On writing the first draft

It's been about 10 days since I turned in the first draft of the sequel to Adaptation. Since then, I've been catching up on the zillion things I didn't do while making the final push to meet my deadline (OK, I missed my deadline by a week), but I've also been thinking about what it felt like, this time, to write a rough draft. The common wisdom among writers (or at least the writers I've talked to) is that you never learn how to write books. You learn how to write each book. That's because every book is different, so the process is different every time.

By and large this is true, but there are some things that you can learn in the course of writing multiple novels. I think that I've learned a lot about my creative process and what works for me. I've also learned that whatever I turn out in the rough draft will look very, very different by the time I get to the final draft. Every time I write a book, I'm amazed by how powerful revision can be.

The novel I just turned in is the seventh novel I've written in my life, and will be the fourth one to be published. (Brief moment of sheer shock.) I didn't revise the first three novels I wrote. I wrote them when I was in high school, and at that time I didn't know anything about revision. I think that my English teachers did try to talk to me about revision (I have vague memories of being resistant to the idea), but the structure of high school classes made it pretty much impossible to delve seriously into revision. And, when I was a teen, I was very prickly about accepting criticism.

It wasn't until I went to college that I learned how significantly revision could change a piece of writing. That's when I took a short story writing workshop with Marilyn Sides. I wrote a story that started out very rough. During the course of the semester, it was workshopped in a way I had never imagined possible. Everyone in the workshop read it; everyone offered comments. I did the same for the other students in the workshop while I revised my story many times. In retrospect, I can see that Professor Sides was a stellar writing teacher, because she created an environment in which everyone was able to learn how to take criticism. I had never learned that before her workshop. In the past, I'd mostly been praised about my writing, and it was life-changing to discover that however "good" I thought something was, it could be better.

By the end of the semester, my short story had been completely transformed. I had learned how to write better sentences. I had learned how to describe scenes and people and food and places. But most importantly, I had learned that by turning a story inside out and thinking about every word, I could create something that was much deeper and more multilayered than I initially expected. The final draft of that story, versus the first draft, was an entirely different creature. It was alive in a way that the first draft never had been.

In graduate school I took more writing workshops (I was actually supposed to be studying other things, but I always managed to sneak in writing workshops). I did a creative nonfiction one that taught me a lot about how to be truthful, as well as how to read like a writer. I took another fiction workshop that didn't fit me as well, but did teach me that every word should be scrutinized, and many can be cut. That workshop was a bit brutal, but it was, in retrospect, good training for working in journalism, where other people rewrite you all the time without telling you in advance.

These days I don't have a workshop teacher or classmates; I have editors and critique partners. But they can only do so much. The responsibility of revision lies with me. The good thing is, with every novel or short story I write, I am taught anew that revision is what brings life to the tales I'm telling.

Most recently, as I was writing the first draft of the sequel to Adaptation, I kept thinking about revision as this kind of shining oasis waiting for me in the future. All I had to do to get there was lay down this track of rough draft. It could have bad sentences and plot holes all over the place. It didn't matter as long as I laid it down, because I knew that once I had those first draft words, then and only then would I have something to work with.

I could compare writing a novel to sculpting a piece of art, and there are some similarities I'm sure, but there is one main difference. With sculpting, you can acquire the clay that you're sculpting by buying it. With writing, you have to make the clay first. That's the first draft. Once you have it, in all of its misshapen, sticky mess, dragged out of the recesses of your imagination and given shape in letters and words and punctuation, then you can begin the sculpting process.

This time, I sent in my rough draft along with a list of items I already planned to do in revision. You might think that after writing six books, I would have gotten better at first drafts by now — that maybe I'd be able to turn in a first draft that required less work. But I think that what I've learned is that in the first draft, I should try to get everything on the page that could possibly be necessary to tell the story. Every extraneous plot strand, every potential theme. Some things won't be in the right place; some things might actually turn out to be wrong for the story. (And new things will inevitably arise during revision.) But I need to do my best to put those ideas on the page in some form, so that when I come back in revision, I have something to work with.

In the past, when I've turned in first drafts, I've felt sort of triumphant, like: Yay! HERE IS MY AWESOME BOOK! But every time, without fail, I've had to pretty much rewrite that first draft completely (I still call this "revision"). This time I felt less triumphant, but a lot more eager to get to revision. I think I've finally internalized the fact that yes, there will be a lot of revision to come, possibly even significant rewriting. But that's okay, because that's the way it works for me.