The First Draft
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When you are writing a first draft of anything…a novel, a play, a manual, a grocery store list, take the advice of Satchel Paige.
“Don’t look back.”
Don’t read over what you’ve written before when you begin your day’s work. Don’t fix any sentences. Don’t stop and go research to fill in a blank that you do not have the immediate answer for. Make it up and fix it later.
Don’t think about anything other than putting what is inside your head onto the page/computer screen.
Of course the first draft is the hardest. That’s why a lot of people stop working after they’ve finished it.
The first draft is the thing that we dream of. We believe that once we have a full chunk of pages, we will have a book. Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.
But alas, the first draft is an end that serves as the beginning of another craft. Editing. And editing is not re-writing. Editing is a process that gives you the work orders for your re-write. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I cannot overemphasize how important it is NOT TO RE-WRITE your first draft. Until you reach its final two words…THE END.
There are a million reasons why you shouldn’t re-write your first draft before you’ve finished it and created a coherent editorial revision plan. Here are a bunch of them:
- If you start re-writing before you have a finished draft, you’ll start “falling in love.” This means that once you re-write, you’ll invariably come up with something great. Something that you will never want to cut. This is a recipe for disaster. Once you are afraid to cut something that isn’t working, you’re sunk. You’ll have a bunch of great sentences that do not add up to anything. Worse, you’ll get so deeply involved in “building” sentences and paragraphs that you’ll lose sight of the big picture. Fast. You won’t be able to come back. Trust me.
- If you start re-writing, you will despair. The reason is obvious. The first draft of anything, until you’ve written 10,000 stories, is usually complete shit. That’s just the definition of a first draft. If you despair, you will not finish the draft. Simple logic.
- If you start re-writing, you’ll do anything in you power to run away from your desk. This is because re-writing requires minutes if not hours of labor on a single sentence, sometimes a single word. If you do not have all of your story elements locked, you are wasting your time trying to find the bon mot. You will probably write some great stuff, but that great stuff will probably not have anything to do with your global story. Trust me. It just won’t. It will be tangentially related, but not directly related. You will then go off following lines of thought and reasoning that make sense in the context of the smaller sentence/paragraph/chapter structure and lose the long thread. Which will keep you from finishing the first draft.
So if you are not supposed to re-write or edit your first draft and you are just supposed to plow through until the end, how do you do that?
This is a million dollar question. Probably a ten million dollar question. The reason why this is such a difficult thing to answer is that it depends upon the writer. It’s completely subjective. Some writers start writing their first draft from page one and follow the voices in their heads until the end of the story.
I find that impossible to comprehend because I could never do that. I have a problem “letting myself go.” I have a problem allowing myself to “play.” There are a myriad of psychological reasons why I have these characteristics and I probably could write a bunch of great novels about them if I have the discipline to do so, but the important thing is that I recognize my limitations.
I panic when someone says to me “relax, go with the flow.” I used to punish myself because I was so uptight, but now I understand that I’m just not that sort of cat. I’m a mixed up cat that needs to plan obsessively as a way to provide myself with a structure, or a road map to get to the finish line.
The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know is the result of 22 years of editing and writing. It’s taken me that long to figure out how to put all of my experience down on paper. The way I did it may not be the way you’ll write your first draft, but I’ll tell you how I did it in case it helps you figure out the way to do it for yourself.
Here’s what I did to write a first draft.
- I created an outline.
- I didn’t go too deep into describing each step in the outline. Instead, I came up with single CHAPTER TITLES that would give me narrative focus. From these simple notes (Genres have Conventions) I knew the beginning, middle and end of each chapter just by the title.
- Once I had a list of chapter titles, I put them into groups. These would become the Eight Parts of the final book. Each Part ended up having between 6 to 12 chapters.
- After I had the Parts with Chapters road map, I made a pact with myself that I would not do any other work on any particular work day, no matter how pressing or urgent, until I tackled one of the chapters. I did not set a word limit on what I needed to accomplish. Because word limits don’t really mean anything. Once you start writing based upon an idea that gives you a goose, you’ll know when you’ve finished riffing.
- I pledged to myself that however many words or however lackluster the prose, I had to stop once I sensed I’d covered the subject.
- The next day, I did not look at anything I’d written the day before. I merely scrolled all the way to the bottom of the manuscript, hit INSERT PAGE BREAK, and then wrote that day’s title headline centered on the page and started anew.
- I did not go back to fix anything (okay I did when I first began and blew out five or six times before I learned my lesson) until I had written something for each of the 70 chapters of my eight part book.
I finished my first draft of The Story Grid about two and a half years ago. I’ve been chiseling away at it ever since.
But if I’d never finished that first draft…
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