For me, first revision isn’t really a revision. I call it drafting because for the first two or three drafts I’m still working on finding my way. I know that, in a way, until you get to the time of polishing the novel—the end stage—it’s all really finding your way, but in the first drafts I’m spending most of my time finding my way and I know I'm lost a lot.
In draft 1 I’m chopping my way through the wilderness. I don’t really know where I’ll end up. I’m not sure I’ll end up anywhere. Draft 2 is when I’ve gone all the way to the other side and now that I’ve made it there, I realize there were a lot of places where I went the wrong way back there in the wilderness. I see from a different place and seeing from there I realize some of the mistakes I made; I think a lot about structure in this draft since I SEE the whole thing. I go back and go through the novel again. It’s all much clearer now, but sometimes I need a third draft to really feel like I really have the basic shape of the novel.
Some other authors on first drafts: Sherman Alexie, who I once got to interview, told me that before he began a novel he had the last sentence in mind. So he wrote his novel to that last sentence. (Sounds good but I’d keep revising my last sentence, I bet.) E.L. Doctrow said writing a first draft was like driving across the country in the dark. You had the lights of your car showing you what was directly in front of you. Beyond that you just kept in mind a vague destination.
This past Friday I went to the Texas Library Association Conference just south of Austin in San Antonio. It’s a big deal. Lots of publishers and librarians etc… I heard a panel where Maureen Johnson compared writing to problem solving. I think she said this after Cory Doctrow said when he stalled he just made something bad happen to his characters. Another way of looking at a first draft is this idea of characters experiencing problems, small and large, and the story moving in such a way that they work them out. But bad things have to happen in order for this to work. As I’ve said before, bad things must happen to good characters. It’s unfortunate but necessary.
By the way, I went to TLA because my publisher had ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of my novel ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES and wanted me to sign them. ARCs are free and come out before a novel is published. In case you haven’t heard of them, they’re what the publisher uses to advertise a book that will come out soon (relatively soon—Oct. for me). They give them out to reviewers and librarians and booksellers mostly. Anyway, when you’re getting published and they ask you to sign them, YOU SHOULD do it. I had so much fun. Because the ARCs are free, people really want them. I had a long line of people wanting me to sign copies of my book which was exciting. We ran out of copies fast. Of course I realize that the little word FREE made all the difference. People do like FREE things. If I could just convince my publisher to give my book away for FREE, I could probably be a big seller. Alas, I suppose there’s a problem or two with that.