First Drafts Forever

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.”

Taking Notes, Wondering What Happens Next

1

I wrote last month about the first stage of my first serious attempt to revise a first draft. The plan involved reading the draft from top to bottom and taking notes along the way without making any revisions, not at the paragraph, sentence, or word level. (I confess to adding paragraph breaks where they were needed and fixing obvious word choice errors and typos; that’s it.) The point was to see where I was and try to figure out where to go before I start to rewrite.

I’m nearly done (6 pages to go) and starting to suspect that this was probably the easy part.

2

Taking notes is fun. Too fun, perhaps, because the notes are threatening to become the volume of a novel themselves. I’ve been avoiding thinking about what to do when it’s time to read them. I’ll probably end up taking notes about the notes, and then more notes about those, in a never-ending cycle of notes from which I and this manuscript will never emerge. When will I get back to writing?

3

One of the best parts of taking notes is that I get to use my editor brain. I imagine my comments to be those of a great editor, incisive and insightful. I imagine I have ideas that no one else would have, that I can find nuggets of splendour in the pile of rubble that is my first draft. But most of the notes are rambling and wondering and questioning. No great insights, nothing clever or sharp. In fact, the notes are mostly questions.

I can’t stop my writer brain from responding in questions to what my editor brain has to say. It’s eager to please, to have an array of solutions to the problems my editor brain points out, but it doesn’t know the right answer. Neither editor nor writer know the answer yet, because of course that’s not the point. The point at this point is just to ask questions. The answers will come.

4

Being consistent with this practice has been harder than the practice of writing every day. Writing first thing in the morning, especially if you’re not all the way awake, is a special kind of thing. Reading your own work and applying critical thinking skills to it and then taking notes about it is something else. Morning is perhaps not the best time.

It’s strange to think not about forming sentences and paragraphs, but to step back and think about the story. What’s really happening. What should be happening. Does what’s happening make any sense. Instead of focusing on what am I going to write today, I’m thinking how am I going to turn this into a good story.

Many mornings, I give up before I start. When I can’t summon the critical thinking skills, when I have other things to worry about, when I’m at a part of the novel I know will not survive revision. The easiest thing to do with such a mess is to ignore it.

Reading your own writing can be weirdly vulnerable and unnerving. I don’t like being exposed to scrutiny, not even my own. I want to cringe and look away. I get so ashamed of whatever idiot wrote that paragraph or thought up that plot twist a few months ago. Whoever wrote that sentence is clearly full of themselves, braindead, tone-deaf. But it’s useless to think that way. Every morning is practice for standing back and looking full-faced at what is there. Taking it for what it is and dealing with it. Doing it more often can only make it easier, right?

5

I know my story, or what my story might be, so much better now. I think I know what I want to say, but I don’t want to focus on that part. I need to focus not on what I’m saying but on what the characters are doing. What action makes sense? Where are the conflicts and how are they resolved? I think too much about what things mean. I want to focus on the concrete things that happen because of what things mean.

6

Perhaps I’ll do something like Olivia Laing’s serial killer wall or a subway map or some other method that’s probably less effective than it is evidence of an unhealthy obsession with office supplies. Something that makes me feel like a detective with some serious crimes to solve or a tourist with some serious sights to see or my mom with serious errands to run on a Saturday morning.

Before I start rewriting anything, I need to do more work. The notes aren’t enough. I need an outline. Something complicated and layered and scalable, to make sense of this jumble of ideas. I need a frame that can adapt to what I need it to be, that will remain strong enough as I build on top of it, remove pieces beneath it, and replace everything that hangs upon it.

So, index cards. Maybe another spreadsheet first. I’m not trying to do anything innovative with the story structure. The plot isn’t supposed to be complicated. But figuring out the mechanics is something I’ve never been good at, and it’s something I want to do better. I’m trying to follow the rules, but I also want to be able to feel my way through it, the way I’ve always done. It still needs to feel right.

7

I’m trying to remember that none of this writing is really me. It’s just a story, just a bunch of words I put together, and every time I look at it is an opportunity to make it better. But it’s not me that’s getting better; it’s the story getting better.

Every morning is darker than the last, and it’s only going to get worse. I’m trying to imagine how I might deal with index cards on the couch under a blanket on these dark autumnal mornings, with just the floor lamp nearby for light. Maybe it’s time to get beyond the couch. Maybe it’s time to migrate to the dining room table.

Reading, Revising, Rethinking

That draft I’d been working on since June? And trying to finish in August? I wrote the conclusion mere hours before leaving for our trip to Nova Scotia. It ended up at about 64,000 words, 111 pages, with a scene I had not in any way planned to write. But it got done.

Over the last month, I’ve reread the first 44 pages, making notes as I go. I’m not revising or rewriting, not yet. I’ve technically started the revision process but not made any changes other than maybe five words that were so incorrect I couldn’t let them be. But I haven’t been paying attention to the sentence level or the paragraph level, much less the word level. I’m not debating word choices or wondering if the dialogue works. All that will come later, in this master plan I’m creating as I go along.

Revising is like a foggy road

A foggy road in New Brunswick

For now, I’m reading to see what I have and figure out how to make it better. Add a new character, find a stronger motivation for this action, add more action instead of describing what a character thinks and feels. (Show, don’t tell.) I’m trying to see the story with a bit of distance to understand whether it works or not. (It doesn’t, not yet.) And think through the possibilities of how to deal with the problems and simultaneously figure out what the story’s about. All while taking copious notes.

And notes are indeed copious. I have a spreadsheet where the first column is the chapter, the second is the page number, and the third is a brain dump of critiques and ideas relevant to what’s happening on that page. Most of the notes are rambling thoughts about whether some element of a scene works, whether a character’s thought or feeling is convincing, how this part is connected to this other part that I still need to figure out. Most pages have a few rows.

Every time I write a note in a cell that goes beyond what a single row displays, I let the words run on into oblivion. There are many more words in one row than the spreadsheet can easily display. I don’t expand the cell to show the full text of what I’ve written. There’s no wrapping. I let the sentence end where it will. It’s not easy to reread the notes, because I’m not planning to do that for a while.

For the notes that seem the most important, the ones with ideas that appear significant, I put an asterisk in the fourth column, cutting off even more of the text than in the rows above and below. Showing less of my run-on thoughts, hiding them away for the time being, as a way to signal their importance to my future self, who will have to bring it all together and make some sense of it. And to reassure my present self that I don’t have to think about it just yet.

There’s a separate worksheet for notes that aren’t related to anything on a specific page. Overall structure, related plot threads. Research notes, character ideas, themes. Comments that wonder how the pieces fit together. A random collection of the things you’re compelled to put down when you’re trying to will a novel into existence.

The spreadsheet idea is something I heard on a forgotten podcast or blog post or essay. You read the first draft and write down everything you want to change before you start the second draft. That way you get a full picture of what you have and what you have to do. You wait to make decisions about what to change until you have a grasp on the whole, rather than trying to rewrite it from top to bottom or piece by piece. That sounded like solid advice to me, an excellent alternative to the stacks of unreadable comments in a Google doc, so I’m following it.

I wish I could remember where I heard about this so I could thank them. Or maybe I should wait until I know whether it’s actually been useful or not.