Before I became serious about writing I pictured stories leaping, fully formed, from an author’s mind and straight onto the page. I imagined the entire text of The Hunger Games marching forth from Suzanne Collins’ quick-typing fingers with nary a mistake. I now know this is most definitely NOT how the novel-crafting process works. As Anne Lamott puts it in her brilliant book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
Certainly, all authors have different methods to turn their writing into something worth reading. Some are avid outliners and plotters who have a complete skeleton before they commence writing. Some, like me, have a rough idea of plot and a pretty good picture of who the characters are when they start a new manuscript. Some work by discovery writing—starting a story with no clear idea of where it’s going. These authors are often referred to as “pantsers”, and since I have one foot planted firmly in this camp, I prefer the term discovery-writer. It is much more dignified.
One author I know says she only ever writes three drafts. A first and a final draft, plus however many drafts come in between, all of which she refers to as her second draft. Some of my “second drafts” are saved in my computer as “Real Newest Draft”, “Seriously, This is the Latest Draft”, and “Honest-to-Goodness Most Recent Draft.” Alas, I’ve have had to adopt a new way of naming these various and sundry versions, and have resorted to using 1.0, 1.1, 2.0, and so on. It’s not nearly as fun as my previous method, but it's far more practical.
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later, I can build castles.” — Shannon Hale
A first draft, for me, is a wild and wonderful thing. It is becoming friends with my characters and asking myself a constant stream of “what-if” questions. These are added to a list of the zaniest, most out-there possibilities that could happen. What if he is actually an alien? What if my MC were a talking penguin? What if this took place under the sea instead of in Montana? Of course, since I mostly write contemporary stories, hardly any of these what-ifs come to fruition, but it is an excellent exercise in pushing the boundaries of where my story might go, as well as a reminder that I write fiction and not everything has to match the real world.
Kate DiCamillo, one of my favorite middle-grade authors of all time, describes her first drafts as “meandering, desperate, coffee-stained, confused, hopeful.” This gives me courage to keep writing. To wander down meandering paths in search of where my story wants to go. To allow myself to be confused and a bit desperate when I’m crafting a new work of fiction. And yes, to drink lots and lots of coffee in my quest to write something worth reading.