Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What in the World is this First Draft!

For a writer - or should I say a new writer, an aspiring writer, whatever - the very first dream, as soon as a brilliant thought hits her mind, is - I should get this piece of brilliance written down and published! More often than not, the dream does not go much farther, not immediately. Reaching the top of the best-seller list, Hollywood adaptation of the book et al are too far in the pipeline of her mind. I just wanna get this darn thing published. I just want some publisher to be impressed by it, if possible bowled over by it.

When she starts writing, as the little idea explodes into pages and pages of narrative, and more pages and pages of more narrative and dialogues and situations and plots and twists, the dream starts evolving, at an exponential pace. What if... what if my book is really good? Like mind-blowingly good? What if within no time the whole country, nay, the whole world is talking about it? What if the people I used to ogle at and admire, suddenly call me up and say, "Hey I read your amazing book!"? What if... the book falls into the hands of this world-class director/producer and he thinks, "What a wonderful, new, original story!" What if...

Then she suddenly pops out of dreaming and stares at the words she has written. Closing in on 2000 words. 2000 darn words. What is generally the size of a full-fledged novel? 100K words? At least something greater than 50K? How many more miles would she have to go before she gets there? Quit dreaming, stupid woman, she says and gets back to frantic typing, plotting, creating. At least let me plod on and reach my First Draft. Then I will dream away for a month. So there!

From then on, every time she begins to day-dream about the Hollywood producer, her very pragmatic heart would gently pull her back in. First draft, my dear, first draft. Get to it. Focus. Without a completed story, how can you even dream of Hollywood?

So she continues to write, relentlessly for days and nights - feeling guilty whenever she leaves her seat to attend to her family or to get a cup of tea, her mind spinning words when she's not writing - and the word count climbs slowly, steadily. Through days of frustration, writer's block, exhaustion, demotivation, desolation and discouragement, and though vague, feeble and rare moments of hope and exhilaration, the struggle continues... as she keeps her eyes focussed on the distant, elusive goal - The First Draft.

One day, weeks and months and, in some cases, years after she set out on the journey, she suddenly notices that the entire stream of her thoughts has been copied down, the gaps connected, the scenes more or less described, the characters developed, and the plot jotted down as clearly as possible. There is scope for improvement, definitely, there are huge chunks of text that need to be enhanced or removed, but... Is this it? Is this the First Draft? Is it the moment I was waiting for? 

The skeleton is complete, but there are still ambiguities and deficiencies. One entire paragraph in page number 149 has to be changed from 'telling' to 'showing'. One chapter needs to be ripped apart and a fresh one written. The dialogues sound as though they were written by a six year old. There are modifications - many. Almost every second sentence in every page may need to be changed. Every time she reads it she knows it can be enhanced, elaborated or trimmed. But that is part of the Editing, right? How does one know? How does one decide where the First Draft ends and the Editing begins?

As a short story writer, I found that attaining the First Draft - and knowing it - was easy. As soon as the cloud of a story was emptied from my mind to paper or MS Word, the First Draft was ready. I could also judge the extent to which I should edit or polish, and the areas I should improve so that the end product was ready to be read. Novels are a different story altogether. Keeping the whole sequence in mind is like juggling twenty five glasses. As an author, you're seated inside the story, not viewing it from the outside like a normal reader. You tend to miss things. You lack a fresh perspective even when you come back to it after a long break.

In December 2010, I finished connecting the dots of a novel that had taken shape in my mind a few years ago as a short story. However, it was a starving and under-nourished skeleton of a novel - I was not sure if it was ready to be called a First Draft. I did not think it was a First Draft yet - and it was not even 40K. People would degrade it as a 'novella'. But I knew there were elaborations, descriptions and explanations that could add another 20K(ish) to it. It was not the size that bothered me though it did a bit. The content had to be complete and satisfactory - in my eyes. I gave it two weeks and went back to it from the start, adding flesh to it.

As much as I wanted to call it a First Draft and 'celebrate' albeit alone, I did not feel I was there yet. So I trudged on, expanding the areas where I had left single lines stating what happens next, noting areas that need to be further edited, improving dialogues and so on. To cut it short, I am now at the end of what I call the first round of editing. And yes, it has begun to look satisfactory at places, murky at some others, and there's 'scope for improvement' elsewhere.

I think the 'First Draft' is an entity that cannot be defined - it lies in the eyes of the writer. It is she who decides her First Draft - is it just a plain linear narrative of the events and plot with no elaborations, or a readable, understandable version that connects the gaps but need to be edited, or a series of scenes that need to be organised, or a completed novel that has only typos and grammatical errors to be corrected.

The fact is that it does not even matter. The writer does not need to 'define' what a First Draft means to her. She just needs to keep writing, and writing and writing, her eyes steadfast on the goal - the undefined First Draft.
When she reaches there, she would know.


  1. Absolutely true.... No one can define the "first draft". I feel it is an abstract entity which resides in the writer's mind. :) :)

  2. true...it's best not to worry about it...when one reaches there, one would know...

  3. I couldn't agree with you more!!! Great post Jean!

  4. Thanks for the comments, Eisley, thebrokennib and SUB...

  5. Vision on paper but something is missing i.e., 1st draft maybe.

  6. Nice one..but I do think, a story or a novel is as good as its plot and not the number of words there are in it! I'ld remember a short story than a long rambling novel with words added only to increase the volume.

  7. It is this very abstractness which, i feel, makes the process of writing so challenging and rewarding. Not everyone with a gud story-idea could weave a gud story, let alone get published. Art cannot be taught or understood simply in plots and characterizations - it is felt. And i strongly feel, this ambiguity creates a barrier to entry which is REQUIRED. Otherwise, everyone will publish a bestseller or become an orhan pamuk.