Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Challenge of First Drafts

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ~ Terry Pratchett

Some writers gripe and groan about the challenges of first drafts, but I’m the kind of writer who loves them.

They’re messy, unmanageable, unpredictable, often impossible, but I love them all the same.

I love the freedom that a first draft offers a writer.

I love that there are no road signs (because there are no roads).

I love how you can go anywhere, explore any direction, choose a point off in the distance, and, if you’ve got the strength and stamina and time to spare, you can make your way there across the swamps and through the dark forests and over the mountains to a place that feels like home, even though you’ve never been there before.

Of course, that feeling of home may be an illusion. After a day or two you may realize that you need to head off in a different direction, head back over the mountains and through the dark forest and back across the swamp.

I love the chance to get lost and to start over and begin again. Isn’t that the point of first drafts? You get to explore the world of your imagination!

But first drafts come with the fine print that most writers forget to read: exploring unknown territory always comes with risks.

Risks like you don’t always know where you’re heading (even with an outline) or why you need to go there.

Risks like writing on impulse, relying on intuition, hoping your sensations are true and your story will emerge as you probe those feelings and sensations more and more deeply.

In first drafts you have to swing your machete through the tall grass and overhanging leaves to carve a new trail because no trail exists yet.

Sometimes you have to crawl on your knees through caves and belly forward through tunnels in total darkness, barely able to breathe, unable to see the world around you, not wanting to think about the spiders or snakes lurking in the dark.

Writing a first draft can feel like swimming at night without any stars or shore lights to guide you, just your own sense of direction, your intuition of where you need to be, your instinct about which way is up, which way is forward, which way leads to the place where your story is waiting for you.

But I love that sense of adventure and the freedom of creating my own path without anyone else to tell me where I should go.

I love not knowing what comes next.

I love putting down words and sentences, not knowing where the words or sentences come from, hoping to discover the next step in the character’s plot.

I love the sight of blank pages, the smell of empty journals that no one else has ever held before, and I love knowing that I’ll spend the next few days or weeks or months filling those pages with words that didn’t exist until, miraculously, they emerged from my pen.

I love first drafts because of the challenges–the opportunities–that they place in front of us.

A first draft is what helps me prove to myself that I’m a writer, that I can write, that I can stumble through this draft.

Will I have a story when I reach the end?

Maybe, maybe not.

There’s no telling in advance what I’ll find in a first draft.

But I know I’ll have something on paper, something to use as a guide when I begin revising the words, an outline of sorts, a general sense of the direction that the story needs to take.

Last week, after months of work, I finished a first draft. It took months of writing and exploring the unknown to come up with thousands of words, hundreds of pages.

I can’t say that I know what I’ve got on those pages. But when I turn to the first page in a few weeks after giving the draft time to simmer, I hope I’ll like what I see there.

If not, I guess I’ll have to begin again. Only then it won’t be a first draft.

It’ll be my second.

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