The First Draft

Damien Pollet (CC/Flickr)

Now for the fun part. This is where the tripod and the robots fade away as we discard torturous analogies and let the creativity flow free. There are still a few things to consider, so beware, this will be a rather long post.

The pen vs the keyboard

Do you write or do you type? Personally, I prefer to write my first draft on paper. Perhaps it’s because I’m of the last generation who did our school and college work the old fashioned way, so I didn’t grow up with computers. There is, however, another reason.

I write on the computer all the time. I write emails, I write documents for work, I chat with people over skype. I’m typing this post on my laptop right now. Writing fiction is fundamentally different to any other writing I do. No other form uses language to evoke as much as to describe. Very few other forms involve dialogue. I don’t have to climb into the mind of an imaginary character to write reports for work.

Because of the idiosyncrasies of fiction, I find it helpful to make it physically distinct. It fences off my fiction writing from the colloquial form I’m using now, or the dry tone of a report.

Once I’ve written the first draft on paper, I then type it up to edit. That may sound like a waste of time, but I find the opposite. It forces me to engage with the prose with a thoroughness that I just can’t get by reading it. I do a lot of tidying up, and it gets the editing off to a good start.

A pen and paper approach isn’t for everyone. Many people write vivid and evocative fiction directly to their computers. I would suggest that even if you’re a committed keyboard jockey, give the pen and paper a try before dismissing them. You may surprise yourself.

The blank page

Niklas Freidwall (CC/Flickr)

Every great work of literature starts with a blank page. Once it was papyrus, then it was paper, now it’s often a screen. The writer agonises about how to start. What makes it worse is that the writer knows the most important part of the story is the beginning. This is where we have to hook the reader’s attention, so it has to be perfect. Therein lies the key to freedom from the glaring white of that page.

Once I’d written a few stories, I realised the one thing I always rewrote was the beginning. I never got it right first time. So stopped worrying about it. I just wrote something to get myself started, knowing it wouldn’t make the final draft. Contrary to what I’d assumed, I learned the purpose of the first sentence of the first draft was not to hook the reader but to get me started. Hooking the reader is the purpose of the first sentence of the final draft, which is a different thing altogether.

Getting started was suddenly easy. All I had to do was look at my outline and start where it told me to start. Then, as a wise king once advised a tardy rabbit, I could carry on until I reached the end and then stop.

Write away

It’s only in the course of writing the story that I know how good my outline was. If I got it right, it guides me through the structure of the story and leaves me free to concentrate on telling the story, describing the action and locations and bringing the characters to life. It occasionally happens that I find the story I’m writing beginning to deviate from the outline. If that happens, I have to stop and ask myself why. If I can honestly say it’s an improvement that has just occurred to me, I’ll go with it as long as it’s still consistent with the resolution. If it isn’t, then either the story needs to be brought back on track or I need to revisit the outline and change the resolution.

More insidious diversions come up when I get seduced into a digression that doesn’t move the story forward. Sometimes a character demands more prominence than the outline gives them. Sometimes characters pay too much attention to something that doesn’t move the story forward. I realise I’m being self-indulgent, and need to bring the story back to the outline.

David Baker (CC/Flickr)

The more I write, the less this happens. Experience has made me better at understanding what makes a good outline and what makes a bad one, which makes me less likely to trip over something I missed. The only way to get that experience was to make mistakes and learn from them. If this is your first time trying this method, it’s you’ll probably find flaws in the outline as you write the draft. The only solution to that is to tackle them as best you can, and you’ll find it’s less likely to happen with the next story.

I make it a rule to explain nothing in the first draft. The tendency is always to explain too much, too soon. It ends up being edited out later, and it distracts from telling the story, which is where my focus needs to be when I’m writing the first draft. When I have a complete draft, I can see where it needs more explanation about how the left-handed widget works or why Johnny was wearing his underwear on his head. It’s always less than I expected, and I can see where to slip it in without it turning into an authorial intrusion.

It’s best not to get too hung up on the details of language use in the first draft. Not that prose doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But there will be time to tidy it up later. Simply use the words you need to tell the story. That demands enough attention in itself. Giving too much attention to the prose is the sort of thing that leads to the story drifting away from the outline when it doesn’t need to. At worst, it can lead to editing a half-finished draft, which is to be avoided because it distracts from the business of telling the story.

In short, just enjoy writing the damn thing.

Finished!

There’s a joy in the act of creation that is writing that first draft, and finishing it is positively euphoric. It’s what being a writer is about: getting something written. Fiction writing is hard work and full of frustrations, so I feel no shame in revelling in that euphoria while it lasts. Before I apply any critical faculties to my story, I can delude myself into believing I’ve written a true masterwork. Unfortunately, some writers get so carried away that they ask for critical comments on their unedited draft.

Don’t.

Just don’t.

Post11_4

Philo Nordlund (CC/Flickr)

It may be that you are a literary genius who is able to produce a brilliant story in one draft. If you are, stop wasting your time reading this and just go write. You have nothing to learn from me or anyone else. For the rest of us, the chances are that the draft is nowhere near as good as we think it is. More to the point, it’s nowhere near as good as we can make it with a bit of editing. It’s deeply frustrating when someone points out flaws you would have corrected yourself if you’d just taken the time to look for them. The best intentioned critical comments burst that bubble of euphoria. That hurts. A lot. I’ve seen friendships broken and writers discouraged into throwing away good drafts because they asked for comments too early in the process.

If you really want praise for that first draft, give it to someone who doesn’t write and values your love and friendship more than your story. Better still, keep it to yourself for now. That story still has a long way to go and when it’s got there, you’re likely to cringe at knowing someone saw the crude version it used to be.

Take a few moments of solipsistic joy. Take a few days if you like. You’ve done the hard part. Then be ready to roll up your sleeves and knock it into something even better.


Exercise:

Select one of the story outlines and write the story. It’s that hard and that simple. Stick to one of them for now. It’s best to be completely focused on one story through the process of drafting and the first round of edits. The others won’t go anywhere in the meantime.

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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