By Claire Torregiano
Your first draft is not terrible. It is an infant. You do not call an infant terrible because they are a product of a world that is new to them. You nurture and cultivate them so that they become smart, strong, and capable. I interviewed four writers about their experiences with first drafts. I had just finished the first draft of a work-in-progress when I reached out to four of my former writing teachers to ask for advice on how to move forward. It was after I established a connection with them that I read their published work. Their insights continue to cultivate my journey as a reader and writer. After speaking with them, I thought it would be interesting and helpful for others to hear what they had to say.
The first interview in this series is with Chandler Klang Smith, author of the novel, The Sky is Yours. We discuss the function of a first draft, and the editing process to the final. The Sky is Yours takes readers through an arranged marriage gone awry in a dystopia sieged by dragons. Readers follow three young people through the dilapidated city of Empire Island, as they are forced to leave behind everything they’ve ever known and venture into what they must make their own brave new world.
How do you think the first draft serves you as a writer?
CKS: It’s funny because I always have a really hard time getting through the first draft that I find that once I have, I have such a clearer roadmap for what I need to do going forward. Like, just having a sense of the destination for everything is just enormously important. Basically, I think that as soon as I’ve gotten to the end I can go back to the beginning and think “How do I lay the groundwork for what’s coming? How do I use foreshadowing? How do I bring up thematic stuff that’s going to be important later in ways that feel incidental early on? And I think that I tend to be someone who, as I go through the first draft, I rewrite parts a lot but then results can feel very patchwork-y and like they don’t quite fit together, but the revisions I do after I have an ending are much more substantial and interesting. I don’t get as nitpicky; I really see the big picture after I have the first draft.
How much changed from the first draft to the final product? What do you think was the biggest change?
CKS: There are a few different things that changed. Thinking of the first draft as the first time I got all the way to the end, one of big changes that occurred was the end. I ended up going back and realizing that I needed to do more to build up to the ending for a certain character. I emphasized the character more in general and expanded several scenes with her at in the middle of the book. Most of the changes occurred with me being able to see how the parts related to the whole after the first draft was finished. Cause and effect. When you get to the effect, you have to have the causes rise to the level of how important they are in the book. There are sometimes things you think will be really important when you’re writing, so you spend more time on them, and then you end up cutting them away. And getting those causal relationships working is so important.
Were there any sacrifices that you had to make from the first draft that were difficult for you to make?
CKS: It’s interesting because people talk a lot about the kill your darlings thing and in my own work, there are definitely times that I cut that I spent a lot of time on, and I almost never cut anything where I felt like “Oh I really miss that being in the book.” It’s almost always a relief like I’ve shed this dead weight that I felt like it wasn’t really doing what I wanted it to. In my personal experience so far, that’s been the case. One of the main things that my editor did was help me with pacing. We would make little cuts in scenes here and there, and then it was stronger.
Do you have any advice for students who are working on a big chunk of fiction and are trying to finish a first draft or those who’ve just finished one?
CKS: I think that trying to finish the thing—give yourself permission to make mistakes. If you have that sinking feeling of “I’m moving forward, but I’m getting less and less interested in what I’m doing and I think the reader will too” stop and go back to the last part you were excited about and think about “Where do I feel like I went wrong?” Other than that situation, give yourself the permission to go through and have things be really rough and have there be blank spots. Once you have a draft and you’re working toward a deadline, I think it’s important to do the triage thing. Think about what the big questions are here that I haven’t answered and now that I have this whole draft, those questions are better to have for me. I had a teacher in college who said the ending of a story should be a leap back into the story. I think that’s the reader’s experience as much as the writers experience because it gives you the opportunity to leap back in. Don’t try to fix every little thing, try to fix the major stuff. Think of it as like, when you’re going to submit it to your advisor or your committee, you want them to see the outline of what you’re doing even if it’s really fuzzy, rather than there being certain parts that are fully developed and other parts where they don’t even know what is supposed to be happening. You’re going to get less helpful feedback that way.