adventures in dysthymia

Friday, March 23, 2018

The 'Rubbish' Draft

Some of the best-known novels of the 19th Century were published serially, chapters or sections appearing in magazines or newspapers as they were written. Obviously, there was no ‘rubbish first draft’ involved. Although there may have been some editing involved before they showed up in book form, what we read today are pretty much first drafts.

It is entirely possible to write a work ready for publication in one pass; more so if one is experienced and has the methodology down. I certainly write better stuff from the start than I did a few years ago. Voltaire churned out ‘Candide,’ as is, in a few days, and Johnson took only a bit longer to do the same with ‘Rasselas.’ Stendahl’s ‘The Charter House of Parma’ was dictated over a few weeks in something close to final form. Dickens, Thackeray, even Hugo, did the serial publication thing, showing the first parts of their novels to the public before they had finished the rest of the narrative. H. Ryder Haggard refused to do any rewriting on his books, claiming that an attempt at polishing would take away from their impact.

The whole rough first draft concept is at least partly a result of the typewriter. Editing oneself as one goes along is difficult when typing but quite a bit easier when writing longhand. And, of course, the modern word processor makes editing at any point quite simple. My first novel, the YA title ‘The Middle of Nowhere,’ was produced with a combination of hand writing and typing. That is, roughly written by hand, with plenty of editing as I went, then typed out and edited/rewritten further. I did the first novella-length section of my four-book ‘epic,’ ‘Donzalo’s Destiny,’ that way too. Both saw a fair amount of rewriting — but nothing too drastic, admittedly. I had worked out any major problems at the first stage, thanks to being able to edit myself there. From that point on, I wrote mostly on the computer.

That included editing those early books for publication. I transferred ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ to the PC, typing the whole thing into Word Perfect, my word processing program of choice then (I still like it for office stuff — not so much for writing). Since, I have written all my novels in Open Office Word, start to finish. Even my outlining.

I do outline, roughly. It might be better described as a sort of synopsis, rather than a formal outline. There will be a list of points to hit. There will be a number of questions posed, usually — what if I did this or what if that happened? Then the whole thing grows in an almost Nabokov-like fashion (but file cards are not needed when using a computer!), with me working here and there, bringing up different sections in a non-linear approach, writing scenes, bits of dialog, and so on.

Admittedly, I must write out the linear narrative eventually. Changes will occur. That is inevitable. But the result is not really a first draft. I revise and rewrite and edit as I move along with this draft, and the result is really what some might call their second draft. Or whatever one chooses; how can one number versions when the work is being constantly revised? One thing is for certain: I have gotten much better at writing out a somewhat finished novel on the first go. I know what I want to say and how to say it. If anything, I fear that I may have become a little too facile.

When I go back through that draft — probably after letting it rest a little while — I will be editing some. A major change is highly unlikely. At any rate, it hasn’t happened yet! Mostly, I end up adding bits of description or exposition here and there to make things clearer. It is rare that I need to cut anything at all. I am an economical writer by nature, not inclined to write anything unnecessary, not inclined to experiment or deviate from my plan.

If new ideas pop up, they are jotted down for use in some future story. Believe me, I have a lot of those in my files. There are scenes from novels I won’t be writing anytime soon — but may impinge on ones I will. That sort of world building is a part of my process. There is more material than I shall ever be able to get to — but I’ll keep at it anyway.

To each their own, of course. I do not urge my method on anyone else. I do, however, point out that one needn’t follow that ubiquitous advice to write the ‘rubbish’ first draft. It is only one way of many to produce a novel and, for me, not the right way.

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