Joe Abercrombie Shares The Secret Of Fixing Your Cruddy First Draft

Illustration for article titled Joe Abercrombie Shares The Secret Of Fixing Your Cruddy First Draft

It's one of the most common pieces of writing advice: Write the first draft of your novel in a hurry, just to get it down, then fix it later. It's the idea behind NaNoWriMo, too. But how do you fix that first draft? Joe Abercrombie, author of Half a King and its sequel Half the World, has some excellent advice.


Over on his blog, Abercrombie talks about how his first drafts used to be super polished because he would keep going back and rewriting. And then he changed his method to do much more of a sketch the first time around:

Over time I've started to get a better result from scratch much more quickly, so I've started to really push through the first draft as fast as possible, sketching each chapter honestly pretty roughly, then having a look over and tidy up of each part as I finish it, planning the next one in detail, thinking about what I might need to change as I go on.

The result is, I must admit, a pretty shoddy 1st draft, often with the characters rather inconsistent and incoherent especially at the beginning, probably resolving themselves and taking their proper places as we get towards the end, and often with a few plot holes as new ideas occurred or I changed my mind about things. Typically, I hate the book at this point. The process of producing the 2nd draft is perhaps the key phase these days. Here I'm doing the heavy lifting of revision, especially towards the start of the book. I'm thinking hard about how the point-of-view characters might need to change to have a more interesting and coherent arc. What defining experiences of the past and motivations for the future might shape them. What character traits and emotions they might need to display throughout. How their key relationships, especially with each other, might form and develop. I'm further defining and differentiating their individual voices. I'm fixing plot holes and introducing information that might have become necessary as new ideas have occurred. Partly I'm working from a checklist of stuff I've put together that I know I need to include – some things specific, some more general to bear in mind as I go. Partly I'm just reading it and seeing how it feels. I'm doing an awful lot of tightening – partly cutting stuff that no longer seems necessary or appropriate, partly just general tightening and sharpening of the writing. Some scenes might go altogether, though that's pretty rare for me. There might be new ones I need to add from scratch.

A lot of this is about just trying to get the book firmly in mind, knowing where everything is, reminding yourself what happens where, how everything interlocks.


Getting the book "firmly in mind" seems to be the key, especially with regard to the big character arcs. The whole thing is well worth checking out. [Joe Abercrombie]

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Andrew P Mayer

I think this is a good way to work. Nobody could complain about the quality of his product!

Just to give some perspective, and point out that every writer needs to find their own process:

I rewrote my first published novel chapter by chapter, revising each one 3 times before moving onto the next. Then I revised the whole book twice. That's something I'll never do again.

These days I write a deeply detailed outline. The goal is to get it pared down to "just the good" stuff. My goal is to work out as much of the character and story arcs as I can before I put a single word to the page, and to be excited about every scene I'm writing. (2k to 10k style.)

After that, I write out the first draft as fast as I can, stopping only when I find major plot flaws: typically these turn out to be places where I've been (subconsciously) lazy. In the case of my current book, I realized that I'd created two action elements where one would have been 10 times better.

Once that's done there are usually 2 more full revisions—or whatever it takes to get it reading smoothly enough I can send it out to the editor.