Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Survivable first drafts

I was recently asked some questions about writing first drafts. Ah, first drafts, what with their delights and terrors, their agonies and ecstasies, their hard-bracketed reminders to [insert plot] or [perhaps a monster?] or [ffs, make this sound like actual dialogue]. But first drafts, are supposed to be shitty, right? We've talked about this before - the draft zero is just about getting enough stuff down on the page that you can go back and figure out what the story is really about, and then clean it up and make it shiny.

But how much is enough? What is the difference between survivably bad first draft, and one so catastrophically horrid that you are unable to continue writing?

Well, like just about every part of the craft of writing, this is going to be one of those answers that varies from writer to writer, and even from project to project. The short answer is, a first draft is too bad when the holes in it are either so big or so annoying that you are unable to continue writing. For example, I actually can't leave hard brackets to fill in later. I will write a fake title, or a bad scene, or rubbish dialogue that's the bare minimum of good enough to move the plot forward, and then tag it to fix, but I am unable to write the next scene if all I have is [she does not get eaten by eels at this time.] I need to know at least a little bit of how things happen, not just what things happen, in order to figure out what comes next. But I know plenty of writers for whom brackets are a fine placeholder.

Do I stop to research when I draft? Well, I love research. Love it, love it, love it. (When I wrote my dissertation, it took three years. The entire first year was wholly given over to research.) But my love of research means a lot of the things I like writing about are things I've been looking into on my own for years. So sometimes I have enough knowledge in the corners of my brain to just write, but other times I don't. When I don't, I research before I write, because I want to have a good idea of all the possibilities in a topic before writing with it. Knowing what I'm working with gives me a bigger page to write on.

Do I let myself care about things like sentence level craft? The thing is, I have the ability to construct a competent (generally readable and grammatically correct, if not quite lapidary Jamesian prose) sentence without having to think about it. In the places where I goof that, whether through mistyping or carelessness, I figure I'll catch it on the revision. And if I don't, that's what a copy edit is for. (This is also why I specifically tell my beta readers not to read for things like spelling and grammar. I would rather they tell me that a paragraph doesn't advance the plot, instead of telling me there's a comma splice in the middle of it.)

But if it's sentence level craft that concerns word choice, or character voice, things change. This tends to be one of those things I don't notice as much at the beginning of a draft, when I'm still getting my feet under me. But by the end, when I know the characters, and know the voice of the story, and of the world, then I do notice, and it does stop me. I need to get it reasonably close to right before I can move on.

Which brings me to the most important of the questions I was asked - is ignoring any of these things a recipe for failure? I'll respond by asking again: can you continue writing if you ignore them? "You" is the important word in that sentence, because your writing process doesn't need to look like my writing process to be a success. Some writers excel at turning of the internal editor, some perfect every sentence before committing it to the page, even in the first draft. Most fall somewhere in between the two. A finished draft, no matter how ugly, is not a failure.

1 comment:

  1. "A finished draft, no matter how ugly, is not a failure."

    Thank you. I am writing that on a post-it now.

    I've figured out (for me) that getting through a scene, even if it's not perfect, is what's important. Until this current WIP, I didn't use bracket notes. Now? I need them. Funny, how process evolves...