Thursday, October 22, 2009

first drafts

Still thinking about revision, which I brought up last post, but now I’m thinking about how one gets to that place where revision starts.

Michelangelo was very eloquent about his approach to sculpting. He said, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” Oh, yes, very nice indeed. Very pretty. Lucky bunch, those sculptors. And here’s one genius sculptor who could turn a phrase, too. But we who actually need to use words to make our work don’t have the luxury of a big slab of marble. We can’t set anything free of some material because it’s up to us to make our material, our silly little marks on paper. Only then can we start thinking about freeing any angels within.

For most writers (there are exceptions, of course) this means creating a wreck of a first draft, one that goes all over the place and sometimes no place at all and stalls and speeds and takes a dozen wrong turns. One that is fuzzy about what it’s about and often confused about characters’ motivations and is basically a MESS. But a writer needs that mess to begin the process of finding the story in there, the true story. So, painful as it may be, writers have to allow themselves to make their mess and lie in it too. It’s the only way to get to the chances revisions offer.

I know some writers who get stuck on the first fifty pages of a manuscript, revising those again and again. They never get beyond that mysterious fiftieth page. So that’s one worry of revising before you write the entire manuscript, but I have another. Revision of those early pages can’t be clear because the writer doesn’t see the whole story, can’t really revise wisely without a sense of where the story will end up. I say a sense because, of course, there will be changes, big changes, but a sense is important so the scenes of the novel all lead toward the general area where the story should end. In revision, of course, we hope everything gets more definite, more clear.

So here’s my point. Writers have to give themselves permission to write a lousy first draft, full of all the things we don’t want to see in our writing, in order to get that raw material. That’s when we have the chance to find the true story within.


d said...

This is just what I needed to read tonight as I'm gearing up to dive into my manuscript. My story has seen a few changes since I started writing it, but I've told myself to let go and just write the story. See where it goes instead of insisting it be everything it can be from the start.

Thanks for the reminding me that it's good to get messy.

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks, D. It's so hard to let go but it's such a big part of writing, especially in the early drafts. I have to keep reminding myself of that. I think that's what I'm doing in this blog. Reminding myself of all the things I need to think of so I don't think of them when I'm actually writing.

Anonymous said...

When writing my first draft I forced myself to write through the junk and get to the end. It worked well as far as getting a first draft done. The hard part for me has been finding a balance between writing useful stuff and writing to get to the end. Let's just say I've gotten plenty messy. Thanks for the post!

Brian Yansky said...

Right. You don't want to end up in Alaska when you're traveling across the country to get to California. You use the word balance and I think that's right. If you know you're going way off track you might have to backtrack, just as you would if you felt you'd lost your way on a trail. You can wander off certainly, but not so far off that a large part of your manuscript isn't going to be useful. Thanks for the thought.