When I write things, I’ll write a first draft and then hide it away.
It’s something I think I’ve learned from Stephen King, from his book ‘On Writing’ (though I’m pretty sure I used to do this before I read that book).
I do this for two simple reasons:
Firstly, I like to work on multiple things. So, rather than drafting a piece and then going straight back to the beginning and revising/editing, I can jump onto another project.
Secondly, (and more importantly), I like to let my project sit for a while. To let them simmer. To forget about them.
It might have to do with me being a pantser. That means I don’t have much of an outline when I start a book. I’ll have a general idea, and I’ll just go for it. Which means that when I’m done with that first draft, there’s usually things I want to change. (I’d like to think I’d work this way even if I was a plotter, but what do I know, I’ve never tried).
This is where leaving the draft for a while comes in handy. If I were to go straight back to revising right after writing the damn thing, I’d be too caught up in it. I’d remember everything I’d just written, and be too close to the story. The way I work, where I sometimes let things rest for as long as six months, means I sometimes will have forgotten THE WHOLE story, by the time I get back to it. And I’m talking about not even remembering how it ends.
These last few weeks, I’ve been doing some alpha reading. That’s what I call the stage right after the first draft. Often, I’ll have other people alpha read my stuff (just to give me some overall pointers about plot and story), but I’ll also do it myself. Which means I’ll pick up that horrible, sickly-looking first draft, and read through it. Cover to cover. While not editing a single sentence.
In November 2019 I wrote a novella for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month. It’s a thing, look it up if you haven’t heard of it.) It was only 27.000 words, and I like doing novellas during NaNo because it gives me some time off my main projects, and works as a sort of palette cleanser.
Thing was, I felt very uncertain about that novella. Not in a Oh my God, this first draft is shit! kind of way, more of a This book is just plain boring, kind of way.
I didn’t feel like there was a plot. No story. Nothing driving it forward. It was super boring, and by the time I was finished, I felt like I hadn’t written about anything at all.
Sure, I might be able to salvage it, but most likely, the story wasn’t going to be worth anything at all.
Again, let me emphasize: I didn’t hate the story. I didn’t think my writing was bad, or anything like that. I just didn’t think it was very interesting.
Fast forward to the alpha reading I started last Monday. I picked it back up. Dusted it off. Suddenly reminding myself of that thing I did last November. Figured, Hey, I’ll see if this is as bad as I thought.
I just finished reading it this morning.
It’s some of the best writing I’ve done.
I made myself laugh. Made myself cry. It’s happy, sad, fun, engaging, and super interesting.
At first, I didn’t understand. How the hell had this become so good? It wasn’t that it was exceptional writing, or that it was something new or revolutionary, it was just that the story… the story was good! Really good.
I’m still kind of confused. I vividly remember thinking it was so incredibly boring and plotless. I even asked my wife to read it at the same time I did, asking her to look for how I could make the story interesting and engaging, because I knew it was a drag. (Thing is, she said the exact same thing as me when she was done. It’s not a drag!)
This isn’t about me loving my story. It’s about why I think it’s important to let your stories simmer. Hide them away. Forget about them.
Pick them back up later, when you haven’t just written them.
They might surprise you.