The First Draft

The First Draft

"All first drafts are shit," according to Ernest Hemingway, and who would argue with someone who checks out by eating a shotgun? No, no, Ern was on to something here: when you finally crest that great mountain and stare "THE END" full in the face- when you, somehow, incredibly, have managed to complete a novel-length work- then you're about half-way home.

Unless you're like me, in which case you have further to go. Much further.

Maybe the idea of writing 90,000 words that bear some kind of relation to one another is daunting enough for you right now, and if so you don't want to read any further. It's best not to know what awaits. Better to think that once your word count (checked every ten minutes, and God damn it rises slowly some days) is high enough, it's all over. You've written a novel! Yep, if that's you, you definitely don't want to hear this.

Oh, the madness. The insanity of trying to edit a book without knowing what to do.

But if you've finished a first draft and have the niggling feeling that it could be better- that it should be better-then pull up a chair. I'm your man.

I used to hate editing. (Call it rewriting, if you like.) I knew I should do some of it. But what did that mean? I understood the technical stuff- fix the typos and the broken sentences, polish a paragraph here, tweak a transition there, sure- but what about the rest? What about the story? That curious drifting feeling around chapter four, could I do something about that? That minor character, the one in the wheelchair, should he be in the book at all? And the twist at the end: that works, doesn't it? Does it?

Oh, the madness. The insanity of trying to edit a book without knowing what to do.

For my first (unpublished) novel, I ended up doing the worst thing possible: I edited the whole thing based on one person's opinion. No, wait, that's not the really stupid part: this guy hadn't even read it. But he was an agent, and he said, "Novels should be around 90,000 words." So I thought: Okay, there's something to fix. And I cut 40,000 words from it.

Killed that book dead, I did. Not that it was ever going to be a bestseller. Or even publishable. But it was better before I messed with it.

You know, even then, I didn't really believe in what I was doing. I didn't understand what I was doing. I was just trying to edit. Whatever that meant.

Today, I'm proud to say you're looking at an editing junkie. My editor remarked that Syrup, the first of my novels to be published, was "unusually polished" when it first crossed her desk. Well, compared to how I work now, I barely edited Syrup at all. While working on Jennifer Government, my second published book, I kept a file of everything I cut from various drafts: by the time I was done, it was longer than the novel. And Company, my third- I stopped collecting its cast-offs because there were too many. If I had a file of those, it'd be easily twice the length of the published book and maybe more. These rewrites weren't forced on me: most happened before I even thought about sending a copy to my editor.

Is Company a much better book than Syrup? I'm not going to argue that one. Everyone has their own tastes. But I can tell you this for sure: it's a hell of a lot better than it used to be.

With each new Company draft- and oh, there were many- I felt the thrill of improving it. (Coupled with the horror that I'd even considered the previous draft to be any good; my God, I had showed that to people?) That feeling is right up there with being visited by a fantastic new idea, or breaking through a story roadblock: it's one of the things that makes me love writing. To know: I made my story better.

I should be clear: there are plenty of times when the thought of reading my own story one more time makes me want to vomit. This was especially the case with Company, which I initially had trouble finding my way into, then was visited with a succession of great new ideas that required rewriting major sections. Then my editor had the temerity to point out one particular weakness- just a key part of the fundamental concept that everything else depended on, that's all. And, goddammit, I realized he was right.

If I hadn't known what I was doing- if I had started a rewrite without the confidence that I knew how to make my book better- this would have been as much fun as eating glass. But I did, and I got hooked on each new draft. I loved every one of them. If you told me tomorrow I had to rewrite Company yet again, I'd break your nose. But if you showed me a way to make it better... I'd break your nose, then thank you.

Which brings us to feedback. I know, I know: showing other people your drafts is tough. Exposing yourself like that, making yourself that vulnerable, can be terrifying. It's perfectly reasonable to avoid that, to not show other people your stories, or to shy away from asking the dreaded question, "What did you think?"

If you told me tomorrow I had to rewrite Company  yet again, I'd break your nose. But if you showed me a way to make it better... I'd break your nose, then thank you.

That is, if you're a pussy. Otherwise, you need to suck it up. Your pride isn't relevant here. All that's important is improving your story. And for that, you need feedback. Lots of it.

Man, what I'd give for the ability to erase my memory after each draft, so I could read my own books for the first time again. It would all become so clear: where the story sagged, where the promising leads left unfollowed lay, where my characters' motivations got muddled and, oh God please yes, what the core of this goddamn story really is.

Instead I have to read them with the book's entire history in my head: every twist, every rejected idea, every character arc and papered-over plot hole. I'm at a wedding looking at the bride, but I was the guy who got her out of bed that morning when she was hungover and reeking of stale cigarettes. I don't see blushing cheeks: I see rouge plastered over pores and pimples. Does she look beautiful? How the hell should I know?

To find out, I ask others. I send my fiction out to a bunch of people, and work hard to understand how it looks to them.

The first key is quantity. You need to hear from enough people so you can tell whether "I thought Jack was meant to be gay" is a common reaction or the opinion of a lone idiot. Second, you need real, honest reactions. You have to explain to readers that you don't want them to say, "I felt that this section dissipated some of our feelings of identification with Jack because he acts in a way that I, in that situation, could not have ethically done." You just want them to say, "I didn't like Jack beating up that old man." It's your job to figure out what to do about that.

I like to get feedback via e-mail, because I want to consider it over and over. I want to compare it to all the other feedback, and sift through for similarities and disparities. Feedback garnered via conversation is okay, but too easy to misremember or misinterpret- especially when part of you (the pussy part, which never really goes away) is wailing, "Oh God, she doesn't like it!"

Sometimes what's wrong with a story leaps out as soon as I start getting feedback. It's so obvious! Only a moron, or an author who's spent the last two of years buried so deeply in his story that he can no longer see the way out, could miss it! Other times it takes weeks, with plenty of re-reading of e-mails as I wonder why people have disliked a character, or felt uninvolved in a subplot, or liked one thing in particular.

But sooner or later I get it. I get an understanding- a crude, second-hand one, perhaps, but the best one available- of how I'd feel about my book if I were to read it for the first time.

That's worth diamonds. When I have that, I'm away. I start getting ideas for how to do things differently. I want to re-write. Preferably last week, before I showed it to anybody. But failing that, today. I can't wait to get started making my story better.

Oh yeah. Love that.

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saurabh's picture
saurabh from New Delhi, India is reading Origins, by Randolph Lalonde July 30, 2013 - 9:36pm

Well said, Max. I find it particularly hard to get re-reviews for the drafts I have edited. What happens is, I send out my most presentable work, get a few suggestions, which I don't incorporate many times. Then, my reviewer gets peeved, and refuses to send more suggestions which he/she knows I'll probably turn down. So how does one find an endless suplly of reviewers?

Impotent Verse's picture
Impotent Verse from Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK is reading Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber May 19, 2013 - 12:27pm

My problem is I can't not edit.

day 1: Write 10 pages.

day 2: Edit those 10 pages, write 5 pages

day 3: Edit 15-pages, write 2 pages

day 4: Edit 17-pages, write 1 page

day 5: Edit 18 pages

day 6: Edit 18 pages

day 7: Cry a bit, edit 18 pages



And that is why I only write short stories.


klahol's picture
klahol from Stockholm, Sweden is reading Black Moon February 6, 2013 - 12:20am

I want to live in a world where every first draft is perfect and writing the story is the same as writing it, only even more fun. Oh, and I'm still waiting on that beigie leotard we should all be wearing, now. 

Just wrote a short story for Teleport Us. To my mind, it is perfect. I read it, and can find no fault with it. But I know it's probably crap. I know this because when i reread old drafts i once thought were masterpieces incapable of imperfection, they suck. 

So I put my story up on the 'shop. My first submission. So far, no takers. I even put a Monty Python reference in the title, to lure the like-minded. 

Writing is strange. I love it. 

ender.che.13's picture
ender.che.13 from Northwestern U.S. living in the southeast peach. is reading Ken Follett November 12, 2012 - 6:10pm

Oh, good. I thought it was just me.

morgsza's picture
morgsza September 12, 2012 - 1:23pm

I'm currently doing exactly this and couldn't identify more with your desire to have your memory wiped. In fact I share WordNerdGuy's delight at hearing the tribulations of the process outlined so accurately. I'm doing a first re-read and am concerned that I'm liking it more than I should. This isn't false modesty. In my short writing experience, the better I feel about something initially is directly proportionate to how mediocre it is. The best stuff has been a slow-burning love. Anyway, thank you. I will go and buy a Max Barry book knowing what it was that made it so good.

WordNerdGuy's picture
WordNerdGuy July 30, 2012 - 1:29pm

God, I loved this essay. When I read the part where you wrote something about throwing up if you had to read the thing one more time, it was as though the skies parted and angels wept with me. Someone else feels this way, too! You've no idea how refreshing it was to discover I'm not alone on this one.


louisagholson's picture
louisagholson from Abilene, Texas is reading Finding Your Way in a Wild New World July 23, 2012 - 8:39am

This article really helped on how to encourage others to re-write as well. If I offer better feedback when reading other friend's stories then I can translate that tone into my own writing. It reminds me of building a grid of story features (i.e. if you were walking down the street what would happen if A+B+C was changed to B+A+C). Sequencing is sometimes what a story needs to give it more punch rather than changing concept or theme.  

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles July 16, 2012 - 9:10pm

Sometimes, after all that editing, I get bogged down and have a hard time making myself write new material. But then, sometimes it's exciting and fresh, as if I'm seeing it through new eyes. :)

Korey's picture
Korey April 24, 2012 - 7:37am

This article didn’t scare me off at all. It makes me want to go write. But I am at work. I should be handling insurance-y things. Or should I?

This article inspired me to jump on a project I’ve put off for far too long. For some reason it’s always seemed so insurmountable that I’ve been afraid to start. I think now’s the time. Because once I get that crappy first draft out of the way I can start polishing the turd so to speak. I’m excited at the prospect of second, third, fourth drafts. All I have to do now is finish the first draft.

Kasey's picture
Kasey from the morally and physically challenging plains of Texas is reading 12pt. Courier font April 23, 2012 - 12:38pm

I'd love to know how large of a sampling pool of opinions you pull from for a given draft.  And then do you go back to them with the second? Or do you cull the field a bit?  

This part is always hardest for me, as you have pointed out, because of the fragile ego thing and because of the page-blindness one develops as the creator of his/her own work of "staggering genius" - so when do you say enough is enough of the write-share-digest-rewrite cycle?

Thanks again Max!

jmoorman26's picture
jmoorman26 from Cleveland, Ohio is reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the millionth time April 16, 2012 - 5:59am


Solid article. Personally, I find that I don't have a choice when it comes to editing because my brain isn't big enough or refined enough to process all craft matters in one or even two drafts. My first draft is typically the foundation from which I work. I use my second draft to address the craft matter I struggle with most - character sympathy and engagement. Then I prune and trim in the third, check for POV issues, pace, escalating action, and dialogue in the fourth. I have no problem doing this nor do I feel like I'm a crummy writer because it took four or five drafts to get a novel completed. Like you say, the novel becomes the novel during the editing process.

Also, I'm not sure if you use it or recommend it, but one of the most helpful books I've ever used during my editing process is one called, Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. It's like my little editing bible. It was epecially helpful when I was just learning how to self-edit.


Jim Moorman

J.S. Wright's picture
J.S. Wright from Milwaukee is reading Black Spring April 12, 2012 - 2:51am

It was a real treat reading this.  Max is easily one of my favorite authors, for the reason he mentioned above in great detail: the story.  I've read all four of his books (after I read this essay, I realized I read them in chronological order. I'll be damned.) and each one I've found to be more enjoyable than the last because the story was fun, clever and had the uncanny ability to pull you in.  If you want a great lesson on creating a good story, read his work.

Just make sure that when you start reading, don't have to do anything the next day - you'll find yourself staying up 'till 6am playing the "Just ONE MORE Chapter!" game.  I leaned this the hard way.  Four times.

In the off chance that Max will actually read this...

Atta boy Max.