This week I have been remembering the first draft of my first book. Well, the first book I actually completed.
I remember that it was written by hand, mostly while I was waiting for books to be retrieved from the stack in a very famous library.
The leather-bound tomes, the scholarly hush, the dust dancing in the sunbeams, the academics concentrating all around me…. oh, I remember them as if I’ve only just walked in from that day with my book bag stuffed with notes and my head full of my characters.
Or sometimes I wrote that first draft while I was waiting for an old friend in our favourite coffee shop.
When inspiration struck there, I sometimes scribbled the idea down on any old scrap of paper — including a cafe napkin once or twice.
By now, dear Reader, you will have realised two things:
- I was very young
- I hadn’t a clue what I was doing.
My First Dirty Draft
Of course, I didn’t realise it was a draft. I thought I was writing pure gold.
OK, I’d written, edited and re-written hundred of essays. It never occurred to me that a novel would got through the same process. I thought writing fiction would be just like reading it. You plunged in. Steamed straight through to the end. Closed the book with a happy sigh.
What I was writing would go straight to print in the same way. Or so I thought. Not a semi-colon would go.
Um. What emerged, of course, was a Mess — and on a grand scale.
In practice, my hero switched disconcertingly between Ferdy Fakenham and the Earl of Rule. A lascivious vicar couldn’t make up his mind whether he was a clown or a villain. And just when it got exciting, my heroine stopped the whole thing dead in its tracks by smacking a kidnapper in the ribs with his own blunderbuss. The End.
First Virtue of Dirty Drafts
Everything — characters, plot, farcical action and drawing-room duels of manners — had gone straight from rollicking imagination to the page, unmediated by logic, taste or even common sense. And the typing was atrocious.
But, by golly, it had vitality. Spontaneity? By the bucketful. It zipped along like a stage-coach pursued by a thwarted suitor.
Above all, I enjoyed it. It made me laugh out loud. (A kindly academic librarian said that everyone who used the library liked to see a student relishing their work but could I try to cackle quietly in future? Please.) It was mad and muddled and Not Fit For Company. But it wasn’t boring.
Second Virtue of Dirty Drafts
You don’t — indeed, you mustn’t — spend any time on the (slightly) more boring bits. “With one bound, Jack was free,” is dirty drafting at its purest.
Of course, the downside of this is that it gives you the excuse to avoid the difficult stuff, too. “Insert proposal here” is fine. “Insert reason for their instant hostility” isn’t.
Third Virtue of Dirty Drafts
Which brings me to the third virtue of a dirty draft — it may show you that your story isn’t ready yet. It needs to stay in the subconscious a while yet and grow stronger.
That was certainly true of my own first effort. I had a Jekyll and Hyde hero — well, more a Bertie Wooster/Mr Darcy cross, if I’m honest — a heroine who was seriously annoying and a villain with more potential than either of them. Hardly surprising that the plot fell off the stage-coach, then.
The Fourth Virtue of Dirty Drafts
In the dirty draft you bung down the main elements of story and character as they occur to you. Possibly great bits of dialogue. Telling details, certainly.
The only stuff that will be fully fleshed out, though, are scenes and moments that you really love. Almost certainly these will be over-written. You’re throwing in everything indiscriminately, remember? In Draft 2 you can CUT them, down to the truly telling details.
In other places, though, you may well put in just a series of memory joggers. The crafting of every word and comma comes with Draft 2.
Well, maybe not every word.
There’s a lovely letter from Jane Austen to her sister in which she worries that praise for her books may “hurt my style, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration, or a metaphor in every corner of the room.”
Oh yes. Been there, done that.
Out, damned solicited! Bring back the spontaneous overflow of powerful fun!
Dirty Drafts — Who, When and Why?
Writers are all different. Heck, every book is different, at least for me.
Other writers need to build their story brick on top of well placed brick, from Day 1 (with or without a synopsis). Typically, they will start every day by re-reading and editing the work they did the day — or the week, or the month — before. Anything else makes them feel uneasy. Nobody can let their imagination fly when their brain is nagging away that they’re not safe.
But some of us are in the middle.
I think of myself as a patchwork writer. At the start I know a few things about my story and characters. They’re not necessarily big things, but important to me. Sometimes I know how it ends. Mostly my characters are on a journey that’s as big a mystery to me as it is to them. That’s why, so far, I’ve avoided dirty drafts. I’ve been afraid of distorting my characters by fixing them too early.
Afraid. Yes. That’s the big word. The dirty draft ought to deal with the fear.
Nobody will see that draft but me. I don’t even need to invest a huge amount of time in it. If I fall flat on my face nobody needs to know but me. And right now in my writing life, that trumps everything else.
And, remembering that first time, it might just be fun.