It’s time to show that rough draft who’s boss
I can’t be the only writer this happens to
The project you’re working on might be your first, or your forty-first novel. You may have a detailed outline, even a scene-by-scene breakdown. Or maybe you’re just letting the idea that seized hold of you some months ago (okay, or years ago) unfold as you go.
In either case, you’ve banged out the opening, hiked up the mountain of conflict, thrown obstacles in the path of your main character with wicked abandon. As you write you make unforeseen discoveries. New characters appear! Themes you hadn’t planned on emerge! You keep getting new ideas. What if this happened? Or that?
It’s heady and exciting, climbing those dramatic heights. You’ve crafted more cliffhangers than all 20 episodes of The Perils of Pauline. Sooner or later, they’ll wrap themselves up. Won’t they?
I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they’d like to have. I wanted the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me so I can just focus on the second, third and fourth drafts.Judy Blume
But the summit keeps receding as you climb
Just when you think you’re getting somewhere, you find yourself stuck on a swampy plateau. Your plot, once a clear and rushing river, has muddied, its tributaries spreading in random directions. Your themes, once firm pillars of your story, seep into the morass. Your characters meander around, getting into repetitive arguments.
So you try another what-if. And then another. Your word count metastisizes as you bash away at your keyboard. You’re three-quarters of the way through, or maybe seven-eighths, but you’re stuck. The adventure has become a slog.
You keep reminding yourself that it’s only a rough draft. But it feels like it’s taking forever. When will it find The End?
“Writing — I can really only speak to writing here — always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.”David Rakoff
This is where I am with my current first draft
As with so much else in life, the first step is admitting that I have a problem.
My problem is that I want my draft to be good.
I know better, of course I do. Look at all the wise advice from authors I’m including here, and there’s plenty more where that came from. I’ve participated in (and “won”) four NaNoWriMo projects, each one in which I’ve produced over 50,000 words of a first-draft novel inside of a month. Two of those projects have become polished manuscripts. One landed me an agent. So I know the value of getting those words down, plunging forward without a backward glance, understanding that everything I write is raw material. I’m not polishing a porcelain bowl here; I’m making the clay.
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later, I can build castles.”Shannon Hale
Another benefit of blasting through to the end of a first draft is that it keeps the story sustainable and alive. If you give yourself a shorter rope, it’s harder to hang yourself. Moreover, it negates one argument from your inner critic, the one that you’re wasting time.
As it happens, I did write the first 50,000 words of my current project this past November. Then I tossed them all out. It was the first time I’d written any new fiction since the beginning of the pandemic, so I’m okay with that. I take it as an article of faith that no writing is wasted. But nor is it all for public consumption.
Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It’s like passing around samples of sputum.Vladimir Nabokov
I started fresh this spring, this time with an outline
I bashed along merrily, sharing chapters with my writing group when I felt they were ready, making steady progress. My writing group liked the work. I felt encouraged.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”Terry Pratchett
Meanwhile, life happened: two sisters confronting serious health issues; giving up my day job; moving out of state; reconstituting a home. There were lapses in my drafting, some of them long enough that I lost the thread of the story. I didn’t have a definite deadline, after all, and there was a lot going on.
Worse, I allowed myself to be led astray by my initial success. I wanted more encouragement. I worried about making mistakes. Instead of dancing on the page like no one was watching, I kept checking the mirror. Self-conscious, I couldn’t simply tell myself the story.
So here’s what I’m doing about it
I’m setting myself a deadline. It’s not a gentle one. I know where I am in the story: right before the climactic scene, and from there the resolution will be swift. It has to be. I’m giving myself four more days.
That might sound crazy, but I know from experience that deadlines have magic. The final chapters may end up as a raging dumpster fire, but I am going to get to closure even if I blister my fingers on the keyboard.
As for my inner critic, I’m not giving myself time to listen to it.
“The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.”Ray Bradbury
Most importantly, while I endeavor to tell myself a story that touches my heart in the most useful words I can find at the moment, I will leap over the trap of trying to make it good. For now, it just has to be.
“Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.”Jane Smiley
I know the saying: if you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. But I’m declaring my intention for all the world (or whoever reads this) to see. Good, bad, or incoherent, I’m taking this story to The End.
Wish me luck — and may all your endings be happy.