The First Draft
The first draft is the hardest of all to write. You’re creating something out of nothing. You’re pulling ideas from the limitless dimension of your imagination and trying to force them to fit into two-dimensional space–a cruel act akin to murdering a small animal. Maybe you’re judging yourself and your work before it’s even on the page, worrying about whether it’s good enough. Maybe you become paralyzed whenever you think about even trying this, because the thought seems so overwhelming.
Welcome to the life of a writer.
The purpose of this section is to remind you of a few things.
First of all, remember that you have to start somewhere, with raw material. Imagine a sculptor working in his studio. He needs something to sculpt, right? He needs a block of marble to chip away at. With the first draft, you are just creating that block of marble. The actual sculpting happens later–in the second and subsequent drafts. The first draft is unique among all drafts in that this is when you make the raw material. Making something out of nothing is very hard. It takes a lot of energy. You should be patient with yourself during this phase. My recommendation is that you don’t even talk about it yet. Ideas at this stage are very fragile.
Secondly, you must learn to deactivate your internal editor. We all contain some part of ourselves that is very self-critical. In writers, this part actually tends to be rather stronger than it is in so-called normal people, and not just when it comes to writing, either. Why is this? Ask your psychiatrist. For now, I’m simply asking you to accept the fact that while inner criticism has a time and a place, the first draft is not it.
I once conducted a writing workshop in which I asked participants to visualize their inner critic. I asked them to give it a face, then a name, and even to write a description of it, as if it was a character in a story. Then I asked them to write that critic a letter, thanking them for its hard work and good intentions and letting him or her know that they would be called upon when needed, but until then, they needed to stay quiet and out of the way.
I learned how to deal with my own inner critic simply by learning to repeat my routine of showing up at my desk every day, or nearly every day, and working through the selfdoubt. There were many years of this. Just thinking about it now is exhausting. Many other books on writing will emphasize the importance of routine, and I fully agree, but I don’t feel I have much to add to that, either. My own experience was not transcendental or phantasmagorical or even very special. I just kept writing, and eventually I got to a point where I was able to sit down and start writing more or less immediately. This happened, I believe, because I was able to train myself to start by focusing on small details, rather than big things. As my old karate teacher, Jorge Aigla, used to say: “There are no big things in life. Everything is made up of small details.” Stories are no different. Nowadays, when I want to get started on something, I don’t spend hours staring at a blank screen or piece of paper. I am able to begin work on a thing fairly quickly after conceiving of it, and while I will often rewrite a piece many, many times, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m writing.
Which brings me to my third point: You must remind yourself that there will be many more drafts to come after this first one. You will have lots of time to rework everything. So, don’t worry about anyone seeing these early versions of a piece and making fun of them. The most liberating thing that has occurred to me, which came while I was writing my first book, was this: Nobody ever had to see what I was writing if I didn’t want them to. This seems to run contrary to the notion that we write in order for people to read our work. But it’s really only the finished version we want them to see, right? The early versions are ugly and unpolished, and it can be helpful to remind yourself that you do have the right to throw the whole thing in the trash any time you want. I don’t think you should actually do that. I think there is far more to be gained from working through something that appears to be imperfect, especially because it will always be imperfect.
(All novels are.) But just remember that you can.
There is even a part of me that derives secret glee from writing something that is truly, deliberately bad. I know I’m going to get rid of it. I’m never going to show it to anyone. But I write it anyway, because it’s fun. And it’s amazing how often I end up keeping these parts, and it’s even more amazing how often people will tell me that’s the part they liked the best.
Fine, you may think. I understand all this, but it doesn’t really address my problem, which is quite simply this: I don’t know where to start.
Here are a few more simple guidelines to keep in mind:
Start as close to the end of the story as possible. (I think I actually stole this line from the director David Mamet, but if I recall correctly he stole it from someone else–or perhaps “quoted” is a more accurate description.) Do this to keep the action moving. Even stories that aren’t action-based need things to be happening, and if things drag along for years before we get to the real meat of the story, your readers will lose interest very soon.
This suggestion should not be interpreted to mean that your story needs to be as short as possible, or that you should cut out everything of interest in favor of telling us the Cliff’s Notes version. That is not what it means at all, although it is true that every word needs to count and stories should not be unnecessarily long. Just take it to mean that everything that happens in the story should somehow, in some small way, contribute to the journey we are making towards the conclusion, the climax, or the denouement. If you’re telling us about something that happens to a person who is sixty years old, you certainly don’t need to begin the tale when she’s ten–unless, that is, something happens then that informs the present action.
Start either by introducing us to the setting of a story, or by introducing us to one of the main characters. There are, of course, ten thousand ways to do this. One thing I’ve found that hasn’t worked for me is starting with dialogue. Dialogue is best used to illuminate action, and to show what characters are thinking or feeling. If I haven’t met them yet, if I have no idea what the story is about, then there is not yet anything that needs to be illuminated.
If you are stuck on how to begin, simply visualize yourself explaining where the story happens. Describe it in a paragraph or two that hits the reader with as many senses as possible. Use descriptive, vigorous language that makes use of metaphors and imagery.
If you know what needs to happen but don’t know how to say it, just write it out in its most obvious, basic form. You will be surprised later at how close to the mark this comes. Good writing doesn’t dance around the point, after all. It approaches it directly.
The more you practice this, the more engaging your writing will become.
By using one or more of these three simple rules, you should be able to come up with a first draft of an opening paragraph with relatively little dithering.
Learn more about William Kowalski at https://www.williamkowalski.com