First drafts are not meant to be read. They are clumsy and embarrassing, filled with trite dialogue and bumbling prose, riddled with clichés.
I’m working on a first draft now. It’s terrible, I promise. You will never, ever see it. If the book happens to get published and you should happen to read it, it will look completely different from the current version because that’s how this writing thing works. That’s why writers love our editors, and why the art of writing is in revision. That’s why a first draft is not meant to be read, and if it is, the writer should never be judged by it.
Especially the first draft of a first novel.
I can’t share with you any portion of my debut novel’s early drafts because my contract doesn’t allow for that, but here are the beginning and ending paragraphs of an essay called “Memorial Day.” It was published in Literary Mama in 2012, years after I began working on it. These paragraphs were the most difficult; I’m including the final versions–which I’m proud of–followed by earlier versions, which are at best boring and at worst embarrassingly bad.
Final draft: My son was born on Memorial Day, a day of muted celebrations, reserved to honor loss. It was a fitting end to a difficult pregnancy. I spent most of it wrapped in a cocoon with my four year old, binding myself to her with fine threads of guilt. Where would love for this baby come from, if not cut from Abbey’s share? How hard would she fall, when the center of her world shifted? Would my daughter’s first broken heart be ascribed to her own mother?
Rough draft: My son was born at the end of May, and his arrival into the world marked a period of fulfillment and loss. It was a tough pregnancy. I spent most of it wrapped in a cocoon with my first child, savoring each moment with her as I prepared to become a mother of two. I worried about Abbey. For five years she had been my whole world. Now that world would have to accommodate another child. Would I love him as much? Would Abbey feel betrayed? How can a mother divide her love equally between two babies?
Final draft: Finally, I washed his hair. My hand cradled his soft skull, marveling at its fragility, memorizing its shape. I swaddled him in a warm towel, then pressed him to my chest. “Gabriel,” I whispered, but my throat locked against the words. I’m sorry it took me so long. I was too overcome with relief at the familiar guilt that bound me to motherhood once more.
Rough draft: Finally, I washed his hair. My hand cradled his soft little skull, marveling at its fragility, memorizing its beautiful shape. I lifted him and wrapped him in a warm towel, then pressed him to my chest. Knowing at that moment that a mother’s love was drawn from a limitless expanse; like time, it was immeasurable and boundless. “Gabriel,” I whispered, feeling tears of guilt and relief. The guilt felt pretty good. It meant I truly felt like my son’s mother.
Note the clichés and sentimentality in those early versions. “Savoring each moment.” “She had been my whole world.” “Drawn from a limitless expanse.” “Memorizing its beautiful shape.” Ugh, right?
That’s okay. In a first draft a writer is just getting the ideas down and if she stops to think I can’t put that on paper, it’s cheesy and sounds ridiculous, then she loses the moment, the idea. Going over it later, she plucks out the cheesy phrases, or her editor does. And then they work together and keep refining, out of respect not only for the craft of writing, but respect for you. The reader.
So if you should happen to read a first draft of something, like a beloved classic novel, and you feel shocked and perhaps betrayed that the writing is common and trite and not the brilliance you thought came naturally to the author, think instead how hard she worked, maybe for years, to bring you the version she knew you deserved.
Good writing’s not supposed to be easy.