I’m beginning to think I might write first drafts for the rest of time. When I last checked in about my writing, I was just about ready to begin revising. That was last October. I spent November putting 25,000 words into a second draft, and then I read The Westing Game and My Sister, the Serial Killer and How Fiction Works and realized that I wanted to try something else.
So I started again. Another first draft. (Hm, does this sound familiar yet?) A fresh take on the central idea I’ve been working on for my last several first drafts. And I’ve been working on that for months now, since December. I’m nearly 80,000 words in and still going, not quite sure how to finish. One day I’ll call it done, and — then what’ll I do?
For a while it felt ridiculous that, after all the build-up to the second draft, I started something new. And I wondered if I’d ever get to the next stage. But then I read Joseph Scapellato wondering what a draft is anyway.
“Every writer is going to have their own approach (or set of approaches) to the question of what constitutes a draft. These approaches might change with every phase of every project; the way that you wander through your first draft could be quite different from the way that you wander through your final. The hope, of course, is that your conception of drafting, whatever it is, can serve as a perch — a perception-changing post, slightly above the page, from which you’re better able to see your work and your process in a useful way.”
I considered my progress over the last two years or so as work on several separate first drafts, new project after new project that never got done, but maybe I can think of them as several successive drafts of the same work. The stories all have a similar context, a few characters in common here and there. Each draft is a new experiment, a way of playing with different types and forms of relationships, different configurations and perspectives and voices. Perhaps they’ve each been a way of finding my way to whatever it is I’m trying to write about. So maybe I shouldn’t think of the latest draft as its own thing. Maybe it’s really the fifth or sixth iteration of what all along has been the same novel.
“A draft is a single step. Your steps — how they look, what they do, how you take them — don’t have to be like anybody else’s. They don’t have to be beautiful or memorable or brave. They can be awful or ridiculous. They can even be unsure. But they have to help you trick yourself into spending the time and doing the work. And you have to take them, all of them, one by one.”
I also like the idea of approaching each draft as if it’s the first, no matter how many have come before. The tiniest thing can result in the biggest changes. All the first drafts I’ve worked on have influenced this one. Not just the ones that have a little bit in common with what I’m working on now. Every draft is the first one, and the multiple novels I’ve been drafting are really just one novel. Can I have it both ways?
In the end it’s as Scapellato says — the important thing is the tenacity to keep working on it, keep putting in the time, keep putting down more words. “The secret ingredient,” he writes, “if there is one, is the willingness to spend what time you’ve got.”