Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Dreaded First Draft

Q - What stage in your writing process causes the most angst? Drafting, revising, plotting...?

A - The first draft.

There is nothing so wretched, for me, than a blank page. I look at it and think, Why would any reader care about my self-indulgent exploration of some person who isn't even real? That doubt paralyses me, keeps the concepts I'd like to explore inside my head instead of letting my fingers help them travel to the page.

The book I'm working on now, a standalone thriller, or maybe it's sci-fi, or maybe it's just literary women's fiction, took so long in first draft mode that I did abandon it. I figured if a first draft hadn't emerged in two years, I could probably spend my free time on other things, like trying to tame my wild backyard garden, or the local environmental volunteer work I'm doing, or Skyping with my 2-year-old nephew where we pretend to be sharks and crocodiles and electric eels. You know, activities that give me something back.

But when I closed the page on the women's sci-fi thriller and opened a new blank document, the same characters peopled the new pages. I couldn't let the story go, so I knew I had to write it.

I had about thirty thousand words toward a first draft at the time. I decided that editing crap is easier than generating brilliance, so my single mission became to hammer out a first draft.

Forget about quality, I told myself. Just write any old thing from anywhere in the story. Write backstory that doesn't even have a fighting chance of making it into the final draft. Overwrite emotions, just spew them through the keyboard in their unpolished, unpublishable raw form.

After two months, thirty thousand words became a hundred thousand. I had a first draft. A crappy one that didn't have a solid plot thread, but I didn't care. I still don't.

Why? Because the part I hate is over. I now have about ten thousand words I like, ninety thousand words that I'm pretty sure will see the delete key in their turn, and a project that feels like I will finish it.


RJ Harlick said...

Robin, I so can relate....and that's exactly where I am at the moment too, leeching out that first draft in spurts and lurches.

Dana King said...

I feel the same way about first drafts. I think that's why I outline, and re-read and touch up yesterday's work before beginning anew, so I have some idea of where to start each day.

Paul D. Marks said...

I like your method, Robin. Just let it flow!

Susan C Shea said...

Funny, I'm in the same place with a novel that's outside my series, and probably outside the genre. What got me into trouble was writing a few isolated scenes out of order, experimenting with a POV. Trying to fit them into the original 20K made things so messy. Sure, I had 40K words but what a mess. I just decided to go back to the solid 20K and start fresh from there. Goodbye words, you were killing me!

Good column and it makes me feel better about letting words go.

Meredith Cole said...

When I'm writing my first draft, I wish I were in methodical, structural editing mode. And when I'm editing, I wish I were in crazy creative first draft mode... There's something very satisfying (and frustrating) about every phase of writing for me.

Barry Knister said...

Rough drafts are never easy, but they're a lot easier in the age of word processors. I should know: my first rough drafts were written on a manual typewriter that looked a lot like a car battery. Still, they're hard, but I comfort myself with something I read a while ago: "All first drafts are perfect, because all they have to do is exist."