First Drafts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

First drafts are beasts unlike any other—wild and beautiful and unpredictable.  For me, they present the single biggest challenge of writing, but also it’s greatest joy. They can be a downright mess at times, suddenly vicious at others. But as a writer nothing will ever make you feel more alive, closer to the passion that drives you to create in the first place than being in the midst of all that muck.

First drafts can make your heart soar and your pulse race.  Of course, that will often be because you are scared out of your wits.

First there’s the terror of confronting the blank page.   And the inevitable worries that loom large: “am I going to be able to do this again?” and “when I do will it be any good?”  I’m sure the severity of these concerns varies considerably from writer to writer, but I find it hard to believe that any novelist escapes them entirely.

Instead, a writer must learn to live with these doubts, corralling them into a closet or pushing then under the bed.  They must be scolded into silence.

Because to begin any new book, you must first believe that finishing it will be possible.  That your various storylines will knit together as you’d hoped, that your characters’ motivations will resonate in the way you had expected they would.  That it will all make sense.

As a novelist (at least one that doesn’t outline) you must have a blind and abiding faith in the insanity of the process.  You must not only accept, but embrace that you will have no idea where you are going until you realize all at once that you have arrived at your destination.

And you must know that there will be so much disappointment along the way.  There is the inevitable head to hand degradation for one.  That the book in your head is always, always, always so much less elegant, so much farther from perfect than the book that ends up spilling out onto the page.  In fact, the one that comes out onto the page at first is often, well, pretty darn crappy.

Still, there is nothing like the magic of reading back over the pages and pages that you sometimes drafted in such a rush and finding that you cannot recall writing half of it.   And there will be those pages, and paragraphs and lines that you wish you could disclaim, pretend that someone else is responsible for their unmitigated clunkiness.

But then, there will be that turn of phrase that you are proud to have written, and better yet, the solution to an entire plot problem that your unconscious slipped in between chapters.  The one that seems to have just been waiting for you to come back and discover it all along.

First drafts are where the heavy lifting gets done and that is exhausting and frustrating and even frightful at times.  But first drafts are also where the biggest thrills lie, reminding you each time of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place: because, against all odds, you believe in magic.