This November has really taught me a lot about what it means to write the first draft. And, oddly enough, I didn’t really understand the first draft until I’d written about a dozen of them. I think I’m starting to get it now, and as a self-proclaimed amateur writer and a damn fine looker-upper-of-things, I decided to grace you with the knowledge I have gathered so that it might make you, too, as enlightened as I.
The most important thing to remember about writing the first draft, is to never ever think of the end. Just don’t do it. If you catch yourself seriously thinking any more than two or three chapters ahead, give yourself a swift but firm kick. Preferably in the posterior region for best results. And always have an electrical outlet in your work space so that when you catch yourself thinking about thinking of how you shouldn’t be thinking, you can lick it (or stick a fork in there, a finger or other appendage, you name it).
Because you’re not actually writing the book, now. You might feel like you are, but you’re not. Really! What you’re doing now, is observing.
Picture yourself snorkeling. You can embellish yourself with abs or a bikini body, if you wish, I won’t tell. But, instead of having those fancy goggles that seal all the water out and provide a crystal clear image into the cerulean waters below, pretend that you’re using the cheap-y goggles your parents got you for that summer you befriended the neighbor kid whose family had a pool. You know, the kind that never fit right and always leaked chlorine pool-water into your eyes and smudged the lenses, either because they were just so poorly made or because you have a weirdly shaped, lumpy head… Like a pomegranate. A pomegranate wearing goggles. Yep. That’s you. That’s you writing the first draft.
So you got the gist of what’s going on, and for just a few split seconds before water flooded your eyes and the chemicals stung and probably gave you permanent retinal damage, you got a pretty good idea of what was going on under the waves. Use this time to explore a little, to make as much note of colors and shapes and sounds and smells (forget the fact that this analogy is under water), and lock it in. That’s the good stuff that you’ll sift through later.
Once you’ve had a good soak, it’s time to trade in those goggles for some blinders. You may ask, why blinders? Didn’t you just tell me to get a quick look? In which case, please read the second paragraph again because you’re thinking! Thinking is bad on your first draft!
You put on the blinders because now it’s time to listen to your characters and let them show you how they work. When a horse is particularly skittish, riders often put blinders on them so that they can’t see as much scary stuff. Then, it’s just the horse and rider to gallop into the sunset! You’re putting blinders on so that the scary stuff like editing, chapter pacing, tone and stylistic choices don’t bother you. Just let them lead, and you can tame the crazy later.
Much like when you first meet your sweetheart and you look at them with rose-colored glasses (would that be a better analogy than blinders? Crap. Oh well, too late now. I’ve already committed to the bit!), you’re blinded to the little quirks that might bother you later. You overlook the way they snort a little when they drink water, or the how they smell a little funny after you’ve eaten onions. Because you’ve got on blinders, and the blinders mean that the scary stuff goes away.
The point of the blinders is to be present. Just let it go. Breathe. The scary stuff is on the other side, and it can’t get you here.
Your first draft is all about switching between blinders and goggles. Don’t think too hard about it.