Most first drafts are horribly insincere, and that's a big reason why revising a novel (or screenplay) can be so hard. Figuring out what you really meant to write, instead of the garbage you actually did write, can be a nightmare.

Today's the first day of National Novel-Writing Month, and you'll be hearing a lot about the importance of banging out a first draft quickly, and not worrying about quality. So here's a few words about the importance of making sure your first draft is actually sincere.


I'm using "sincere" in a pretty broad sense here — not just in the sense of "making sure you're not making a political or social statement you don't mean, for which people on message boards will call you a fascist and make you cry." Instead, I'm talking about the importance of figuring out what your story is really about, what your characters are really feeling, why things happen the way they happen, and what exactly holds your world together. Chances are, an insincere story will be either schlocky, derivative, or nonsensical — or quite possibly all three.

Here's the part where you say that you're in a hurry — you've got a novel to write, and only thirty days in which to write it. Even the few minutes you've spent reading these words so far, you've fallen further behind in your marathon sprint. But here's the thing: taking a bit of time to figure out what you actually mean to write can save you loads of time down the road, when you're halfway through your project and getting bogged down.


Obviously, this is assuming that you actually have a story in mind, of some sort, and that you're not just flailing around and hoping you hit something. Maybe you've already outlined your story, or maybe you've just got a super-vague idea of your characters and their world. Either way, it seems like a safe bet that you're not going to write a novel in a month without having some idea what it's about.

So how do you go about making sure your novel is sincere? There are two ways: thinking about what you really want to say here, and looking for the most common types of insincerity.

What you want to say

First off, thinking about what you really want to write. Let's start metaphysical, and work our way down to the nitty gritty.

I'm a firm believer that every story does come from stuff in the author's life, or things that are floating around in the author's head, or things that are going on in the world. You're never going to be entirely conscious of what's making you write this story — and you probably shouldn't be, or some of the fun is lost — but you can still think about what this story means to you. If there's something you're going through that you want to work through in fiction, thanks to the magic of the Objective Correlative, it's not a bad thing to have in the back of your mind.

It sounds dorky as sin, but I make a habit with short stories and other creative projects, of sitting down and doodling on a blank page or empty Word document — just thinking about what are the things I personally am obsessing about that are going to go into this story. And then I never look at what I've written down afterwards — but it just means the things that are in the back of my mind as I write are now slightly closer to the front of my mind.

A novel, in particular, is often where you work out your questions that don't have easy answers — the things you can't simply say in a sentence, or an essay. Not so much "Killing people is wrong," but "When is it right to kill people?"

I'm not saying you have to have a capital-T Theme in your head as you write, or that you need to be conscious of Tackling an Important Social Issue. Those things can lead to heavy-handed, clunky writing in which people stand around sermonizing instead of acting like people. But having a sort of "tag cloud" of the stuff you're chewing over in the background of your head can be super helpful, even if you just put it in a drawer.

Then somewhat more concretely, there's the question I mentioned above: "What holds your world together?" This is sort of akin to world-building in general, but it's slightly more specific. After all, your world is not The World — it's the place where your characters live, and the handful of locations where they probably spend most of their time. Unless your main character is a jet-setting millionaire, he or she probably stays in one town or city, and hangs out in a few spots.


Say you've already done the basic world-building stuff, of figuring out what the world would be like if everybody was telepathic, or if fairies were real. But it's not a bad idea to think about your main characters' world, and what holds it together — why do your characters spend time together? If you were building a handful of sets for the movie version of this story, what would they be? What makes the people in your story a community, rather than a random collection of people? Why doesn't your hero just wander out of this story and into a different story? Ideally, you want there to be some kind of centripetal force that causes everybody to stay within the boundaries of your story, and that centripetal force is part of what your story is about. (If it's any good.)

Then there's all the stuff of what your characters want — and just like everything else we're talking about here, this can and should change over the course of your first draft. You may decide halfway through the tenth chapter that a major character actually has a totally different motivation than you first thought, and you can always back and retrofit the earlier chapters later, in the second draft. (I'm not, by any means, suggesting that your first draft needs to be polished or something you want to show to anyone but your cat.) Still, having a wee idea of what is motivating your characters, and what the story is about emotionally for them, will save you a lot of time later on, when you get to the dismal middle of the story.

The thing that motivates your characters is also the thing that will keep you typing away, after you feel like giving up — because your characters want something so badly, you feel compelled to keep driving them towards their goal (and putting obstacles in their way.)

On a related note, if you have an outline, or even an inkling of a plot already laid out, it's worth spending a bit of time noodling over why things happen — and whether you already have indications that things are just happening because the plot requires it. Remember that your plot is there in the service of your story. The plot is what happens, the story is why it matters that these things happen.

The most common types of insincerity

You don't want to get to week three of NaNoWriMo and then find out that your story took a wrong turn nine days ago, and you have to backtrack or build a bridge or something. And the best way to avoid that horrible fate is probably to avoid having your characters do things that make no sense, but which seem like a good idea at the time. By definition, any time your characters start acting out of character, it's a form of insincerity.

So when you're poring over your outline or noodling over your plans to ascend to the summit of your storyline, take a few minutes to be on the look out for a few of the most common types of insincerity:

  • Genre cliches. Every genre has cliches, from literary fiction to paranormal romance. There are things that happen because the author saw them in some other book, or even in a movie or TV show. Don't spend hours poring over TVTropes to see if anybody has ever identified one of your plot devices as a trope before — but do keep in mind that things that happen because these things happen in this kind of story are a form of cruddy writing.
  • Pulling punches Conflict is unpleasant in real life, so most of us try to avoid it wherever possible — and this can carry over into your fiction. Having people deal with the ramifications of nasty stuff that's happened is kind of painful, too. So it's easy to plot out a story in which bad things to people, and those people never deal with it. Or in which characters are just sort of carried along by events, instead of saying "Wait a minute, this isn't what I signed up for." Also, sometimes if a character is gearing up to do something really unforgiveable, it's always tempting to pull back and protect your beloved character from being so loathesome. Don't pull your punches. Not even in your first draft.
  • Fake sentiment This is another one that you want to watch out for, the whole time you're writing your first draft. If your characters don't feel something, they don't feel it — even if they really ought to. Even if a genuinely nice and decent person would have warm, fuzzy feelings in this particular situation. It's hard enough to focus on what's really going on emotionally with your characters, without letting fake Hallmark card emotions that you feel ought to be there clutter things up.

That's just a few examples of the types of stuff that can make your first draft insincere — and can make writing your second draft infinitely harder and more tooth-pulling. What sorts of insincerity have you noticed in your own first drafts?

Pulp magazine covers via Paul Malon, Sir Chutney and Haackfan on Flickr.