Sunday, January 23, 2011

Craft Issue: Getting It Down on Paper...Ugly First Drafts

I’m working on the first draft of a new novel. Boy, do I hate first drafts.

For me, the purest joy of writing comes in revision. Not that I take no joy in first drafts; in fact, when I write the first draft sometimes I experience the most intense creative energy of my writing life, that blank page momentum. But during my first-drafting more than at any other time I have to fight off my internal editor. Actually I think of my internal editor as my internal Demon – since I picture him (yes, him) as a tiny leering evil thingie jabbing me with a pitchfork. Every time I get flowing with my first draft, up pops that old pucker-face giving me every reason why I should quit writing and become a…well, what?
I’m sorry, Mr. Demon, but I’m a writer, so gea’roff.

Because of this push-me-pull-you battle with the Demon-dude, I’ve developed some strategies for first drafting that I thought I might share. I’ve also listened to the strategies others have developed and I’ll toss a couple of those into the mix.

1. There’s always time to fix it later.
This is why I love revision. Okay, so the scene in the bar didn’t work; chuck it later. So that run of dialogue sounds forced; replay the interaction later. How’d they get from “a” to “b”? Add clever transitions. Where’d that character come from? Weave her in during revision.
By giving yourself permission to fix problems later, you can move forward now. Get the story down on paper, just lay it down brick by brick, and then go back and add the mortar that may be missing in spots. In fact, the building may be so wonky it needs entire reconstruction, which gives you a great reason to take it apart and rebuild it better.

2. Write when you’re tired.
            I often write my first drafts in the evening, after supper. Why? Normally, I’m a morning person. Wide awake, energy pulsing, coffee brewing kind of morning person. Unfortunately so is my internal editor, uh, Demon.
            Which is why I find that first-drafting is a wee bit easier in the evening or afternoon when I’m sleepy and the Demon is actually taking a snooze. Somehow my unconscious me-writer can work on and on uninterrupted. Lovely. Take that, D.

3. Dream it.
            This is one of my favorites. I’m kind of an insomniac; I tend to wake up at 3ish and lie there worrying. Sadly for my Demon, I’ve discovered that I can banish him and the worry and the insomnia by puzzling out what happens next in the story. And often my subconscious will blossom with possibilities.
            As an example of this, I wrote one of my favorite passages (and no, it didn’t get axed) in Faithful while half asleep. Then I had to memorize it, so I said it to myself over and over until, in the morning, I wrote it out in full in about five minutes.
            The next night I slept like a baby.

4. Story does not equal plot.
            This comes from Stephen King, he who is my story-crafting hero. A story should ask questions, should probe mysteries, should derive from the heart. A plot imposes structure on the story. Plot structure comes later. Much later.
            Yes – I’m an organic writer. It’s okay for me to know this about myself. I’m a plunger, a diver, a “write from the gut till you die” writer. A “fat” writer in the words of Ellen Howard, one of my VCFA instructors – I get it all out in one great organic vomit and pare it later. (FYI: “Thin” writers write lean and slowly and prune and edit as they go. Which kind of writer are you?)
            I know this: if I try to structure a story, it dies. Why? Who knows? You may need structure, but if you are frustrated with your first drafts I urge you to try plunging.

5. Love the process, not the outcome.
            I try never to think about publication.
            (Okay, yeah, right. When I started, it was all I thought about. “When will I ever be published?” kind of whiny thing. You know what? That’s Demon-talk. I had to chuck that kind of thinking long before publication.)
            You are a writer. It’s who you are, and it’s what you do. You need to write. Nothing else you do could ever, ever, ever make you as happy as writing does. You will write when your pencil is a stub, when your eyes are blind, when the lights go out and you are in the cold and you cannot write but only tell stories, and then you will tell stories to keep yourself sane and warm and to light your soul.
            And the souls of every one who can hear your voice. Ah, the sweet pain of this need.

Which is why I hate first drafts but will, I pray (no…Mr. Demon, I know), I will keep on churning them out.

If you have first-drafting hints, tips or strategies, please do share!

1 comment:

Janet Fox said...

My friend Jan Godown Annino tried to post these helpful tips and couldn't so I'm posting for her:

I have 2 tips - doodles & lists

I'm not an artist, but I'll draw with an easy flow pen or pencil. I
think of it like free-writing, only instead of shaping words I shape
what comes to mind. Squiggles, or something that looks like a shape
that I can recognize. When I was stuck on the 1st draft of a
picture book bio, I found myself doodling the shape of Florida, where
the story is set.
When I got to the "end" of the state, near the Everglades, doodling
the state outline led to words that popped intp my mind. Those words
made it into the opening of the published book.

To trick the perfectionist, censure persona, I will start a list. So
I will list anything that may relate to the story idea. For example I
will list words that come to mind that could relate to the characters
or idea. If the story will be set in school, a list might be:

fall festival
lunch tickets
soccer mom
fire drill
student government

Not pretty or great writing, but it gets the gears moving. Most of the
time one of the words I come up with for a list, leads me to write a
phrase, then the phrase becomes part of a a sentence & then... I'm off