Saturday, 11 December 2010

'Shitty First Drafts'

That road ahead can seem to go on forever. This one actually does, as it was taken in North Dakota (check out the squashed bug on the windscreen) and no-one has ever driven all the way across North Dakota.*

So it is with writing a novel, and this is where we come to the idea of 'Shitty First drafts'. The term is in inverted commas because a) my mum reads this and I used a Bad Word, and b) because it is a much-cited quotation taken from Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

It is a hugely helpful concept. Basically, all those elegant, eloquent, finely-plotted, wonderfully characterised novels you read start out as shitty first drafts, much as cakes start out as a pile of ingredients and mixing bowls on the sideboard you haven't washed down yet and still has a half-chewed cat toy on it.

In this day and age we have such things as computers and, unlike JRR Tolkien, who couldn't afford a typist and could only re-type the completed draft with no mistakes once to send to his publisher (I think I am remembering that correctly, please feel free to tell me off if it isn't true), we can edit to our hearts' content.

Whatever we write can be taken out, re-written, expanded, contracted and deleted from history. Essentially, it doesn't matter that your first draft is awful, vomit-inducing nonsense, somewhere in there are the rough diamonds that can be polished once the extraneous dirt and bobbly bits have been cleaned off. And it isn't just us, everyone writes shitty first drafts. (Almost everyone, but we're not interested in those people today as perfection is unspeakably dull).

My experimentation with NaNoWriMo enforced this Just Write! idea. I found myself able to write over difficult hurdles that I might previously have stumbled on because there, as a prop under my typing hands, was the idea that I can always change it if it doesn't work. No-one will know, it's ok. (Don't worry about future PhD students who might be doing their thesis on you after you've won the Nobel Prize for Literature. For one, all your notes will be on the computer, which you'll have upgraded several times by then, and for another, no-one will be able to afford to do arts and humanities subjects in the future and PhDs in English will be obsolete.)

How did NaNo go? I wrote 30,000 words in November, well below the winning magic number of 50,000. But I don't feel like a loser. Currently the novel stands at 110,000 words. I am finishing off the final chapters and am planning to write THE END by Friday next week, which is when I am going home to Blighty for Christmas. Then the Slightly Better But Still Shoddy Second Draft begins.

*They have.

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