to keep the intricate plot, subplots and multiple POVs under control, so of course I know that at least every 5 chapters I probably have to replot most of what's to come. And I do it. If the story calls for a change, I gladly make it. :)

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  18. Hi Everyone! Thank you all for sharing today! I'm always fascinated to hear how the process of first draft writing goes for others. We have so much to learn from one another!

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  19. Jody,

    I'm in the middle of story planning right now, letting two separate stories run roughshod over me. By the time I'm ready for the first draft, I'll have a whole lot more than a seven-page synopsis. Since I start with a basic idea and expand on that, I'll most likely end up with a one-sentence summary, a paragraph summary, a one-page synopsis, a four-page synopsis....

    Then comes the first draft.

    I love writing first drafts, but I also love planning. It's all part of the process.

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  20. Jody, even though I do strictly non-fiction (with the possible exception of a little poetry now and then), I still get a real kick out of wondering where a given project will end up, once I start working on it.

    It never turns out in the end quite the way I envisioned in at the beginning. The project always takes on a life of its own, to some extent.

    I can only imagine what that must be like in the creative life of a novelist! :-)

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  21. I wish drafting was fun again. It's still not. I haven't written a new book, however bad, for three years, and NOT for lack of trying.

    That said, Jodi, no matter how many times I hear about people who can do what you do, I envy that skill, yet wonder how I'll get through without it.

    I do frankly think we sometimes put publishers on too high a pedestal because we're supposed to be all "Trust, trust, trust!" and be so careful not to be the egomaniac no one wants to work with.

    YET, at the same time, BEFORE we sell anything, market guides and other writers preach just as much to NEVER settle, always ask questions, and don't EVER give anyone in publishing the benefit of the doubt because money's the only constant that matters. I'm not trying to rant here, but I feel lost, frustrated, and betrayed all at once.

    How can you be assertive yet trustworthy? They seem so contradictory in publishing than any other industry I can think of.

    Forgive my ranting, Jodi, I just feel like I'm alone in how I feel, as much as people tell me I'm not, few writers I know feel as I do. They're so pragmatic and serene in how they carry themselves, I'm still amazed they like my writing, which is often anything BUT pragmatic.

    I'm not a ditzy dreamer, but I'm also not some stuffy scholar who can't watch a Disney movie without a uber-cynical bent. So sue me! (Sobs)

    Some of us just can't self-publish, and in my case, lack of money is a barrier, and to me, teamwork is NOT a dictatorship, and a lot of people frankly describe all non-self-publishing options sounds like a dictatorship, from someone who's yet to light someone's fire with my stories.

    I just would NEVER have written my last book, or my first for that matter, if I planned everything as your forced to do.

    As much as I get why we must write queries and synopses, it still doesn't change the fact that writing ABOUT a book and writing the actual BOOK will never be the same experience. They
    re important, but for me, they'll never be the same.

    If I don't remind myself that I'd never want to write again. I'm not joking. I still write, but it's been a slow crawl after my last project.

    Otherwise, most of us writers could double as master advertisers, and I don't think I'm personally ever going to feel that's my strength.

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    1. Thanks for pouring out your heart here, Tauren! I appreciate your honesty!

      I think that in the age of self-publishing, all of what we know has been shaken a bit. And we're still all trying to see how everything filters out in the long run! My gut feeling is that readers still want to be wowed with well-told stories. So we should be working to write those wowing stories. And when we do that, whether we self-publish or go traditional, we'll eventually find readers who like our stories!

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    2. Thanks for replying, Jodi.

      I was really at the end of my rope yesterday, and I apologize if I sounded rude and overly hostile.

      No one's to blame for my problems but me. I just wish I didn't always feel alone in my pain. When I read this post of yours-

      http://jodyhedlund.blogspot.com/2012/09/3-tips-for-writing-when-life-is-chaotic.html

      I snapped.

      I know you meant that post to be a motivator, and nothing you said was mean at all, I want that to be my truth so much it HURTS.

      I've been faced with this fork in the road more than I like to think about. I try not to compare myself to others like I used to, but even still, I wish I could "Move on" as they can. They feel what I do, but it doesn't seem to have the kind of hold over them, as in my case.

      I know this because they wouldn't be where they are if they spent months wavering and broken, as I felt much of this year.


      I can't count all the sleepless nights I've had, WILLINGLY forcing myself to stay the course.

      I WROTE when I didn't "feel like it."

      I READ ABOUT PUBLISHING when I "didn't feel like it." (The emotions from that often got me in trouble with my writer friends, I can only hope they know the anger was rarely ever because of them, but the often overwhelming information...)

      I sure as h*** SLAVED OVER QUERY LETTERS. SYNOPSES AND THE LIKE when-


      I.

      DIDN'T.

      FEEL.

      LIKE.

      IT.

      The last time I was sick sick with the flu and near-fatal sore throat I kept writing.

      But when I stayed stuck at the same level not advancing much at all, how can you NOT feel frustrated?

      Yet you also talk about taking breaks and chasing after lost joy. The latter (JOY!) I need desperately.

      Jodi, when do you HAVE take a break? When is taking a break TRULY necessary versus running away from the problem?

      How the heck do you tell, Jodi?

      How?

      Delete
    3. Taurean, Some of us are going to need breaks from time. I took a seven year hiatus from writing and it was the best thing I could have done at the time. So I think we need to give ourselves permission to lay off of writing when we need to. And honestly, each of us have to decide when that is for ourselves. It sounds like maybe you're at a point where you could use one!

      Delete
  22. My rough draft is painful for me. It's full of angst and emotions, mistakes, problems...lol It takes me a long time to gut it out of myself but revisions are lovely. I love shaping it once it's out.

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  23. Hi Jody!

    I just wanted to say hi. I read, or at least skim, every one of your blogs and share about half of them because I love what you have to say so much! I don't comment often but I wanted to take the time to thank you today for continuing to encourage the writing community. I, for one, appreciate it!

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  24. I actually like the idea of writing the synopsis first. It definitely give you a roadmap! I plot out my books from start to finish, using index cards. But this doesn't stifle me at all. I still have plenty of room to "play."

    Yes, I worry that the story will be terrible. But I'm learning to lock my inner editor away until later drafts.

    Good luck on your new story. I'm sure it'll be amazing!

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  25. Finished Unending Devotion a couple of days ago. Connell is your best love interest, yet. He felt like a much more substantial part of the story than the others have. Congratulations. I'm sure it will be a great success.

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    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Jane!

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  26. I write academic work as well as fiction and before I started my PhD, I was expected to write a proposal, detailing what I would be studying and why it was relevant to my field. Rather than stifling my work, it makes it easier because whenever I start to wander off topic (which is shockingly easy to do) I can re-read my proposal to remind myself of what it is that I'm hoping to achieve, and bring things back on track. To me, a synopsis for a novel is no different, and as it's less rigid than an outline, it can be useful in reminding you of where the story is supposed to go...and at least you're less likely to get writer's block if you know the ending in advance!

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  27. Extensive plotting works for me. First I must know the ending and my characters before I set it up and then I "step out" the book via James Fry's method. That is, not plotting by chapter but by cause and effect story movements. I layer the emotional character stuff over the bones before writing. I know where its going , when and how it progresses before I write it. Even so, the characters change details but not the basic structure. In the end I wind up with a better story. Character does modify plot but it doesn't scrap it.

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