First Drafts and the Art of Imperfection

This week I’ve been working on the first chapter of my brand new novel, and I don’t mind telling you, it’s been going spectacularly. And by spectacularly, I mean it’s been a bit of a disaster. You see, I’m a perfectionist. Now I know that sounds like a good thing, perhaps even a bit of a brag. But I assure it’s not. Because as a writer, there are times when perfection is the absolute last thing you want to strive for.

Confused yet? Okay, let me try to make sense of that. Writing a novel—or anything, for that matter—is a process that requires two distinctly different states of mind. (if we’re not counting mania, confusion, or total unworthiness as states of mind) The first is the “just get it all out” state of mind, required to get a fledging novel off the ground. It’s the starting point: messy, undefined, a brain dump of all the ideas swimming around in your noodle. The second state of mind is the “laser-focused” state of mind required to bring a novel to market. It’s the end point: the pretty, the polish, the song, the art. It’s also the dotting of Is and crossing of Ts, the refining of theme and voice and absolute clarity.  “Laser-focused” is how you finish every writing project of your life.

And therein lies the rub.

“Laser-focused” is NOT how we should start a new project. The truth is, there’s nothing I find quite so torturous as making the shift between editing mode and first draft mode. In editing mode I’m focused on details, on the rules of grammar and punctuation, slashing wayward commas, polishing my words like carefully-mined diamonds. Editing mode is my wheelhouse, my holy grail, my mother’s milk! In editing mode there are rules. Clear do and don’ts. Best practices and never-evers. But then I’m done with that bit of art, ready to begin the next one, and I’m just supposed to… wing it???

Yes. I am.

And so is everyone else who wants to write. Because that’s what the process looks like when you don’t know what you’re doing, or where your story’s going. You have to be okay with being OUT OF CONTOL (not my favorite thing AT all) to be willing to just throw up on paper, knowing some of it (okay, most of it) is never going to see the light of day. You also have to understand what a first draft is—and more importantly, what it’s not. It’s NOT a book. It’s NOT art. It’s NOT sacred. It’s a therapy session, an excavation, an exploration of previously uncharted territory. And it’s supposed to be a mess.

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5 Quick & Dirty Tips for Writing a “Throw-Uppy” First Draft:

  1. Know going in that it’s going to suck (yes, suck) and be okay with that. Stop agonizing over word choice, comma placement, to adverb or not to adverb. This is not time time or the place. Keep your hand and your brain moving. Think throwing up on paper.
  2. Keep the words flowing. (even the bad ones) You can’t edit what you haven’t written. But you can spend a ton of time editing words that are never going to make it into the final draft. Get the story out, build the ideas, explore scene options and character traits. That’s what this stage is about; feeling your way to your story with both hands and a flashlight.
  3. A first draft is for your eyes only. Seriously, this draft is about you. Your process, your discovery, your epiphanies. Critique partners and beta readers can provide invaluable insight later in the process, but right now, you don’t need anyone else in your head.
  4. Stop trying to put lipstick on a skeleton. First drafts are about laying down the bones, building a structure for your ideas, a foundation for all the details that will come later. In other words: it’s everything. The pretty will come later.  (I promise)
  5. Muzzle your inner critic and keep writing. This where the rubber meets the road, where you have to ignore everything your 9th grade English teacher or last copy editor has ever told you… and just write. Forget the spelling, the punctuation, the endless searching for the perfect word, and just make a mess. Messy is okay. Messy is part of the process. Messy is GOLD.

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