Image by Steve Johnson
One of the things that I’ve had to confront as a writer is my attitude towards first drafts. I imagine a lot of other writers go through the same struggle, unless they are:
a) geniuses (good for them, I mutter without resentment)
b) blinded by vanity (as the best of us fall prey to now and again)
c) artisans with a healthy, workmanlike attitude towards writing (that’s the goal!)
In any case, I rationally understand that first drafts are usually somewhat excremental—but knowing this versus seeing a draft steaming in front of you are two different experiences.
To avoid being frustrated by crappy first drafts, I’ve done what all writers do, and spun the challenge into metaphors. They help me. I hope they help you.
Here are the first five. Imagine your first draft is...
Image by Steve Johnson
…a palette. Forget about anything grand like perspective or intelligible shapes or principles of composition—let alone consistent punctuation. You’re just mixing your colours. A little betrayal here, a world-changing invention there, a scandalous secret or two… intriguing characters, striking images, and rich settings. All the pigments that may eventually colour your masterpiece.
…a speed date. Meet your protagonist. Are they interesting? Do you like them? Do you feel for them even if you don’t like them? Are ten minutes with them about nine minutes too many, or are you ready to follow them for 300 pages? Maybe they’re good company just for an anecdote or two. Buy them a drink, ask for their number—or politely move on to someone more intriguing.
Image by Nathan Lemon
…fire-starter. It takes time for those big logs to catch fire. A little kindling will go up quickly—and, admittedly, fizzle into smoke. But that doesn’t matter: it served its purpose. You captured the energy you need for the next, better draft.
…Frankenstein’s monster. This is especially true of a long-suffering first draft that you’ve stitched together over time. A good lesson in keeping scraps you’ve edited out of past stories: you never know what might happen when you give them a purpose and electrify them.
Image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
…a swamp. Specifically, a swamp that lies between you and your destination: the gleaming architecture of a finished product. But you’re not there, on solid ground, among beautiful spires. You’re here, in the swamp. Your feet are wet and you keep slapping away mosquitos.
Trekking is hard. But the challenge builds character, and if you pay attention, you might start to hear the music in a frog’s chirrups or the flight of a water bird. That perfect city you’re aiming for only has meaning if you’ve been on the journey, turned the story over in your head for thousands of steps.
As your story develops, as you get to know your characters, the ground becomes firmer, the fog begins to lift, and you start to stride forward with more confidence. The story you arrive at might not be the one you expected when you first started, but that’s a good thing. After all that slogging, you’re damn proud of making it through that swamp, however much you complained at the time.
Stay tuned for Part 2. Happy writing! 💚