When I sit down to write a new book, I have general ideas—plot lines, character sketches, themes I’m interested in exploring, usually an ending in mind. But I don’t check daily to be sure what’s ending up on paper hews to this initial vision. In fact, I have no idea because I never look back at all. Instead, I keep my eyes locked on the horizon: a finished first draft.
On the plus side, this method allows you to just keep going, onward and upward. Each day you have the satisfying sensation of a job well done as your word count swells. In fact, with this tried and true fugitive-on-the-run approach to book writing, you can have what is a very respectable, book length draft written within a matter of a few short months.
Ah, but—and here’s the rub—that book is going to be really bad. The kind of thing you would never let anyone read because there are whole parts that don’t even make sense—like grocery store shopping lists, and whole chunks written in verse. Okay, maybe not that bad. But close.
And that’s okay. Really, it is. As long as you don’t panic—and do something like hit select-all-delete—and you do get straight to revising. My first round of revisions is deep and wide—vast swaths of text are cut (some seemingly from whole different books) and characters removed wholesale (including the occasional one that appears on page five and then, inexplicably, never again). And then there are the additions: transitional sentences or paragraphs, sometimes even whole chapters, that seem inadvertently omitted.
Another writer suggested to me recently that what I was describing as a second draft, she considered an extension of the first. Perhaps. In which case, my first drafts aren’t actually that rough at all.
Regardless, I am a different writer once I have four hundred pages or so strung together. I feel much braver and more competent once my word count soars above 100,000. That’s when I can finally take a deep breath, roll up my sleeves and really get to work. Plus, my very rough first drafts do allow me endless flexibility. Because I have not labored over making the pages pretty or well-behaved, I am much more willing to, “kill my darlings.” After all, none of them are really very cute yet anyway.
Whatever your own circuitous route to a completed, polished manuscript, there will surely be time that feels poorly spent. It will be in the days spent drafting an outline no one ever sees or the time devoted to revising pages that ended up on the cutting room floor or perhaps in the thousands of words written about a character whose name you can no longer even remember.
But fear not. None of that is really time wasted. These are not useless detours. Those hidden moments are actually the invisible glue that binds your polished final pages. In a myriad of essential ways, they are your story. Even if you are the only one who ever reads them.