The First Draft -- saving as many as you can

When the dust settles, I’m left with the carnage. Smoke. Rubble. Casualties splayed about. The percussive echoes left after shell shock. Trailing vision and after-images of the fray.

And I never left my apartment.

Finishing that first draft is always like waking up in a smoking aftermath of destruction. I’m always caught up in the rapture, always baffled at the struggle, the labor pains. I swim in the disorientation, the disappointment. Managing expectations and trying to save as many lives as possible – it’s never dull.

It always reminds me of a Mark Twain quote. I’m sure I’m paraphrasing like a mofo, but it was something along the lines of: The writing begins when you’ve finished. Only then do you know what you’re trying to say.

And I’ve definitely found that to be the case.

The best laid plains:

People will argue this one to the end, I’m sure, but I’m of the group that craves the outlining process. It feeds the organic story-breaking that goes on in my mind whether I like it or not. They usually thrash at each other, the outlining and the mental festering, like wild animals. And eventually they tire each other out and I’m able to rationally piece together the raw materials they’ve left behind.

But I need that outline. It’s a life preserver. I’ve been through too many unrestrained endeavors, too many hellish and desperate phases of rewrite to want to write ass-backwards like that again.

However – and this is a mind-fuck of a however – I always go through a period of outline-loathing frustration while waking up on the battlefield. I’m all prone, thrown on the rubble, just struggling to make my ideas exist on the page the way I want them to. So what damn good did all that outlining do me? There’s usually a lot of cursing and shaking of the fist.

I’m dodging collapsing walls and cutting scenes and rearranging others – I’m doing all that work over again as I go. So I often end up wondering why the hell I outlined the thing.

And this time I felt like I was on my fourth draft to begin with; I had outlined and re-outlined for months. This spec has given me all kinds of hell. So maybe I should have seen this coming. But I kept thinking that all this work would save me the grief of the first draft so I could get to the good stuff.

I know some people like first drafts and hate rewriting – but I think those people are twisted little sprites who need to be put down. Or examined under the hot light of an examination table, under scalpel and cold scrutiny.


For me, writing is rewriting. And I don’t mean that in a pithy, put-it-on-a-blog-and-make-me-vomit kind of way. I just mean that’s the shit I enjoy. That first draft is…well, what I’ve described above. And in case you didn’t get it, I think it sucks some serious ass.

I like rewriting. Take those fractured remnants and making things work. Molding that mechanical translation into something organic and feeling – a less hellish beast that actually resembles the story I’ve been daydreaming for so long. New and fluid and beyond expectation – but close.

So I always come back round and realize that all that outlining work was necessary to get me past that first stage, to a point where things could defy my expectations and take on a life of their own. I guess if it actually just fell out of my head and spooged on the page already formed, it wouldn’t be as fun.

I suppose I like the destruction – the triage. It’s surprising, but being horrified at what’s on the page, and struggling to wrest it into something beautiful – that’s the good stuff. Feeling surprised at what happens (both in the process and at the result) – that’s what we hope the reader will experience.

So maybe so should we.

ps. For any first-draft-types out there, I'd be happy to take shit over this. Or hear the opposing viewpoint. Maybe once the smoke clears I should reassess and find a less painful way to purge that first draft.


Emily Blake said...

I agree. The first draft is the hard part. I have a much easier time seeing what's wrong with an existing script than I do crafting it out of nothing.

Jeff said...

Jesus Christ, Adam Marshall. One in the same. May you be back in my life, dearest Adam.

Saw the Dark Knight. Shot my load twenty times -- at least! Nothin' but water, buddy!

Drop me a line sometime. Email is the same as it has been since 2001.