WHAT A FIRST DRAFT IS (AND ISN’T)

Setting out to write a book is a huge undertaking, regardless of length, genre, or subject matter. It can be daunting, especially when it’s your first attempt, to write a manuscript from beginning to end, but it doesn’t have to be! Much of the difficulty can be avoided if we have a sound understanding of what a first draft actually is. Let’s review!

When a sculptor begins Blockinga masterpiece, he begins with an ugly blob of clay. The first step to creating something great is called ‘blocking out’. This is the process of taking larger tools and hacking out a basic and very crude shape of what will much later become an ornate bust of George Washington. Blocking out allows the sculptor to grasp a general idea of what the final product will look like while still allowing himself to make any major changes to his original idea if he chooses to. Blocking out is going with the flow of inspiration and doing whatever feels right. At this point, it would be a waste of time and effort to start making fine details to the wrinkles in his forehead since if he decides to make George’s expression joyful instead of solemn, everything else must change with it.

Writing a first draft from beginning to end is nothing more than blocking out with a giant mound of clay. When you’re through with the manuscript, it will be ugly, disorganized and anything but sell-able. It will barely resemble what you intended it to. But that’s okay. The purpose of a first draft is for you as the author to be able to figure out just what kind of story you really want to tell and it is for this very reason that the first draft can be so much fun. You don’t have to know the plot and characters inside and out yet. It is for brave exploration, crazy experimentation, and self gratification. In essence, write what you want! If you begin writing with one main character and end up liking another one more, kill the first and roll with the second. If your characters come to a point in the plot where they have nothing to do, come up with a crazy idea and go for it. If you decide halfway through that your sci-fi novel needs to be a romance novel, switch! Of course, the larger the change, the more work it will be later to revise, but the point is, in first draft, you can do it because it is for you. Remember, the creative process in first draft is where the magic happens. Don’t be afraid to free your mind of restrictive initial ideas and allow yourself to be open for anything that may enhance your story. In the early drafts of the Fellowship of the Ring, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien had written to a point where the hobbits had left home and arrived at an inn, waiting for the wizard Gandalf to arrive. From there, he had no idea what to do with the story. On a whim, he threw in a character called Strider, not knowing who he was or how he would be important later. Well, anyone that knows the Lord of the Rings can see how crazy that is as Strider becomes King Aragorn and one of the central characters of the entire story! There is but one goal when writing a first draft: finish the manuscript from beginning to end. That’s it. Well-rounded characters? Doesn’t matter. Vivid descriptions? Who cares. A story that makes sense? Honestly, don’t worry about it. Typos and grammatical errors? Don’t give it a single thought (those are George Washington’s wrinkles!). Of course, all of these things are very important if you want a quality finished product, but the time for worrying about that stuff comes much later. I repeat: There is but one goal when writing a first draft: finish the manuscript from beginning to end. This way you have a blocked-out structure to work with.  From there you can take a step back, see the whole picture, and gain an understanding of where you need to go and what you need to do to get it from what it is to what you want it to be. Now while I've emphasized the messy process of first draft, I do want to mention that there is never anything wrong with planning and outlining if you choose to do so.  If you are writing something like a mystery novel, it can even be necessary to know in advance what will happen.  But planning can hinder as much as help if it is allowed to run rampant. Be sure that what you do plan in advance acts simply as a guide, a light on the horizon to follow instead of a one way tunnel you cannot veer from. So...first draft is running with an initial idea while having fun and doing whatever seems best for the story at the time.  It is for you as the author to discover just what it is you want to write through experimentation while using your initial ideas and outlines (if any) as a guide. And it must be written from beginning to end with as little distraction as possible. It follows then, that a first draft is NOT a best-seller out of the box.  It is NOT a finished product.  It isn't layered in deep meaning or populated by perfectly rounded characters, nor does it sport smooth, grammatically pristine dialogue and descriptions. When we all understand what it really means to write a first draft, the intimidating blank page before us is suddenly transformed into an exciting, empty canvas waiting to house pages of surprise and adventure!  In my opinion, it's one of the funnest phases of novel creation.  Let go of restrictive standards you feel you need to live up to and just have fun with it! What are some of your definitions of a first draft?  Have any spur of the moment ideas changed a manuscript's direction for you?  Share in the comments below and as always...keep that pen moving!
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