HERE’S THE THING: THE FIRST DRAFT

So you’ve finished a rough draft! Congratulations, you’re one step ahead of me.

All jokes aside, just sitting down to write anything isn’t easy. According to most writers, the majority of the time they spend working on their current projects is spent not writing. It seems like there are two camps: the thinkers and the revisers. To put it simply, the thinkers outline their works to death, spending their time not putting pen to paper. The revisers take what they have managed to write and go over it, sometimes with fine-tooth comb and other times with high grit sand paper.

I find myself in the first category, rarely writing anything until I know everything. This includes, but is not limited to: characters, plot twists, and who’s going to die in the middle of the third book. This is dangerous behavior for a writer, even though it isn’t uncommon.  It begins with a story concept and ends with massive boards on Pinterest.

While working on The American River Review, I learned how to revise. It was complete culture shock. My fanciful focus on the big ideas wouldn’t get me very far in the realm of editing, much to my chagrin. This environment was actually what made me realize that nothing is perfect the first time around, and that editing is more than a necessary evil – it’s a blessing.

The common thread between thinkers and revisers is this: quality over quantity. What good is a 600 page novel if 599 of those pages aren’t interesting? Revisers force themselves to write through the crap, and get it done. The only issue is that sometimes, they don’t know when to let it go and stop making changes. In regards to the Review, I can recount dozens of individual experiences working with authors that wouldn’t stop fussing with their pieces. During my first semester on the staff, I remember a few pieces that senior staff was particularly upset about cutting. When I asked them why, it came down to the writers obsessing over imperfections that the original spark of the piece was lost.

With this kind of a catch twenty-two, what should I do? It’s the Sophie’s choice for young or inexperienced writers. If you outline too much, you’ll never write, but if you write, you may never stop editing what you’ve written. Guess what? No one has any idea what they’re doing. My college holds a creative writing conference every summer, and that was a prevailing theme at a few of the panels and workshops I went to. In a panel on “Character in Fiction” with Edan Lepucki, Christian Kiefer, Kirstin Chen, and Jason Sinclair Long, the conversation shifted to, “How the hell does this whole outlining thing work?” Christian said he wasn’t a normal example of the revision process, as he tends to write large sections with minimal planning. If it doesn’t turn out the way he likes the first time, he’ll scrap the whole thing and start over. Edan said that she creates these characters in her head and puts them into the story. Her revisions consist of writing a hundred pages, then going back to read and edit those pages (I’ll get back to this later). Kirstin and Jason both laughed, and the four came to the conclusion I mentioned earlier: they had no clue what they were doing, and no one really does.

Edan said that for all she knows, none of the advice she gives about writing will work for anyone but herself. The rest of the panel agreed, coming to another conclusion: the writing process is trial and error, writing and writing until they find what works for them.

Christian ended the panel by joking about how we all, as writers, have written some of our best stories on paper scraps we found in our pockets. He then mentioned a musician that described that very experience,  scribbling verses or melodies on napkins while driving. The thought that none of us know when we’ll get our last great idea is enough to create that desperation within us. Christian admitted that aside from the novel he’s working on currently, he doesn’t have anything else waiting in the wings. The tension in that room was thicker than any cliche I could come up with, and that’s saying something. Every writer in that room was familiar with the feeling of uncertainty. I’ve spent the last few weeks stewing in it.

Let’s get back to the question I posed earlier: what do I, or anyone in my predicament do? The conclusion I’ve come to is far simpler than I care to admit – write. Even if I hate what I’ve written. Even if I choose to walk away from whatever I put down on the page. For thinkers like myself, that’s the only way to force yourself out of your own head and into the story. For you revisers out there, it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. Let yourself finish it, for once. It’s okay if twenty, thirty, forty percent of your most recent work is weaker than you’d like it to be. Learn from the mistakes you made and try writing something else.

“Allison, what if I don’t consider myself a thinker or a reviser? What if I’m something else, or somewhere in the middle?”

Well, theoretical reader, I have some advice that can go for anyone, and it’s something I mentioned earlier. Write 100 (or some other arbitrary number) pages before allowing yourself to read or revise. I’m definitely stealing this from Edan Lepucki, because in my mind, this sort of advice can work for any type of writer. Thinkers have a hard time actually writing things down, and writing [insert page number here] before letting yourself go over it forces you to change how you think about the writing process. Revisers benefit most obviously from this, as over-editing becomes less likely when you can see the bigger picture of [choose your number] pages as opposed to the comma you spent all morning taking out and all afternoon putting back in.

I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on drafting and revisions! You can hit me up with anything you want me to discuss in a later post on Instagram (I’m allisonheartslife) or in the comments section below. Thanks again for reading!

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