Thursday, October 6, 2011

That strange creature, the first draft

Every time I start a new writing project, I am struck all over again by how different it is from revision. About 90% (give or take) of my writing is revision, so first drafting is rarer. Which is probably why I have this neverending capacity to be surprised by its weirdness.

When I'm revising, it's easier to slip in and out of the book's world. And I can read the same sentence fifty times in a row, tweaking it a bit each time. And I can revise on a very regular schedule: I can pick a number-of-pages- or number-of-scenes-per-day goal and stick to it fairly closely.

When I'm first-drafting, it takes me a long time to get into a writing session, and often a long time to come out of it. (Like my recent "one-hour" planned writing session that turned into more than four hours.) And I don't like to dwell on any one sentence or tweak it for too long; I feel a forward pressure, a momentum. Except for those moments when I stop dead in my tracks because I don't know what happens next.

First drafting takes a lot of mental energy. I feel things bubbling away beneath the surface, and I wait impatiently for them to bubble up into the front of my brain where I can write them down. In the early stages, I may go a couple of days without adding words to the story, and part of me feels frustrated and as if I'm not advancing the work, but deep down I know the story is weaving together somewhere in my mind. I know I'm ready when scenes start popping into my head while I'm walking or making the bed: suddenly, characters are in there jabbering away, acting on their own.

I don't think I'll ever do NaNoWriMo because my first drafts don't like to come out in regular pieces every day. They like to come in bursts: 3000 new words one day, 20 new words the next, 2000 the next, then a day where I do nothing but delete a sentence that was blocking the way to the next scene, then 1000 words ... Like that.

Does your first-draft process differ from your revision process?


  1. Drafting is like being lost in the forest without a compass while revision is a walk in my hometown with a map, a compass, and GPS.

    Lately I'm been stopped "dead in my tracks". The story is revealing itself painfully slow. I yearn for the comforting rhythm of revision, but know that it can't happen until I find my way out of these woods.

  2. I thought it very interesting that you mentioned the amount of time it takes to come out of a writing session. Sometimes, it takes me hours to pull my head out of something I just wrote.

    As for my first drafting process, this is when I feel like I need to keep my writing extremely private and keep plowing ahead.

    This is a very sensitive time for me, where the slightest disturbance can awaken my inner critic (not editor) and wreak havoc on what I am trying to do.

    Once revision time comes along, its a completely different story. The end result may be a completely different story than I originally put down, but I find myself more objective at that point.

  3. Sorry, that felt like an extremely long comment. May I pick up on this post in my blog?

  4. Angelina: I sympathize, and I confess it is comforting not to feel alone in the sometimes-floundering of the first draft!

    Mieke: I, too, can't talk much about a WIP in its early stages. The farther along it gets in the revision process, the more I can say, but the energy of that first draft must be carefully guarded.
    I don't mind long comments, but of course you're welcome to write your own blog post too. I think that's part of the fun of blogging--getting an actual conversation going! Please feel free to leave a link to your blog here.