Writing processes vary wildly from writer to writer. I’m one of those who starts with very messy initial drafts, and I’ve been going around for a whole now with what to call those messy drafts. In places they seem more like outlines than actual stories; though in other places they’ll turn surprisingly polished–for a time. Either way, my initial drafts are usually incoherent by the final chapters and make sense to no one but me. When I rewrite them, I throw out more words than I keep.
Calling this muddle a first draft seems inaccurate; the first draft is the thing I get after I rewrite the starting draft, really. Plus I rewrite so much–and in such a nonlinear way–that I eventually lose track of how many drafts I’ve been through anyway. Rough draft is better. I’m also fond of the term zeroth draft, which I hear used more and more often.
But I’ve been thinking lately that exploratory draft would be better still. I’m sending out my advance party; I’m checking out the terrain. I’m learning the landscape and weather; I’m seeing who lives in this place and what they do when I poke at them. It often (usually? but every book is different) takes me a whole draft to even begin to learn these things. Along the way I’ll mutter that it shouldn’t take me so long, but it does.
Then–once the advance party has brought back its report–then I can get down to the business of figuring out how to tell a real story in this new place I’ve discovered.