See Stage One, Intention: here.
See Stage Two, Incubation: here.
See Stage Three, Investigation: here
Stage FOUR: COMPOSITION (Drafting)
A great piece of writing is perfectly intermeshed concoction of illusions. And the primary illusion is one of ease. When we read a beautifully constructed book with pleasure and admiration, we are dazzled. We wonder how it can be so good.
We give no thought to how the writer for a year or more (often many more), sat day after day, working. We disregard the drafting, errors and false starts, self-doubt, suggestions and corrections from editors and agents and other readers. Not to mention all the other projects that died but fed into this one: the manuscripts in drawers, the learning, the writerly reading, the patience, the study, the practice, the apprenticeship.
Good writing is fed by bursts of inspiration but equally by slow, steady, painstaking work. The pace of creation is generally slower than we, as writers, want it to be and the more ambitious the creation, the slower the pace.
Add to that the challenge that few of us know what we are doing until we've done it. Your conscious mind has some idea about what it is trying to create but as we discussed in Part One, our minds operate at three levels, much of which is obscured or denied. I am currently, in 2011, editing my first novel - which was published in 2006 - for a US audience. Rereading it, I can see themes and ideas of which I was entirely unconscious while writing.
This is the whole point of the first draft. It has been called the ‘down draft’ -- you just get it down to see what’s there. (The second draft is the ‘up draft’, where you get to tidy it all up.)
COMPOSITION. THE CHALLENGE: To get down a legible first draft that has a beginning, middle and end, establishing for the writer what the work is about.
In the first three stages of the creative process, intention, incubation and investigation, the emphasis is on the unconscious (deep and beyond) mind. During this phase, and from here on in, the conscious (surface) mind plays a more central role.
The two key activities of the writer in this phase are:
- To provide a consistent, reliable structure through which inner and outer challenges can be met and first draft completed.
- To keep this structure open and fluid enough to allow digression, playfulness, originality, individuality; artistry and inspiration.
Structure for drafting a book is both personal and literary. Personal Structure is about structuring yourself, as it were -- your time, space and attitude of mind.
Literary Structure in this context is less about the shape of the work - which often doesn’t emerge until the first draft is written and will be covered in Amplification, the next stage of the process - and more about having methods that allow the draft to emerge with ease.
In order to write the first draft of a book, you need plenty of time and space. Drafting works best is if it is done in the same place and time each day. No, you don’t have to wait until you have the perfect study, the time off work, the kids are old enough to start school… These are excuses.
No day is so busy that you can’t fit in a bit of writing. No life is so cluttered that you can’t find a space for paper and pen: the public library, the local coffee shop, the kitchen table...
Wonderful books have been written on the commute to work, in mental institutions, in busy drawing rooms and everywhere a writer has switched out of the outer world into the inner world of their book.
TRY THIS: Find your space -- anything from a bag that you will bring to the library every day to a dedicated room. Mark it out as belonging to you and your first draft. Fill it with little things that you love: postcards, shells, stones, flowers, meaningful quotes, fine pen, filing spaces… whatever makes you feel good about it.
TRY THIS: Find a time that you will be able to work on the book consistently each day. Or, if you’re schedule is so erratic that this is not truly not possible, timetable your week each Monday, filling in the time each and every day (six days in that week) that you will draft.
TRY THIS: Acknowledge the work by enjoying your downtime. Drafting a book is hard work, and drafting your first book is probably the hardest work you’ll ever do. As you timetable your activity, give yourself plenty of time ‘off’, daily, weekly and holiday breaks.
The key to writing a first draft with ease is never to sit down at the computer or notebook without knowing what you are going to be writing about during that particular session. What ensures this is good, relevant notes.
Notes are generated by germination and investigation. These two phases of the process are not something that stop, now you’re drafting. Throughout this phase, continue to use any exercise from the previous two stages of the creative process that generate good notes.
Regularly do F-R-E-E-Writing and Mind-mapping around the content you are bringing forth.
Use the time while doing other mindless tasks during your day to focus in on your writing and think about what you will write during your next drafting session later that day or tomorrow.
OPENING THROUGH STRUCTURE
“I don’t believe the writer should know too much where he’s going. If he does, he runs into old man blueprint.” James Thurber.
You have a destination, where you intend the story to go, then you follow as it runs away from you. That is the border along which a writer walks while doing a first draft.
You have a structure and you remain open.
Like a zen meditator, sitting zazen - legs crossed, spine straight, eyes closed, hands held thus - it is the physical containment, discipline and structure that allows mental freedom to flourish.
This is where the Shitty First Draft (SFD) comes in.
Nobody has written about this better than Annie Lamott. You can find her famous hymn to what she called ‘shitty first drafts’ in her book of essays: Bird by Bird: Some Essays on Writing and Life.
“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her… For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
“The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?’, you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go -- but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”
A first draft is almost always much longer than it needs to be. Often twice or three times as long as it needs to be. There will be a self-indulgent bits, irrelevant bits, boring bits, overwritten bits, incoherent, hideously squirm-inducing bits, unnecessarily specific bits… They can be cut in the next draft.
It’s a common dread among writers that they will be in a fatal accident before they get to fix up their SFDs. “I'd worry that [after creaming the car] people would read what I'd written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide,” says Lamott. “That I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.”
TRY THIS: Begin. Anywhere. Go from there. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.
TRY THIS: Disconnect the internet and phone, press the off button on the TV and radio and take an hour, or two hours, or 20 minutes or whatever time you can afford each day, six days a week, for the next year – or however long it takes – and write down a shitty first draft.
Good structure, personal and literary, is the surest protection against the inner and outer critics that stalk every writer’s life and threaten to derail our process.
Again, Lamott is brilliant on this:
“What I've learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there's the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, "Well, that's not very interesting, is it?" And there's the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes.
And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there's William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on.
And there are also the dogs: let's not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained.”
TRY THIS: “Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won't do what they want – won't give them more money, won't be more successful, won't see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.”
A structure that is capacious and flexible enough will allow us to, as Henry Miller put it, “invent, distort, deform, lie, inflate, exaggerate, confound and confuse,” while all the time having “faith in the man who is writing, who is myself, the writer.”