My Sloppy First Drafts

plant for blogPlant.

I’m nearly done with the first complete draft of my work-in-progress, currently titled The Midwife’s Confession, and if you were to check it for the most often used word (after “the” and “and” and character names), I bet it would be “plant.” Even though I’ve outlined ad nauseum, the characters and story change as I write, which necessitates changes in the chapters I’ve already written. Rather than stopping my momentum by returning to the earlier chapters to make the changes, I type the word “plant” followed by my brilliant new idea. Once I finish the current draft, I’ll do a search on the word “plant” and write down longhand all the changes I need to make in the next draft.

I write a very sloppy first draft for two main reasons: one is that I know I’ll need to make a million changes as the story emerges, so there’s no point in making it pretty the first time through, and two, I want to write fast to get the entire story down. That’s nerves, I think. I’m anxious to get it all down to see where I stand and what needs to be fixed. I can always pretty the writing up later; it’s the story and its structure, pacing and characterization that matter to me during the first draft. I envy those writers who polish as they go, ending up with a clean, nearly complete book by the end of their first draft. I’ve given up trying to make that system work for me. We all have to figure out what works for us as writers. There is no right or wrong way to write a book. 

I take about nine months to write a book and although I don’t have a set schedule, here is how my timing usually works out. During the first month, I come up with the idea for the story–the “what happens.” I start working on the outline, completing it sometime during the second month. Then I begin working on preliminary research, learning just enough to see how it will influence the story. Month three, I get to know my characters on a new level, using a variety of techniques I’ve developed over the years. Learning about my characters continues throughout the entire writing process.  The next few months I spend writing, fiddling, restructuring, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Around month five, I start seriously writing the first draft, and as I mentioned, the surprises continue and I fill the draft with “plants.” 

Here’s an example of a plant from The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes. When I outlined the book, Eve (CeeCee’s alias during her secret life) didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis. As I wrote the first draft, I hit a chapter late in the book in which Eve was suddenly limping, and I decided she should have RA. It would give the story and her character an interesting new dimension. So I wrote (plant: Eve has RA). In the second draft, I went back into those earlier chapters and “gave” her symptoms of RA. There were other more intriguing plants that came up during the writing of that book, but I’d be giving away too much if I told you what they were here. Suffice it to say, if you were surprised as you read that book, I was probably just as surprised as I wrote it!

I’m going back to work on The Midwife’s Confession right now. Can’t wait to see what I’ll plant next!


  1. Martha on February 26, 2010 at 10:06 am

    …Genius, pure and simple. You make it sound so easy and I know it isn’t. You could do a complete book using your blogs; the chapters are already finished. It would become a best-seller of “how-tos” for struggling writers. Maybe a first non-fiction?

  2. Diane Chamberlain on February 26, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks, Martha. I’ve thought of a book. . . but time is the factor, as it is with most things. Maybe someday!

  3. brenda on February 27, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Diane-if we could get you to write everything we want, that would be great for us…for you-no sleep. I have to rec. a book to all of you. THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake…K. Stockett, author of THE HELP, writes…quoted…”A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I am telling everyone I know to read.” I could not have said it better. In a time when I am having trouble concentrating…stress in my life…grading poetry books, essays, teaching research papers, etc…there are few books I can actually say that I am enjoying. THE ROSES (thanks Margo) was a delight-an escape. THE POSTMISTRESS…wow…what can I say??? Although there were a few times when the story took paths that I thought could have been left out, as a whole, I could not get enough of this book. Most of you know that I read fast…tons of books…usually one a day at I am luck to get through one a week-that will end soon as always. (Perhaps when the snow leaves my lawn (2 plus months now)…I’ll get out and walk and relieve this stress…) Anway, this is a book to savor… a little at a time. It is the story of war. Be prepared to weep, to reread…to read parts aloud to yourself…a must-read…a keeper…This is the type of book Diane would write if I COULD GET her to do the Vietnam Novel…(Just kidding, Diane…I know you are writing every minute…) Thanks for listening-get this book-buy it…

  4. brenda on February 27, 2010 at 9:07 am

    P S. The author writes at the end the idea for her story…the POSTMISTRESS. I love it when an author tells us where he/she got the story idea…I relish those parts of the book also.

  5. brenda on February 27, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Am reading another new author, Patricia Falvey…The Yellow House. I researched Google for this author…her schedule is amazing…good grief…it seems she is speaking/attending almost every Irish Festival/etc. in many states. That would be something…however, I can’t imagine a traveling schedule like that. As you may have guessed, this is an “Irish” book…and history…but a novel…so far so good.

  6. Diane Chamberlain on February 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Oooh, new book recommendations! Thanks, Brenda. I’m reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo right now. I found it very hard to get into (ie boring), but several people encouraged me to stick with it and I’m into it now. Today I’m packing and getting organized for a trip to Tybee Island (Georgia) tomorrow with my writer buds. Ahh, a week of brainstorming and writing at Mary Kay Andrew’s cottage. I have Elizabeth Gilbert’s new memoir Commitment to listen to on the loooong drive.

  7. brenda on February 27, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I gave the Gilbert book to my daughter. Sorry…I told her to donate it…i could not get through it…hope you do better listening to it…have a wonderful week…what a great opportunity…we’ll discuss the book after you finish it.

  8. brenda on February 27, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    I like Mary kay Andrew’s…I love Tybee Island and Savannah…

  9. Margo on February 28, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Brenda…thanks so much for recommending POSTMISTRESS…I will buy it Wed…Has anyone read THE SAVING OF CEECEE HONEYCUTT?…my sister loaned it to me…I’m reading it fast so I can move onto something else…it’s ‘ok’ but not my typical kind of novel.
    Diane, hope you keep in touch with us at Mary Kay Andrews place…it sounds delightful!! (-O:

  10. Diane Chamberlain on February 28, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Brenda, I tried the audio of Commitment, and it wasn’t holding my attention. I wanted memoir, and while I think it’s very good, it was more anthropological study. I switched to The Book Thief.

  11. brenda on March 1, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Right…more theory than practice…we think alike.

  12. […] next few chapters with a red pen, making quite dramatic changes at this point. I go back through my plant list to see what I need to add to the new draft. I’ve made some serious character and point of […]

  13. […] I have the story written and “merely” need to fix it up, work on the voices, add the plants, and generally make sure everything flows nicely. This is also when I begin to realize I’ve […]

Leave a Comment