Facing The First Draft

A friend of mine once said, “The blank page is the mind unspoken.”

While said with his typical, but lovable, pomposity, I believe this holds true, whether for a physical page or a blank word document with its cursor blinking at you, telling you it is time to write.

But, what to write?

The first word of a first draft is often the hardest word to write.  It is this choice of word which is going to introduce the story, to put into written form the vividness rattling inside your imagination.

Much has been written of the ‘terrible first draft,’ and its other more colorful titles.  While I think there is something to be said about allowing yourself to write badly, I also believe it can simplify what is a complex and diverse process.  There are days the first draft will be like coasting downhill on a bike, the wind behind you, while other days are like trying to push yourself up the other side with a flat tire and a torrent of wind pushing against you.

Everyone has their own style and pace for writing, but I think all writers vacillate between these three modes: 1. The Athena Mode, 2. The Brick Wall Mode, and 3. The Trial Mode.

The Athena Mode

In Greek Mythology, the Goddess Athena grows directly out of Zeus’ head, rather as a spontaneous growth.  While I would rather not learn I had grown from my father’s skull, it is an image symbolic of transferring knowledge directly.

Have you met my daughter? She grew out of my head!

This is the style of first drafts all writers want.  The words flow smoothly, transferring directly from the mind to the page, filling it with waxing and waning prose and spectacular description.  This mode feels good, feels right.  The inner muse is flaring, and though you need to eat, use the bathroom, go to work or bed, your fingers just cannot stop.  We just need one more word, which becomes another sentence, another paragraph, another page.

Then, once you finally break away, you see the magnificent and smooth fruits of your labor, a nearly fully-formed set of ideas and words flowing into what will be a story of magnificence.

I often think of this as similar to a blacksmith pounding at metal while the iron is still hot and malleable, trying to get everything I can out while the ideas and words are flowing.  I do this because I know the next stage of drafting is coming.

The Brick Wall Mode

Otherwise known as the “I’m going to keep pounding my head against this wall until it breaks draft.”

NaNoWriMo was built to help people break through this brick wall.

This is often similar to the coyote and roadrunner cartoons from Looney Toons.

At this point, the story has become the Roadrunner, running clever circles around you, thwarting your various traps and tricks to capture it and place it on the page.  Once you nearly have a grasp, it slips away, taunting you.

Just as Wile E. Coyote tenaciously tries plan after plan, even when things literally blow up in his face, we as writers must keep persevering and keep trying.

Here is where the terrible first draft is a great tool.  Allowing ourselves those mistakes and failures will allow us to learn and work around problems.

When I am in this phase I often will place brackets with notes of what to fix later.

For example:

Their eyes met.  He said, [something unexpectedly rude but meant as a compliment].

She punched him in the gut before stomping away.

He hoped to meet her again.

[Is this scene working?  Maybe I need to change the setting?]

These brackets work great as place-holders, allowing me to move on and hopefully to return to the Athena Mode, or at least move onto the Trial Mode.

The Trial Mode

This is actually the most common mode for me to write in.  The words are flowing reasonably well, but I still have some snags or problems.  This is the routine, lets just keep going mode.  While it lacks the fire of Athena Mode, it also lacks the frustration of Brick Wall Mode.

In Trial Mode, allow myself to try things.  Whenever writing there are always a thousand choices and forks in the road to explore.  In Athena Mode, the way is clear and lighted.  The choices are obvious.  In Trial Mode, there are multiple good choices, but it is time to try the best one.

Which way do I go? Both could be awesome!

It can be time consuming, and similar to my first play-through of Final Fantasy XII, where I decided to explore all the edges of the maps of each vast area before moving on with the story.  However, it can be rewarding as well.

It is similar to exploring a cave.  You go down one tunnel, the end unseen sometimes, until you reach a near dead end, decide it is going to be too long, or decide this is the right way.  If you have gone down a good path, you will see light at the far end or smell fresh air.  The path between you and that light might be a bit bumpy, but it is visible.  Once that light is found, it is easier to return to Athena mode.  On the downside, sometimes you have to turn back and choose a different mode.

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Addendum

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When I think of first drafts, I often think of an introduction I read to a Neil Simon play.  Simon, who wrote the Odd Couple and countless other great plays, would sit during rehearsal with several legal pads next to him.  One would be the current play being rehearsed, another would be a play being prepared for production, another would be a play he had been working on for years and he would take a stab at now and then, and the last was a new idea that was flooding quickly out of his mind.

If Neil Simon can have that many projects and modes at once, I think we can have as many First Drafts and First Draft Modes as we need.

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What are your modes for a first draft?  Does it depend on what story you are writing?  Do pancakes help you with your writing?  What kind of brick wall do you find the softest on your head when pounding against it?

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6 thoughts on “Facing The First Draft

    • I too find starting in the middle is a great way around writer’s block. It takes a lot of pressure of and gets the creativity flowing.
      I am sure structure is especially important for non-fiction. For my next few projects, I am going to try to do more structural work before drafting and see if that speeds up the overall process.

  1. Like Matthew, I use a lot of planning. If I have an outline, I can’t write myself into a corner. if i do write a scene into a corner, I can always stop, leave it to come back to later, and jump to my next outline point and continue on my merry way.
    This year will be my first time doing NaNo and I’m hoping this process will work out in the time crunch.

    • All of my completed works so far have been a mixture of outlining and spontaneity. I think it is important to have a solid outline, but I think it is also important to have a little wiggle/adaptation room for fresh ideas and changes along the way.

  2. I usually go with the trial method. But I’m finding that the method depends on the story. Since I’m writing a novel from the perspectives of three people, I had to do what I don’t normally do–plan ahead. Yet there’s still room for spontaneity.

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