So Jim and I were going back and forth a little about the letdown that accompanied finishing his first draft.
There he was, with an entire novel finished. A mighty heap of words and pages. The book has an interesting concept, with characters struggling against their world and themselves, implications beyond the events portrayed, themes and subtext -- all that good stuff.
But he looked at it and realized, googawjawl, there is a lot of work to be done. That's the bitch about writing. You finish the thing, and you think -- well, it's done.
But it's not. It's only started.
I know -- and saints preserve me, I've read -- writers for whom the first draft is the last draft. That's one of the reasons I seldom read other writers' early iterations any more. Show me something finished, not something that's merely complete. There is an ugly kind of hubris in that school of thinking. If you're so damn brilliant, if you're such a genius that you don't need to revise your work, how come you're not famous and rich? There are two kinds of geniuses, let's remember: authentic geniuses, and fools. If you consider yourself one of the former, you're almost certainly one of the latter.
Golly, these rants just pop out of me.
Writing is a lot like painting. If I sit down to create a portrait on hardboard, I start with a sketch on paper. This is just for composition: the figure will be here, with the edge of the table down here and the curtains tied back like so behind the subject. Light and dark is roughed in, adding volume to the forms. This can happen in a notebook or a scrap of newsprint. Only when I know what I want, do I transfer the sketch onto the board. There are many ways to accomplish this transfer: my father sketched everything in reverse on tracing paper, then rubbed it a verso onto the illustration board with a burnisher. Vermeer used a camera oscura with a grid overlay. I just eyeball the damn thing.
After that, the painting commences.
All of this sketching can be considered similar to the process of outlining the book. The outline is the earliest sketch. It shows what will be in the book, as the sketch shows what will be in the picture. Then the drawing is refined: character fleshed out, details added, mood and tone indicated. That, gang, is the first draft. We're still working in pencil or charcoal. We haven't even gotten to the paint, yet.
It took me something like ten years to get used to this idea. When I was writing screenplays, I'd fall back exhausted and spent at the end of the first draft and cry, "O Lord, have I not done enough?" or words to that effect. The answer was silence, of course, but I knew the answer. So I'd start the next draft.
You think the first draft has it all. It's the right length. It has loads of words and ideas in it, largely the same ones you want in the finished piece. You wrote it with the same diligence you'd write any other draft. And it's in the same medium, unlike a sketch for a painting. That's where the trick lies.
We think, just because we're using words, that our first draft is essentially similar to any other draft. It isn't. That first draft is the smudgy underdrawing. It's a welter of stray lines and errors, with erasures patently visible, late additions taped on from another sheet of paper, and all the rest. In short, it's a big old mess.
The second draft is the one in which we begin to paint. That's when we get into color and texture and all that. First draft, we have indicated these things. Second draft, we begin to resolve them.
I wish there was better news, but that's how it is. The first draft is just a long, hard way to ruin some paper. The second draft is when the pretty picture emerges.
2 weeks ago