"First drafts are awful. But that’s the point. Knowing I can write rubbish allows me to write 2,000 words a day. Then I go back over the first draft and make it good."
After I posted that, I had a great question over on twitter (right here) from Joe Holland (or, as he's known on twitter, @GodfreyVanZoom):
"I know all authors say 1st drafts are bad but is that proper bad or like when the class whizz says they failed a test n get 96%"
My reply (split over two tweets):
"As bad as you need it to be to get it written. It's not even 'good' or 'bad' yet. It's just a slop. It has no standard.
"Some 1st drafts are better than others. The point is that doesn't matter. Good bits get better, bad bits get redone or go."
After that I thought it might illuminating to let you peek at a fragment of a first draft. Then you can see for yourself how bad (or not) it is and how much it changes before the book is finished.
Unfortunately, I don't still have all my first drafts. I often new versions of the book over old ones by accident. But i do still have the first draft of Jimmy Coates: Blackout. Here are the first two paragraphs exactly as they appear on my computer in a file saved on June 20th, 2008:
Four kilometres down, under #not
London – the place on the south coast# , in the heart of a
government supercomputer embedded in a concrete crust fifty metres thick, a new
algorithm flickered into life. Instantly, it began worming through the system,
a mere twinkle in a constellation of electrical impulses. Imperceptible. And
insignificant too, if it weren’t for the fact that at the exact same moment, #
kilometres above the earth and at the other end of the UK, a # plane
pierced British airspace.
The two events were timed to perfection. The worm wriggled through the computer network exactly as it had been designed to do, creating a tiny corridor in the UK Satellite Surveillance System – a sliver of shadow which the #type of plane# ran through like a fencer’s blade. The precisely pinpointed surveillance blackout had rendered it effectively invisible. It was easily high enough to be clear of the range of conventional, ground-based radar defence systems; its black #kevlar?# panels didn’t even glint in the night.
As you can see, I skip a lot when I'm writing a first draft. If I don't know something, I just leave a # and I carry on. But the image is there. The starting moment of the book. I can see it clearly in my head and the image doesn't change. I've planned the whole story out, remember, so I know exactly what information or what event needs to power its way into my reader's head on the first page. I just don't really know the best way to phrase it all yet.
Fast-forward to November 2008 and the first two paragraphs look a little different. This is how they appear in the final version, as you can read it when you pick up the published book:
Buried four kilometres below ground and embedded in a concrete crust fifty metres thick, one of the UK government’s seven supercomputers was about to be breached. It was housed beneath Menwith Hill Royal Air Force Station in North Yorkshire, but nobody on the base could have any idea the attack was underway. The battle was lost as soon as it began, when a new string of computer code flickered into life.
Instantly, it began worming through the system, a mere twinkle in a constellation of electrical impulses. Imperceptible. Insignificant too, if it hadn’t been for the fact that at the exact same moment, hundreds of kilometres to the North and eleven kilometres above the earth, an Aurora Blackbird SR-91 plane pierced British airspace.
Yes, I've gone back and put in all the tech details about the plane. Yes, the section has a proper title now. Superficial stuff. But I've also tidied up the order of the information. It's tighter, it's slicker, it's more dramatic.
You don't start with a computer code when you can start with breaching a government facility. You don't start with a number when you can start with a word like 'buried'. Looking back at this now, it's very strange for me to have started the book with a sentence using the passive voice ('was about to be breached') rather than a stronger active verb (active = someone did a thing; passive = a thing was done). Usually I go through my drafts making changes the other way: passive to active. But I still like the final version of this opening.
Try another one. Jimmy Coates: Survival starts with a short prologue, which didn't change much at all through all the drafts. But here's the first bit of chapter one, as it is in the first draft, typed on August 16th, 2007:
Chapter One – Slipstream
First it was a light on the dashboard, then a noise in the engine. A tiny ‘clunk’ that you would only notice if you knew what to listen out for. Jimmy knew what to listen for, and he knew it meant trouble. Running out of fuel is inconvenient if you’re driving a car, but if you’re ten thousand metres up in the air in a small plane, it’s usually fatal.
Jimmy didn’t panic. He’d been expecting this for the last three hours. I could land, he thought. At that moment he was somewhere over the middle of the
Atlantic Ocean, so it would be
tricky, but he knew he could do it. Even though the Falcon 20 wasn’t designed
to go anywhere near water, Jimmy pictured himself splashing down into the
waves. A part of his brain was already working out the best angle for the plane
to hit the water. He could even feel the muscles in his shoulders warming,
preparing for the longest swim of his life.
He gritted his teeth and stared straight ahead out of the cockpit. He knew landing wasn’t an option. He had to reach
Europe. Thousands of
lives could depend on it. Then came the answer.
Now take a look at the finished version, as I wrote it in January 2008:
Chapter One – Slipstream
First it was a light on the dashboard, then a clunk in the engine. Jimmy had been expecting this for the last three hours. I could ditch the plane in the water, he thought. At that moment he was somewhere over the middle of the
Atlantic Ocean, and a part of his brain
was already working out the best angle for the Falcon 20 to hit the waves. He
could even feel the muscles in his shoulders warming, preparing for the longest
swim of his life.
He gritted his teeth and stared straight ahead out of the cockpit. He knew ditching wasn’t an option. He had to reach
Europe. Then came the
Just as in Jimmy Coates: Blackout, it's the same scene. I didn't decide to start the book with a different image or a different thing happening. That's because I trust my plan. I know my story works. I like my structure. So all I've done here is rigorously challenge every sentence, every word: does it need to be there? Does it tell my story? If not, it's cut.
Remember, reading these first drafts isn't meant to show you how good or bad a first draft is meant to be. My point is that you don't need to worry about whether it's good or bad at all. It has no standard. It's a starting point. In both these examples there were about 20 different versions of the opening before I settled on something I liked. Nobody ever needed to see any of those versions - not my agent, not my editor, not my wife or my mum. And I only feel able to share them with you now because they're a few years old and the books are out there for you to read if you want them.
I hope this helps answer your question, GodfreyVanZoom. Everyone: let me know your thoughts and send me all your questions. I read all your comments, tweets and emails.
Now back to the first draft I'm working on. And if this post is anything to go by, you might get to see a snippet of this first draft some time in the year 2021...