11 July 2020

First Drafts Ain't Pretty

Special treat today. I am a member of the Mystery Writers of America - Northwest Chapter. Last month we had an online meeting, featuring Dana Haynes speaking on: "Writing in Quarentine: How to Keep Your Fiction Moving, Even When the Damn Coronavirus Means You Can't!" I was impressed enough to invite him to write a piece for us on a topic of his choice.

Dana is the author of the new mystery/thriller novel, ST. NICHOLAS SALVAGE & WRECKING, which marked his debut with Blackstone Publishing in 2019. This is Haynes’s eighth published mystery. The sequel, SIROCCO, is set for a January 2021 release.

He has spent 25 years in Oregon newspaper newsrooms, split between weeklies and dailies. He currently serves as managing editor of the Portland Tribune. He has won awards as a reporter, columnist and editor. A native of the Pacific Northwest, he also served as spokesman and speechwriter for the mayor of Portland, Oregon.

— Rob Lopresti

You can't fix what's not on paper, so get your manuscript finished, warts and all, then worry about making it perfect

by Dana Haynes

I don’t know a novelist who hasn’t had a book come unraveled because he or she smashed into a wall. Not a writer’s block; those I can handle. I mean a writer’s Great Pyramid of Giza, bringing the whole project to a screeching halt.

Those indomitable walls are the one that make us put manuscripts on the back burner, then in a file cabinet, then in recycling.

I found a solution. It works for me. It might work for you.

The secret is in reimagining the purpose of a first draft. A first draft isn’t the place that you seek perfection. It isn’t a final draft. If it were, we’d call it that.

The purpose of the first draft is to get the narrative down on paper.

You can’t fix that which isn’t on the page.

The other secret is to keep moving forward through a first draft. The all-important words, the ones that give us goose bumps and that secretive little grin when we’re standing in line at a coffee shop, are “The End.” My trick for writing means that every day, week after week, month after month, I draw closer to “The End.”

Some writers can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Try this trick, and you’ll find the light at the end of the tunnel will require you to wear sunglasses.

Here’s what I do in first draft.

I write about 10 pages, stop, read ’em, and see if I’m happy. Are they pretty good? Do they advance the story, or help with character development, or set up a joke? Yeah? Good, move on.

I write the next 10 pages, stop, and read those 20.

(Note: “10 pages” could mean eight, or 12, or whatever. This isn’t rocket surgery. If you hit the end of a chapter and you’re in the ballpark, call it “10”).

I write the next 10, stop, and read those 20 — which is to say, pages 11-to-30. Write the next 10 and read 21-to-40.

I call these Go-Backs.

What am I looking for? Well, not perfection. If your first draft isn’t a pig’s breakfast, you’re doing it wrong. I ask: Did this scene fit the narrative? Do I round out anyone’s character? Is there a clue-drop or a reveal? Is there a setup for a visual or verbal joke?

I don’t do a ton of lovely, layered description in first drafts. For instance, if Katalin Fiero Dahar (one of the heroes of “St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking” and “Sirocco”) walks into a tavern, I might write the first draft like this:

Fiero parked her bike, doffed her helmet, and stepped inside the tavern [scripto]. She spotted Finnigan, already at a booth, ordering drinks.”

That funky word in brackets, “scripto,” is a note to myself that I’m gonna want to describe the bar.

I just don’t have to do it today. This is my first draft. My goal is to get to “The End,” remember? Plenty of time to describe stuff later.

I just wrote a scene in which Finnigan and Fiero are on the run in an automobile junkyard east of London. What do I know about British cars? Bupkis. So I wrote,

“It was a graveyard of old trucks. Chassis here, axles with single wheels there, bits of engines and drive trains from [splaino] scattered about…”

My term in brackets, “splaino,” is a note to myself: If they’re in a modern-day junkyard in England, what English trucks might have been built, say, 50 years ago? That’s some bit of research that’ll be a mild distraction to do someday.

Just not today.

(If you’ve ever been lost on the island of Venice and asked a local how to get to, say, the Rialto Bridge, they’ll point forward and say, “Drito. Semper drito.” It means “always straight.” Why? Because it’s a damn island: You simply can’t get that lost, and no matter if you turn left, right, or straight, eventually you’re gonna see a sign that leads you to the Rialto. So you might as well go straight. In the labyrinth that is Venice, it’ll get you where you’re going as well as any other direction. In first drafts, you should routinely mutter to yourself, “Drito. Semper drito.”)

When I get to more-or-less Page 100, I stop, put the manuscript down, wait a week or so, print it out, and read all 100. That’s what I call a Read-Through.

Now I’m making note of bad writing that I can fix; changes that will help the narrative; noting the “scriptos” and “splainos” that require a bit of gussying up.

And I ask myself: Do these first 100 pages serve the narrative? Is this a book I’d want to keep reading? Have I meandered? Are the pace and flow good? Does the dialogue ring true? Am I happy?


Then write the next 10 pages.

If not, this is a good time to sit down and ask myself: What was the original idea for the novel? If I’ve strayed off it, am I straying into a better novel? Or do I need to jettison a bunch of this stuff and start over?

Once I have that answer, I realize, look, I’m more than a quarter of the way to “The End.” I’m making real progress. Let’s keep going. Semper drito.

This method of writing works so well for me that I generally can write the first draft of a 400-page novel in about three months. Then I can take my own sweet time to do the second, third, fifth, eighth drafts that will be needed to make this a novel. I’ve built the table and it stands sturdy. Now I can the time to sand the wood and varnish the surface.

If you get majorly stuck in your early draft, you likely won’t ever finish the novel and the writing process will grow less and less satisfying. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, hell, I probably should write Chapter 3. Oh, and schedule that colonoscopy…” then the bloom is off the rose and you ought to just chuck it in.

Go-Backs and Read-Throughs mean I’m always, always moving forward. I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I just turned in my ninth novel to my publisher and I can safely say: Every hour spent writing it was a blast, all the way through and out the other side of the tunnel to “The End.”


  1. Dana, welcome to SleuthSayers, and thank you for a great post. I'm going to use the brackets idea whenever I get caught up in "embroidering the pillowcase." Thanks!

  2. Great post, Dana, and welcome to the club.

    I hate first drafts because they're hard, but I love completing one because, as you say, once it's down on paper you can fix it. Writing and editing are two different processes, and they get in each other's way.

    I use bold face where you use the brackets, but your point is important. When you're on a roll, don't stop for the little stuff. Go back and fix it later.

    When I was a teacher, it drove me crazy when students would stop in the middle of writing something to look up the correct spelling of a word. I always told them "later, later, later." The good students finally got it. The rest...not so much.

  3. I was told early on.
    Get it written. Then get it right.
    Good post, Dana.

  4. >I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. [smarto!]

    I hope that British junkyard had a few of those Austin taxis!


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