In Praise of Dirty Drafts

This week I have been remembering the first draft of my first book. Well, the first book I actually completed.

First draft libraryI remember that it was written by hand, mostly while I was waiting for books to be retrieved from the stack in a very famous library.

The leather-bound tomes, the scholarly hush, the dust dancing in the sunbeams, the academics concentrating all  around me…. oh, I remember them as if I’ve only just walked in from that day with my book bag stuffed with notes and my head full of my characters.

First draft cafe napkinOr sometimes I wrote that first draft while I was waiting for an old friend in our favourite coffee shop.

When inspiration struck there, I sometimes scribbled the idea down on any old scrap of paper — including a cafe napkin once or twice.

By now, dear Reader, you will have realised two things:

  1. I was very young
  2. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing.

My First Dirty Draft

Dirty draft reader

Of course, I didn’t realise it was a draft. I thought I was writing pure gold.

OK, I’d written, edited and re-written hundred of essays. It never occurred to me that a novel would got through the same process. I thought writing fiction would be just like reading it. You plunged in. Steamed straight through to the end. Closed the book with a happy sigh.

What I was writing would go straight to print in the same way. Or so I thought. Not a semi-colon would go.

Um. What emerged, of course, was a Mess — and on a grand scale.

Dirty Draft 1st bookIt was supposed to be a Georgian comedy of manners with an element of mystery, a dramatic romance and a few laughs. Somewhere between Tom Jones and Georgette Heyer, I suppose.

In practice, my hero switched disconcertingly between Ferdy Fakenham and the Earl of Rule. A lascivious vicar couldn’t make up his mind whether he was a clown or a villain. And just when it got exciting, my heroine stopped the whole thing dead in its tracks by smacking a kidnapper in the ribs with his own blunderbuss. The End.

First Virtue of Dirty Drafts

dirty draft fastBUT what I had on my hands, though it took me a long time to recognise it, was  pure unself-conscious story. A cracking dirty draft!

Everything — characters, plot, farcical action and drawing-room duels of manners — had gone straight from rollicking imagination to the page, unmediated by logic, taste or even common sense. And the typing was atrocious.

But, by golly, it had vitality. Spontaneity? By the bucketful. It zipped along like a stage-coach pursued by a thwarted suitor.

Above all, I enjoyed it. It made me laugh out loud. (A kindly academic librarian said that everyone who used the library liked to see a student relishing their work but could I try to cackle quietly in future? Please.) It was mad and muddled and Not Fit For Company. But it wasn’t boring.

Second Virtue of Dirty Drafts

Dirty draft - fastIt’s fast. You can write it almost as fast as your reader will read it. No stopping to check historical accuracy or timing options or logistics.

You don’t — indeed, you mustn’t — spend any time on the (slightly) more boring bits. “With one bound, Jack was free,” is dirty drafting at its purest.

Of course, the downside of this is that it gives you the excuse to avoid the difficult stuff, too. “Insert proposal here” is fine. “Insert reason for their instant hostility” isn’t.

Third Virtue of Dirty Drafts

Which brings me to the third virtue of a dirty draft — it may show you that your story isn’t ready yet. It needs to stay in the subconscious a while yet and grow stronger.

Dirty Draft plot fell off the stagecoachThat was certainly true of my own first effort. I had a Jekyll and Hyde hero — well, more a Bertie Wooster/Mr Darcy cross, if I’m honest — a heroine who was seriously annoying and a villain with more potential than either of them. Hardly surprising that the plot fell off the stage-coach, then.

The Fourth Virtue of Dirty Drafts

Dirty drafts hunting for a wordIt keeps you well away from what my friend, Elizabeth Hawksley, fellow author and tutor in English and creative writing, calls “Faine Wraitin'”.

In the dirty draft you bung down the main elements of story and character as they occur to you. Possibly great bits of dialogue. Telling details, certainly.

The only stuff that will be fully fleshed out, though, are scenes and moments that you really love. Almost certainly these will be over-written. You’re throwing in everything indiscriminately, remember? In Draft 2 you can CUT them, down to the truly telling details.

In other places, though, you may well put in just a series of memory joggers. The crafting of every word and comma comes with Draft 2.

Well, maybe not every word.

Dirty drafts Jane Austen by CassandraThere’s a lovely letter from Jane Austen to her sister in which she worries that praise for her books may “hurt my style, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration, or a metaphor in every corner of the room.”

Oh yes. Been there, done that.

Out, damned solicited! Bring back the spontaneous overflow of powerful fun!

Dirty Drafts — Who, When and Why?

Writers are all different. Heck, every book is different, at least for me.

dirty drafts writer in control?Some writers start with a synopsis, move onto a rough draft and then enjoy themselves turning it into the real book at Stage 2.

Other writers need to build their story brick on top of well placed brick, from Day 1 (with or without a synopsis). Typically, they will start every day by re-reading and editing the work they did the day — or the week, or the month — before. Anything else makes them feel uneasy. Nobody can let their imagination fly when their brain is nagging away that they’re not safe.

But some of us are in the middle.

Dirty draft mystery journeyI think of myself as a patchwork writer. At the start I know a few things about my story and characters. They’re not necessarily big things, but important to me. Sometimes I know how it ends. Mostly my characters are on a journey that’s as big a mystery to me as it is to them. That’s why, so far, I’ve avoided dirty drafts. I’ve been afraid of distorting my characters by fixing them too early.

Afraid. Yes. That’s the big word. The dirty draft ought to deal with the fear.

Nobody will see that draft but me. I don’t even need to invest a huge amount of time in it. If I fall flat on my face nobody needs to know but me. And right now in my writing life, that trumps everything else.

And, remembering that first time, it might just be fun.

Sophie Weston Author


16 thoughts on “In Praise of Dirty Drafts

  1. Liz

    As a brick upon careful brick writer I really envy the exuberant freedom of the dirty draft. Did you ever finish that first book? I do love a heroine sho can lay out a villain with a blunderbus. My first M&B was rejected because the heroine rescued herself in similar manner with a Very pistol.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I agree about exuberant freedom, Liz. I still remember the sheer energising effect of that first book. I used to bounce as I walked home, my head still spinning with my characters’ conversation.

      Yes. I finished it. Still have it somewhere, in a much faded carbon copy. It got me an agent, though she didn’t want Georgian, adventure or funny. In fact, she told me firmly that I needed to write for Mills & Boon because they would teach me to plot – which I clearly needed. How right she was!

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    So resonates. My dirty draft days are long gone. It’s not quite careful bricks but the craft is firm enough that I can’t throw it down without fiddling. Some days it flows fast and well enough to ignore same and keep going but mostly I edit as I go now.
    However I am a huge advocate of the get it down if it kills you school of thought, especially if a writer is new to the process.
    Dirty drafts are meat and drink to a newbie. My niece began like that a couple of years ago, writing furiously and learning her craft thereby with a few pointers from auntie.

  3. Sophie Post author

    How fascinating, Liz. Editing as I go has now become a sort of disease with me. I get slower and slower and have huge difficulty in pushing to the end.

    That’s why I decided to be try to be brave and let my inner newbie off her leash again.

  4. lesley2cats

    I fly into the mist, edit as I go along and heave a sigh of relief when I send it off to my editor. I’ve never done drafts, but I’ve often had to change things after the mss has been submitted. (Including, famously, the murderer. Had to include a whole new character.) I loathe each book when I finish it, so writing a second, or even third, draft would be agony. I expect I ought to do it differently, but I never seem to have time… I would have loved to read your blunderbussing heroine!

  5. Sophie Post author

    I think the whole point of a dirty draft is that you do it fast, Lesley. In my case while I’m trying to get a handle on other stuff. So the left brain is wholly engaged with bills and workmen and trying to get stuff off the floor of my study and into box files! That leaves the right brain free to play. At least in theory.

    I’ll let you know whether it slows down the whole process, once I’ve done a whole book that way from scratch. I’m quite excited at the prospect.

  6. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I loved this post – it made me laugh out loud. I take my hat off to you that your dirty draft was Tom Jones meets Mr Darcy. My dirty drafts felt like Barbara Cartland meets Elinor Glyn (she of the tiger skin fame) But why I’m in favour of Dirty Drafts is that they get the rubbish out of your head and onto the page – and that’s important.

    Once that’s done, you can begin.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you, Elizabeth. Don’t forget that the Mr Darcy elements in my hero might just possibly be detectable only by the fond eye of their onlie begetter.

      I didn’t know that you practised Dirty Drafting too. I should have come to you for advice! How long would you normally spend putting the dirty draft together?

      1. Elizabeth Hawksley

        About three months, I’d say – I sit on my four poster bed and write in longhand on one side of the paper only.. And then I spend about 6 months getting it onto the computer and editing it – the first and last chapters always go through at least six drafts, maybe more. As I write Historicals, I’d also be researching things specific to the book in progress – e.g. the last Frost Fair on the Thames in 1814, or smuggling in Cornwall.

        The whole thing takes about 10 months.

        1. Sophie Post author

          Sitting on your bed and writing in long hand is SO cool. Not sure how my feline companion would take it, though. And no four poster here, sadly.

          So your research comes in at the same time as you edit and transfer to the computer, is that right? Research is one of my deepest elephant traps. I really need to get it under control.

  7. Joanna

    Yes, I recognise this. The first draft of my first book was exactly the same. Like you, I thought I just wrote it down as it came into my head, wrote “The End”, and sent it off. And that a grateful publisher would immediately grab it. No, it didn’t happen. I learned about editing the hard way, over about 9 years 😉 before my first published book. (I’m one of the many who are truly grateful to the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme.)

    Nowadays, it is more difficult to do a true dirty draft because, like others here, I find it difficult to write a lot without fiddling. Would my drafts be better if I still had that naive spontaneity of my first attempts? Dunno. But it’s a thought that it might be worth trying to do it. Thank you for that inspiring (and somewhat scary) thought.

  8. Gail Mallin

    I understand exactly what you mean about getting slower! I really struggle to finish a story nowadays because my perfectionist streak takes over and I keep on editing and re-editing every scene before I can move on to the next. I get myself in such a state that I have to stop and take a lengthy break. So very frustrating when I think back to when I first started writing and the words just flowed from my pen …. sigh!

  9. Sophie Post author

    Perfectionism is a curse, Gail. You have my sympathy.

    Also, I suspect that a lot of the “rules” we think we have to observe turn out to be fashion and therefore transient. My Inner Critic has great difficulty in keeping up with that one.

  10. Liz Fielding

    /fascinating to read everyone’s process. I have certainly got slower but I think that’s because I have to dig deep to find my characters and their story – it’s a bit like reinventing the wheel each time. My first two or three chapters take as long as the rest of the book. 🙁

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh me too, Liz. I keep telling myself: I can do this; I’ve written a book before. But somehow my lizard brain doesn’t believe it.

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