Periscope Depth

every day I write the book

I’ve used this metaphor a couple times in the past few weeks, so I must like it. Maybe it’s a nugget of hidden wisdom. Try it out:

The first draft of a novel is when you dump all the Legos on the table. The second (and successive) drafts are when you start building the house.

If you’re like me, you got into writing because you love to read. You like stories. You like discovering a world through well-written fiction. Because of that, when you start writing a novel you expect that what comes out of your fingers should look like what you hold in your hands when you read. You’re writing a novel, so the thing that you’re typing should look like a novel.

This won’t work.

The thing that you hold in your hands when you read (i.e., a novel) is the result of several years of work by many different people. Not just the author on the cover jacket, but her writing group or whoever gives her feedback. The people she turned to for research. Her agent, who tailored the manuscript to make it saleable. Her editor, who fixed the manuscript further to make it readable. That’s between half a dozen and twenty people. Look at the Acknowledgments page of your favorite contemporary read and do a headcount.

Your first draft will be a mess. You have to accept that. In fact, you’ll know you’re growing as a writer when you recognize the mess as you’re writing it. Many times I finish my two thousand words for the night and say to myself well, that was shit. On rare occasions, I say it to myself as I’m writing. As the words appear on screen. I type shitty words and I keep going. I know that, of those two thousand words, two hundred will survive to the final product.

But that’s fine. That is in fact ideal.

Your first draft is when you dump all the Legos on the table. And that’s not easy. You have a big bucket of Legos. You have to scoop them all into a pile, get the last few out of the bottom of the bucket, and make sure none of them landed on the rug. That’s a process.

But you can’t build a house by taking Legos out of a bucket one at a time. You can’t throw the Legos on the table and expect them to fall into structure. Your first step has to be a mess.

I’ve found that giving myself permission to make this mess improves my attitude. I don’t know if it improves the final product; I haven’t sold anything yet. But my manuscripts keep getting better. And none of the writers I’ve read would say that the first draft is supposed to be perfect.

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