Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 2: The Proto-Draft

That pile of paper in the featured image is the original manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals.

When I began writing my first novel in 2000, pen on paper was the logical medium. I did not know if I could create anything worthwhile or if I would soon abandon the project. Besides, it just felt right. Until the 20th century, all books were written with pens scraping along on paper. (Okay, I didn’t use a quill pen.)

Even now, I write my first drafts by hand, but those drafts are getting sketchier, especially for short stories. They’re somewhere between outlines and fully realized drafts. Sort of like really detailed outlines, with occasional fully realized scenes or pieces of dialogue.

I think of those handwritten starts as proto-drafts. They are the first organized manifestations in words of the ideas and mental images behind my fictional works.

Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
A novel disguised as two inches of scribbled-upon paper.

The objective of a first draft is to get the whole narrative down in words, even if some of it is left skeletal, a framework or scaffolding. I supply detail and finalize the plot as I type the thing into a word processor. With that document complete, the real work begins. The words are legible and I can cut, copy, apply colours, search, replace, and delete.

But the handwritten proto-draft is an essential part of my writing process. Here’s why:

  • A page of scribble is less intimidating than crisp words on a white screen. If I’m not sure about a new story or novel, or if I’m trying some sort of new technique, I don’t want the half-baked thing glaring back at me looking stupid.
  • The first thing I see when I go back to the new writing project is the spot where I left off, rather than the first paragraph. I can slip back into the story immediately, instead of thrashing my way through the beginning.
  • I can avoid the distractions of the internet.
  • I can write almost anywhere–outdoors, on the bus, or in the bathtub (as long as I can keep the paper dry).
  • It’s more complicated to shred or burn a paper draft than to hit the delete key with vindictive glee if I decide the work is crap. I can stuff it into a box or drawer–or even the recycle bin–where it will be safe until the fit has passed. (I wonder how many great works may have perished when open fires were used to heat writers’ rooms.)
  • I don’t have to worry about losing any work to a computer malfunction or power failure. Fire and water are the only immediate concerns. Or leaving the manuscript on a bus or in a coffee shop–theoretical possibilities only, since I don’t actually write in such places now. (I always shudder when I think of how T.E. Lawrence lost the ms. of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train.)
  • If anyone accuses me of plagiarism, I have proof that I wrote every word myself, along with crossings-out, circled paragraphs with arrows, and sentences squeezed in along the margins.

When the longhand draft is complete, I put it away for a week or a month. Then I go back and start on the real first draft, by transcribing the handwritten text into a Word document, changing, omitting, and adding as needed.

First page of the handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
The beginning of TFOM. I must have written this on November 7th, 2000.

The longhand draft is sort of like a compost heap, only better organized. It’s a big pile of words I can work with to refine the raw material into a completed work.

Copy of The Friendship of Mortals ("big" version)
The final product.

For me, the toughest part of writing a piece of fiction is the process of embodying concepts with words or solidifying imaginings into prose–the raw act of creation. The sooner I can get that done, the better, and the proto-draft helps.

If writing by hand on paper is out of the question, a writer can still do a proto-draft. Control + End takes the cursor to the end of the document. Then it’s just a matter of writing like there’s no tomorrow until THE END.

Fellow writers, how do you create your first drafts? Longhand, word processor, detailed notes, sketchy outlines? How do you bridge the gap between ideas in your head and words on page or screen?

Next time: Writing from the Inside or the Outside?

66 comments

  1. I no longer write a first draft from beginning to end straight through. If an idea for a scene or chapter further on occurs to me, I’ll go ahead and write that and then go back to where I left off with the main narrative. I stopped handwriting drafts in the ’90s when I got my first computer.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’d never write if I had to do so with pen to paper.
      I used to. I still jot down notes in a bedside journal filled with ideas and drawings and pontifications.
      But seriously write? Script? I failed Engrish too many times due to my handwriting to ever not use a computer.
      Long live the cloud.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Computers really changed things. People who learned to touch type have an advantage over those who thought someone else would type their stuff. I’m happy to be a nine-fingered typist (all 8 fingers and one thumb, to be accurate). I did deliberately change my handwriting style from the slanted, connected style to an upright, semi-printing for the purpose to taking notes in college, and that’s what I use for first drafts.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve to write with pen and paper every now and then, but it doesn’t last very long. I write on my laptop, with very little, if any, outlining or notemaking before hand. I just come up with an idea and start writing. I do a lot of editing and thinking about the story while I am writing that first draft, so there isn’t a lot of rewriting that comes once I’m done with the draft.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That sounds efficient, Mark. Maybe because you have had to marshal words quickly in writing for your work? I get the impression writers believe that multiple rewrites are obligatory to give their work credibility., but that may not be true for all.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My first job out of law school was as an administrative hearing officer – basically like a judge, but without the robe. I had to issue written decisions that were frequently 20-30 pages long. What I learned back then was that a lot of my writing process is mental. I think and I ponder and I consider the path my writing wants to take – all in my head. And then there comes a point where I start writing. And it just kind of all comes out. For better or for worse. Except for the five or six years of writer’s block I experienced. Nothing came out then. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I handwrote everything when I started, and then had to go through the laborious process of typing it all on paper with a manual typewriter, often having to correct with an eraser or whiteout or even type a ruined page a second time. I got my first computer in 2000 and it was such a liberating experience! I could just let the words flow – no more scratching out, trying to insert between lines or stick in an extra piece of peper. Almost every sentence that I write gets altered immediately, and it’s so easy with a word processing program. I haven’t handwritten a manuscript since then. The words flow from my brain, through my fingers onto the keyboard, and then onto the screen.

    Liked by 4 people

        1. I used a typewriter through college and even to type cards for the authority file of the library where I worked in the 1980s. I can’t imagine typing a first draft on one, though. If I were writing fiction back then, I would definitely have used pen on paper. I am grateful that I learned touch typing back in high school (preparing for those college papers). It’s been useful throughout my library career and now that I’m a writer.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations on 20 years of writing. I do most of my work on the computer now but when one is not handy, like at the beach or in a car, I still handwrite. Also, if I get stuck, I often take a note pad and sit on my terrace and handwrite. It´s funny how the ideas flow then.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A fascinating look at your creative process. That is how I used to write the intro to my term papers, even after I started using computers. It had to be on an 8-1/2 x 11 lined notebook, where the spiral was at the top and not the side. Nowadays, I do the whole thing in Word. I think I got converted when I wrote a term paper for an MBA class that could easily have been a master’s thesis. I typed an annotated bibliography first and ended up cutting and pasting a lot of those annotations into my almost 100-page term paper. It was about stress among computer professionals. Did you know that good stress is called eustress?

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Very insightful glimpse into your workflow, Audrey. I must admit I’ve not handwritten anything for a long time, but you’re spot on about the distractions of the internet. One minute you’re tapping away, the next you’re watching crazy cat videos on YouTube.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m convinced that there is a psychological/physiological connection between a human moving his fingers as she/he performs work and their brain activity. We learn/perform better, mentally, when our hands are physically involved.

    Be it script or keys, our wrist and fingers moving enhances our thinking.

    You know that I write code for a living. Code is never written out on paper. So, early on, I must have trained my mind and body to think and type as one. I’ve been using a computer since 1985 to type stories. I still have 5 1/4 floppies, useless now, with stories that will never see the light of day. That’s OK. The better ones came later. And now, with the ability to always persist ideas into a place that (theoretically) will never be lost, I have no qualms about using the cloud as my only storage facility.

    If it goes down, society will have fallen and survival will take precedence over these errant missives. But maybe then, crossing my fingers—and not for the obvious reason, I’ll return to penning stories as gall-ink to papyrus.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Floppies! They were still around when I wrote The Friendship of Mortals. I was using a borrowed laptop then and saved directly to a 3 1/2 inch floppy rather than the hard drive. On one occasion something went wrong and I lost a huge chunk of text, with some crucial scenes. I literally beat my head against the wall in despair. But I still had that handwritten draft and reconstructed the lost stuff from it. Because I always change things as I type from that draft, though, I was sure the lost text was better than the reconstruction.
      I hope the cloud continues to be reliable.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I started writing seriously in 1980 and used an IBM Selectric typewriter then. I acquired my first computer in 1990 and have used that ever since. I do scribble notes and poems in longhand, but I damaged the tendons in my writing hand when was 18, and I can’t use that hand for writing for more than five minutes or so without discomfort. What using the computer feels like for me is that the words flow right out of my head onto the screen. Most of the time I’m not even aware of my hands and the keyboard…until I mistype something!

    I tried writing from a detailed outline once, and it doesn’t work for me. If I know all the detail, I can’t be bothered turning it into readable prose. I usually know how a story begins and ends, but the middle is a mystery, which keeps me from being bored, and also often frustrates me, of course.

    Bridging between what’s in my head and what’s on the page means lots of editing and rewriting. I start every session with rereading and editing what I wrote the day before. Often right from the beginning of the chapter. This also helps get me back into the scene, back into that other world I’m inhabiting. So it takes me a long time to write a book, but there usually are few changes to that “first” draft.

    I have my computer set to back-up to an external hard drive once every day. But I also back-up to the cloud. Floppies were fun, though I can’t say I miss them!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I need to know the ending too, before I start to write. It serves as a goal or target. I prefer to have the first draft done before I go back to the beginning. I make all kinds of changes as I type up that first draft.
      Can’t say I miss floppy disks. I use an external hard drive and save documents to the cloud too.

      Like

  9. Congratulations on the 20 years! Your post about writing in longhand first resonates with me. I keep my personal journal in longhand. I just can’t do it online. It’s not as comforting to me, it just doesn’t seem to have the same weight of meaning even though I might write the same words in both formats. There is something peaceful and satisfying about actually writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I enjoyed reading the detail of your writing process Audrey, admire the organisation and the discipline to keep the drafts, definitely a style which has stood you in good stead.

    I have nearly illegible writing and found it impeded my creative process, also spelling is a problem. Thus for me hammering away at keys and seeing the words arrive in a readable fashion with the option of spelling most of them close to accurate appeals to me. Also since my books are created out of a chaotic process often one thousand word chunks get copied, deleted and then pasted somewhere else. Apart from ‘saved’ they are also on a Cloud and nestling safety are copies on a PNY memory stick. Since I also dislike Word with a passion this ensures I am in a suitably acerbic or angry mood for battle scenes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Copying, cutting, and pasting is a necessary part of writing and best done with a word processor rather than scraps of paper. I think it’s great (and sort of funny) that Word revs you up for battle scenes. I’ll think of that when I read Book 3!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I love it when writers share their process. The overall arching lesson to me is that there is more than one way to create a piece of art. In large part, I think that’s what makes the act of creating a story so exciting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s great that we can find options that work for us. I’ve never used Scrivener, although I’ve heard others like it (and some who don’t). I’ve learned to make Word do what I want, and don’t need another learning curve right now. And I can still write legibly when that feels like the right thing to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. lmao – never in a million years! My handwriting has become so bad, writing longhand simply isn’t a viable option. Plus my hands hurts if I use a pen for too long. The most important reason, for me at least, is that I type soooo much faster than I can write. My typing just about keeps up with my imagination and allows me to try different things without ever feeling that paragraphs or pages or whole chapters are wasted if I delete them.

    The interesting thing is that our differences highlight just how individual the writing process is. What works beautifully for you would be the death of creativity for me. Vive la difference!

    Liked by 2 people

          1. I was surprised at how passionate we all are about the process. I suspect there’s a part of all of us that wonders how it happens? How does a simple idea become something you can hold in your hand? I admit I feel like a fraud sometimes. Me? A writer? Nah…

            Liked by 1 person

  13. I cannot write by hand, Audrey. There are two reasons for this, well, actually only one. I write slowly and this links to the real reason which is that I am an OCD neat freak who can’t scribble, cross out or write in notes. I just cannot do it so I write on my PC which allows me to edit, neatly and invisibly, as I go along.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I agree with all your points about the benefits of handwriting, Audrey. I don’t handwrite a first draft, but I handwrite all my conceptual development and outlines. I love writing in the margins and drawing arrows and all the messy stuff that flows much more easily with a pen. Later, I transfer it to the computer.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I mostly scribble everything on paper first from blogs to novels, but with a novel I only scribble a few pages before adding it to my word document and throw the illegible papers in the recycling bin. But I tend to print out each chapter as I go along – to feel safe and to literally feel the paper – proof of what I have written so far.

    Liked by 1 person

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