Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rough drafts

How rough are my rough drafts?

Think harsh sandpaper rough. Not the stuff you use for polishing and prettiness, but the stuff you use for taking the surface off things.

When I write first drafts, my sole aim is to take the surface off everything - my glorious but vaguer than vague daydreams about how the story might work, and all the odd layers of resistance that sit around in my head. I write furiously and rub all of that away, and I see if there's a story underneath.

I don't aim at anything even vaguely approximating perfection. I just aim at creating a big bunch of words that tell a story, even if they're a scruffy bunch of words that need transcribing and spell check and all sorts of prodding and pulling apart and therapy before I let anyone near them. It's far better to have a deeply flawed first draft than not to have one. Judy Blume once talked about being not a writer, but a rewriter, and that's very much me as well. All I'm doing in writing a first draft is creating clay, clay that I can sculpt and play with to my heart's content until a story that sings and makes sense and has every word in the right place finally emerges a long time later. Hopefully.

If you're like me, and you have to write an embarrassingly bad first draft in order to have one at all, the book to read for reassurance and incredibly sage advice is Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. It's a book I go back to over and over again. As Lamott says:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts...

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft - you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft - you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed or even, God help us, healthy.

(Bird by Bird, Anchor Books 1995, pp. 22, 25-26)

For those attempting first drafts right now, I wish you luck and give you lots of chocolate chip cookies to eat along the way (the big fat kind, chewy in the middle, and with extra big chocolate chips).

And you know those first draft things? I just finished one. They do end. Sometimes you just have to take a messy path to get there.


Amanda Hannah said...

Great post, Leila!

Kristin Miller said...

This is a great post! I especially love your comparison to sandpaper. There are so many ways to write a first draft, but I agree that the most important thing is to just GET IT DOWN! :)

Michelle said...

Great post- and congrats on finishing a first draft! If you need a beta, just let me know. :)

Kaitlin Ward said...

Awesome post! And like Michelle said: if you ever need a beta... ;)

Leila Austin said...

You guys will be the first to know when the time for beta-ing comes :-)

Emilia Joyce Plater said...

Late comment, but - I can totally relate to this. Aahh! I sort of view my first draft as a big terrain full of mountains, one that's hard to walk around in. Getting to the second draft means me going in with a big baker's roller and flattening all the mountains into hills. Then the hills eventually get flattened into a beautiful pasture that is totally easy to walk around and frolic in - aka, read without wincing. I'm not there yet, but... someday soon! :D

Leila Austin said...

I like that analogy. Transcribing at the moment, but I'm totally about to begin the baker's roller stage.

I have some big hills to flatten, so I'm a bit intimidated. I'm really looking forward to it all the same though. All my topsy turvy ramblingness will become a thing of beauty, dammit. Even if it kills me :-P