Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

First drafts are like a lump of clay

I am reading the book Revision by Kit Reed. It’s good stuff and very helpful to me as a writer. I’ve jotted down some quotes in this book to use in my own book on revisions (my book contains quotes from various sources), but, in my reading, I’ve come across a lot of good quotes that talk about first drafts.

Some writers dread the first draft. One reason why is because they try to make things perfect in the first draft. It is as if every word they write in that first draft is set in stone.

But you know what? It’s not. The first draft is just a “draft.” It’s not the final manuscript you will be sending out.

The first draft is where we just get all of the writing done. As James Thurber is quoted as saying in this book, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” Just write it down. Get all of that stuff and all of those ideas onto paper (or monitor). Just get it all down first. Because the first draft is where you begin. It is the very first step you will take on your journey in writing your manuscript.

Your first draft is like dropping a huge lump of clay onto the table and experimenting with various shapes and textures of it. If you don’t like what you’ve created, you destroy it and start over. That’s what the first draft is for: You can cross things out or delete things until you get what you want onto paper. Until you finally get onto paper the story, article, poem, etc., that you've had brewing in your head all this time.

The other obstacle holding up some writers from starting their first draft is uncertainty. They stare at the blank page and think, Where do I begin? How do I get started? What POV should I use? What names should I pick?

This happens to a lot of writers. We don’t know where to begin!

When I write nonfiction, I start to mentally put together my manuscript while I’m doing research. I look for angles, quotes and slants. They say in newspaper writing that once you have your lead, you’re ready to start writing. It’s a lot like that with me. Once I figure out how to write it, I start writing it.

With fiction, there’s no hard or fast rule. I just write whatever I see in my head. Whatever idea I have.

And, you know, most of the time, the beginning isn’t really the beginning. That’s the thing to keep in mind when struggling with where to start: You may come up with a different place to "start" later on. So it’s okay to just start anywhere. Just write the story you have in your head. Write the scenes that are playing out. They may be moved to Chapter 3 later on – or even Chapter 12. The point is to get started. Just go with what you think is the way to get started. You will figure out your beginning, POV and character names later on – if you haven’t already. (Some writers do character sketches, synopses, indexed notes, etc., before they start writing their story.)

There may be other reasons why writers dread that first draft, but those are the two major ones.

I love writing first drafts. Sure they can present quite the challenge in figuring out where to begin or what exactly to write, etc., but they are essentially a playground for my muse. I just grab my idea and WRITE IT! Just go ahead and dump everything down onto paper (to allow a little “brain room” for everything else, right?) and get that first draft written.

Once you’ve written your first draft, then you can go ahead and fix it up. The first draft is to get it written; the second draft is to get it written right.

Here are the quotes from Reed’s book. Food for thought.

“Even if it’s imperfect by nature, the first draft is the beginning.”

“A rough draft gives you a place to start.”

“A first draft is a starting place. Once it’s out there, we can do anything we want with it.”

“Draft writers know better than anybody that a faulty version of a story or novel is better than no version at all, and they know better than anybody that the first draft gives them something concrete that will improve as they work on it.”

“The first draft lets you see the entire story, from beginning to end – how it starts and what happens.”

Now go take that lump of clay on your table and make something out of it!

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  • At 3:45 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Hey Dawn,

    If others saw my first drafts they'd instantly feel better about their own. Mine are always an insane mess. I change names in the midst. I will simply jot down things like, "in this scene such and such will happen...". I jump all around....

    As you said- it's all about getting it out on paper.

    You have to embrace first drafts with a healthy dose of humor. :)

  • At 10:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    you are so right! You should see my first drafts of anything, just a mess of ideas and dialogue. Always turns into something good though.

  • At 8:55 PM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    Gypsy: Thanks for the feedback. :) I know, the first draft is just about getting your ideas and your stories onto the page. Worry about perfecting your writing later; for now, just write.

    Nancy: Thank you. :) That's what first drafts are supposed to be like. :) What matters is that you get it all sorted out after that first draft is written.


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