The First Draft is Just Telling Yourself the Story

When I was in high school I had an English teacher who asked the class one day if it was possible to say something that had never been said before. [This wasn’t the same English teacher that I made cry (those who subscribe to my email list will know that story)]

Most of the class said that it was impossible to say something that hadn’t ever been said unless you made up your own words. I agreed with them since, I figured, if a word existed then it had probably been said at least once before which would preclude it from the “never said before category”.

Come to find out we didn’t understand the question. What he had intended to ask was whether it was possible to write, or speak, an original concept — have an original thought and then convey that through words.

As we all sat there with our mouths wide-open (some of us because we were enthralled and some of us because “that’s how we breathe”), he proceeded to tell us a fanciful story about the Pink Panther jumping out of a helicopter that was flying above the school and then parachuting onto our English Building before coming inside to teach the class.

Points for creative story-telling to prove his point about original ideas. Before that day I’m certain that nobody in history had ever told a story about the Pink Panther coming to my small town high school to teach an English class.

It was original. That’s why it was memorable. That’s why I still remember it and why I’m sharing it now.

I don’t know how many other people in the class were impacted by that concept, but it certainly stuck for me — it is possible to have an original thought even using unoriginal words.

What does this have to do with first drafts?

The title for this article is actually a quote from Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett is what many refer to as a prolific writer. He writes A LOT. And this quote is obviously something that has helped him get over the anxiety that can come when you sit down to write a new story.

When I first got into writing fiction (just a few months ago actually) I had some major heartburn when it came to writing. I didn’t realize that “The Writing Process” is a literal process, not just a fancy way of talking about writing.

It has steps — draft, beta, finished manuscript, final book, etc. Each of these steps has steps, and loops, and decisions.

I didn’t know that when I started. I thought it was all about sitting down, plunking out words on your keyboard (or doing it with a writing utensil and some paper) and bringing your story out of your head and onto the page — perfectly.

For the first few days as a “writer” it took me forever to write a 1000 words of my first book. The story wasn’t perfect and I kept going back through it, re-reading my prior paragraphs and then re-writing every sentence to make sure it flowed perfectly. Then I would get to the next sentence and I would have to remember where I was going. The story would stop and all that was left were questions.

  • Where in the story was I?
  • What direction did I want to go?
  • Who was in this scene?

So then I would go back and re-read it again.

It was SOOOO painful!

I decided that there had to be a better way. So I did what I always do when I want to learn something new and I read stuff on the internet about good writers. Fast writers. Prolific writers. How do/did people like Pratchett, King and Asimov keep churning out books without going insane? And how do they do it multiple times a year?

Then I found out that they have a process and they stick to the process. There’s a real “Writing Process”! They sit down and tell the story. They do what’s called a first draft (I know, I’m an idiot for not knowing that a first draft isn’t the finished product!). And some of them — before the draft process even begins — will start with an outline so they have a road map (the writers that do this are called “Planners”. Those that make up the story as they write it are called “Pantsers”.) Then they go back through the finished draft and edit. Most of them will send it to multiple editors to polish it again and again — the perfect(ish) book that we get at the end of the process only slightly resembles the first draft — but the story is usually pretty close to the original idea.

Light bulbs. There was an easier way.

So I had this novel idea [pun intended] as a way to summarize everything I had just learned. I thought it would help me and every other aspiring author. I wanted to tell the world that writing a first draft was just telling yourself the story… then I searched and found that Pratchett had already said that. Bummer. I thought it was an original idea.

Maybe there’s someone out there who is struggling the same way I was in the beginning and hasn’t come across this quote yet. Or maybe they heard about first drafts in their high school English class but never understood it until they read this quote. Either way, I hope it helps even if it wasn’t my idea first.

I might not have had that original thought, but I can do something that those guys can’t do — I can tell my story about the Pink Panther teaching my class and tie that back to my journey learning how to write.

I started with the knowledge that it’s possible to have an original thought and tell an original story, but I must have slept through the part about first drafts! Better to re-learn it now I guess. So I’ll share both those thoughts with you today.

You CAN come up with an original story and you can tell that story to yourself during the first draft.

Now polish it and tell it to the world — they’re waiting to hear something original.

Here’s to your success!

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Originally published at RE Benjamin.