Some writers love the first draft stage. All that blank paper (or computer screen) to play with! Who knows who will turn up, or what will happen? Other writers (like me) prefer the editing stages, when the blank screen is not so intimidating and there is actually a draft, no matter how terrible, to edit.
But getting down to the first draft can be daunting. Many writers have rituals before they start—sharpening pencils, for example, or reading from a particular work (Flannery O’Connor used to read a passage from the Bible). Rituals are a way of summoning the muse, of preparing the ground so that we can enter the mild trance state that produces our best writing. (If you’re curious, there are many more examples of famous writers’ rituals.)
But let’s say you’ve got your butt in the chair and the morning ahead of you. Where do you start? And how do you keep going?
I offer you two words to keep in mind: 1. Vomit. 2. Surrender.
The first rule is simply to write and keep writing—no matter how terrible you think it is. Do not wait until you “feel” like writing, or are “inspired.” These times will be rare (it would be much easier if they weren’t!) Writing is a craft, and you need to show up and practise it. As the American fiction writer Karen Russell says, “Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.”
Do not give up because you don’t know where the story is going, or because of your own fears about the writing. Russell says, “I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going.” She adds: “I think it’s bad so much of the time.”
Think of yourself as a miner mining ore. Much of what you mine will be what miners call “overburden” – the stones and dirt that contain the gold. But hidden among the overburden will be the precious ore of your novel (or short story or memoir). You just can’t see it yet. So keep the faith, and keep vomiting!
“The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare,” Russell says. “But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy to despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly.”
An instructor of mine used to say, “The first draft is where the characters get together and tell the author what the story is about.” The most important thing you can learn is to surrender to this process. Don’t try and will the story into being. If you try and control events, the characters are likely to lie down and die, and may refuse to ever get up again. Like actual humans, they want free will! Accept that the beginning of your story may seem very fragmentary, but that illumination is granted in tiny increments along the way.
I should add that I didn’t always trust this fragmentary process. When I was first starting out as a writer, I often rejected these impulses because I felt they weren’t enough. I wanted a story to arrive whole! I believed that, if I was a “real” writer, that’s what would happen. The fact is, for me at least, it’s rare—very rare—that they do.
Surrendering is counter-intuitive in our culture, which emphasizes goals, direction, and being in control. But the more you can surrender at this stage, the more you can relax into that place authentic writing comes from. You might even learn to enjoy it!
The secret life of the story
The novelist Jack Hodgins talks about “the secret life of the story.” For example, you may find yourself describing a room with a blue lamp in it. You have no idea, at this early stage, why there’s a blue lamp. It’s only after several drafts that you discover that the blue lamp is, in fact, a key symbol or event in the plot, something your subconscious knew long before you did.
So let the secret life of the story emerge, and trust that something larger than you is helping guide the process. The more “rational” stage of editing comes later. If it helps you to have an outline, by all means write one, but don’t be wedded to it. Let the story, and the characters, surprise you. Let the unpredictable happen. And when you’ve put in the writing time, hang up your pick and your miner’s headlamp and allow the subconscious to go to work.
P.S. I’ve had a couple of suggestions for topics from readers, which I’ll discuss in the New Year. If you have one or two of your own, don’t hesitate to let me know at email@example.com.
And if you have a manuscript you’d like me to look at, please send it along to the same address (see the Writer-in-Residence page for guidelines).
Best of the season to everyone, and make vomiting and surrendering your New Year’s resolutions!
Next blog post (Dec. 16): Editing the first draft