People talk about plotters versus pantsers, and those who write their books sequentially versus those who write them ad hoc. But not many talk about those who enjoy writing a first draft and hate editing, and those who despise the messy first draft but love the pedantry of revision.
Personally, I’m with the second group: I find writing a first draft of a novel more painful than almost anything else I have to do in my life. I’m in the thick of one right now – about 60,000 words in – and I have to drag my brain to the desk each day. I find myself looking for distractions – yesterday, the shelves in the fridge needed cleaning, and the day before that it was my untidy sock drawer. Today I urgently needed to write this blog post.
Before I go any further, I realise this is a silly thing for a writer to complain about – writing is an essential part of the job description of being a writer after all, and the reason I write fiction is because I love dreaming up characters and creating stories from them.
Nevertheless, I find it hard to sit and turn those dreams into words. I’m one of those writers who loves having created – it’s just the creating that’s the problem. Writing a first draft requires every ounce of self-discipline I can muster, and I use every trick or treat I have to entice myself to do it – Pomodoro timers, internet blockers, the Forest app (I have grown some beautiful trees), lollies, caffeine, writing with friends in cafés, writing with friends on Zoom.
Once I have a first draft, though, I’m up and running and you don’t see me for dust.
So what is it about writing that first draft that I find so hard? And why do I love editing so much? I’ve thought about this a lot and here’s what I’ve come up with:
When writing a first draft there’s no let-up for your brain – you can’t allow it to go offline while your fingers write on auto-pilot. There’s no downtime, no slacking off from full-time concentration.
Not just that, but you have to hold everything you know about the story in your head – the plots and subplots, the characters and their wants and motivations – while simultaneously thinking about structure and chronology, and how you’re going tell this story that’s still a foggy haze in your imagination.
Then there are the sentences themselves – which words to use and what order to use them in.
And that’s just one day – you have to return the next day and do the same. And again the day after that, and so on for months and even years.
I’m not a plotter, although a big part of me wishes I was. I’ve tried to plan my stories, but when I do they come out dead on the page. I have to discover as I go, be as surprised by the twists and turns as my reader. So when I start writing, I have no idea where my story will go. EL Doctorow said that writing is ‘like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ This is all well and good but, personally, I prefer to drive on a road in good light and know where I’m headed.
Driving towards an unknown destination in poor vision is quite unsettling. At the moment, I feel like I’m holding my breath – on edge, never truly relaxed. I try to ignore the discomfort, push it to the back of my mind, while I ‘trust the process’ – whatever that ‘process’ is – to lead me in the right direction. This is my third novel, and the ‘process’ is yet to let me down, but I still feel out of kilter and won’t feel complete until I’ve arrived at wherever it is I’m going.
As soon as I type the words, ‘The End’, I exhale as if a pressure valve has been released: the track is forged now, the fog has cleared, the story has revealed itself. Next time I walk this path, I won’t be breaking new ground – just following my own footsteps.
Editing, for me, is the fun part – I’m like a kid in a sandpit. I race to the computer on editing days, frolic with my characters, gaily cull unnecessary tangents, all the time honing the story so it builds towards its climax. Finally, my perfectionist side can go for its life, turning sentences inside-out, smoothing their rough edges, polishing them.
I love, too, that I don’t have to hold it all in my head anymore – it’s written now, in black and white on a page. I can print it out and see the whole thing before me. I have a product.
And this is why I do it, why all those months (and years) of writing into the unknown are worth it – I have created something where nothing existed before.
Perhaps I’ve written this post to remind myself of this as I pick my way through the mists right now, trusting the process to take this new story where it needs to go.
Yes, I hate writing, but gosh I love having written.
By the way, please let me know which camp you fall into: are you a first drafter who detests revision, or a lover of revising and hater of those messy first drafts like me?
A reminder to all writers in Perth that FAWWA is holding writing masterclasses over two Sundays, 12 and 19 June, at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne.
7 Writing Superstars in 6 Masterclasses
Join us for two days of joyful, creative and intellectual exploration of what it takes to become a master of your craft.
See Eventbrite for tickets
Women’s Fiction Day, June 12th
Three giants of women’s fiction
International bestselling authors Rachael Johns, Sasha Wasley, and Fleur McDonald at Mattie Furphy House for a joyful day of writing master classes. Each beloved author will dive into the creative processes and inspirations that help them craft compelling stories that are read worldwide.
Tickets available Eventbrite.
Writing Craft Day, June 19th
Writing craft advice from four leaders in writing and publishing
Author and journalist Barry Divola, Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter, poet and educator Raihanaty A Jalil, and writer, historian, and academic Cindy Solonec for a day of creative and intellectual upskilling.
Head over to Eventbrite now for tickets