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.
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.
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.
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?