Years ago, when I was in competitive dance, my instructor often told the group we should practice like we meant to perform. Which meant that from the very beginning of putting together a new routine—learning new steps and memorizing choreography—we had to smile (or make whatever facial expressions were appropriate for that style of dance). We had to dance “full out,” including jumps and turns, and other things that we could have “marked” that early in the process. In the months and weeks leading up to performances, we put on a show every time. We gave it our best even when we’d done the whole dance twenty times that day and had twenty more to go.
The idea was that we’d get so used to doing the dance correctly every time, right down to replacing expressions of concentration with whatever was appropriate for that style of dance, we’d unconsciously do the same during the performance.
We practiced like we meant to perform.
Writing is not a performance art (as author Elizabeth Bear says). And thank goodness for that. But writing as if someone’s going to read this draft still benefits me. Here are some things I like to keep in mind, even as I’m writing my first draft:
1. I have a plan before I go in.
This doesn’t mean The Plan can’t change. It usually does. But The Plan gives me an idea of what the whole thing should look like—what moods and feelings I want to convey to the reader. When The Plan has to change, I don’t just adjust that one spot. I go through everything I have and figure out how the one change affects the rest. I revise The Plan accordingly.
2. I research as I go.
For big things I know about ahead of time, I research during The Plan stages. (Sometimes research will change The Plan if what I originally thought I’d do doesn’t actually work like I thought it should.) But you know those sentences where you realize you don’t actually know what grows in that climate, or when the harvest is, or…how the whole situation works? And it’s really just one line, so maybe it’s not that big a deal…
I research it right then. It’s one of those details that will make the world feel more real. More believable. And I do it then so I don’t have to do it later. You know, after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to research something. I don’t want to risk leaving in a lazy line. (Sometimes I really do need to move on, so I leave myself a comment on that detail.)
3. I keep a critical eye on my first drafts as I write them—and I fix things.
Some days, it’s important to just write through and not look back. It can be easy to get caught up in a revision loop, never moving forward. Fixing as you go may not work for people prone to the revision loop. I’m not one of them, though. At least when it comes to the first draft. I like to push forward and see that wordcount rise.
So when I notice that the last few paragraphs I wrote feel emotionally thin, I go back. I layer in the emotion right away. This is useful for me because it puts me back in touch with my character, but it also makes that first draft better. Same with choosing the right word, making sure the motivation is clear, grammar and punctuation issues—whatever. And the more aware of any particular problem I become, the more able I am to spot it sooner.
That sort of awareness eventually becomes second nature. I don’t have to think as much about going back to cut weasel words because I didn’t write them in the first place.
Yes, this does slow down my first-draft process. Gone are the years when I could write 7,000 words a day without breaking a sweat. Now I’m more unconsciously critical of my own work, even before it hits the page, but my first drafts are stronger. Getting those things right the first time—and continuing to make them better with every revision—makes my final manuscript that much better.
Note that I still said revision. I don’t expect to have a perfect first draft. (If only!!!) The first draft is only a foundation to build the real thing off, but if I have that first draft in good shape, I can focus on more interesting story issues. I work on spotting higher-level issues that I didn’t notice in the first draft. That way, when I start my next book, I can keep those things in mind, too, and fix them as I see them. They, too, can become things I unconsciously fix before they’re ever a problem.
All that said, there is no wrong way to write. Everyone writes differently, and this is simply what works for me — writing like someone’s going to read that draft. (And someone usually does. I have a friend who likes to read my stories as they drip out of my head. She’s brave. Crazy, but brave.)
What about you guys? Do you watch your first draft, like I do? Or do you power forward and do the real heavy lifting in the revision? What works best for you?