Ian Finley, the 2012 Piedmont Laureate in Playwriting, is a wonderful teacher. I know, because I’ve taken a couple of his classes. And what he does best (he actually does many things REALLY well) is to cajole, encourage and give his full support for his students to write really bad first drafts.
He doesn’t want to see a polished first draft. He wants his students to write something that is truly squirming and ugly. A truly bad first draft, in his opinion (and he’s right), if it is flawed and ugly enough, is the beginning of something beautiful. For when we just let go and allow anything to happen on the paper, there is more promise in the mess than there could ever be in the careful, constricted polish of our usual first attempts.
First drafts should be full of energy, ideas, ideals, mistakes, bad dialogue, bad characters, dialogue that drags rather than sparkles, and a big lump of something that might, if you poke at it a little, but not too much, start to grow.
First drafts are painful. They are not, nor should they ever be, finished drafts. They are something to get through. You should never show them to anyone, especially not your best friend, your partner, or even your mother.
A good, really bad, first draft should give you a couple of good characters, some real problems, a few possible solutions, and sense of where you might be going.
First drafts, unlike the “draft” mode on your printer, are not fast. The words come out in awkward fits and starts. Don’t worry, and don’t fuss over the mess you’re making. Keep going. Two or three pages of first draft a day are honorable work and will get you there, not quickly, but surely. It’s a slow process, but don’t look back. Keep putting the words down, one in front of the other. Once you get to the end, turn around and begin again, this time cleaning the house of unwanted ideas, characters that don’t gel, plot lines that get blurred, and all those awkward, awful phrases that sneak in along the way.
That’s the rub. A first draft is not a finished product. It is merely a kind of road map for your story. Think of that first draft as directions you might have gotten off of Google Maps that will take you to a restaurant two miles from your house by way of Amsterdam.
Peggy Payne (author of Cobalt Blue and several other wonderful books) and I were recently on a book tour together. We were in an unfamiliar city and were trying to find a restaurant the bookstore owner had recommended. He said it was a popular place and often closed if it sold out of food…but, fortunately for us, it was early and the restaurant was only a mile or two away down the road. The owner had gone on to wax eloquent about the restaurant’s fine pies, succulent fried okra and great biscuits. A good biscuit can be a thing of beauty, so we headed out hoping to eat before we had to speak. I was driving and Peggy was using her phone and Google Maps to navigate. There was no restaurant in sight, so Peggy punched her phone again to alert it to the fact that things weren’t looking like dinner. The cheerful programmed voice came on to announce we had 542 miles to go and should expect an 11-minute delay due to traffic.
That’s what a first draft looks like. You think you’re almost there when you discover you’ve got 542 miles left to go and might expect a delay or two along the way.
By the way, when we finally got to the restaurant, it was closed. Presumably, they had run out of biscuits.