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Writing a first draft–a “discovery draft,” as I like to call it–has to end somewhere. This is a blessed relief, because drafting is scary and hard. You do it blind. You have no idea whether what you’re writing is “going anywhere” or whether it’ll be any good (in fact, it’s not good, it’s terrible, that’s why they call it a ROUGH draft).
When do you know you’re finished with a first draft? For me it’s when there are no more gaps in the basic story. Figuring this out involves laying receipt tape on the dining table and monkeying with the order of the scenes I’ve written, each of which is represented by a sticky note. What you see here is my entire draft mapped out on a single tape, plus my notebook containing the scenes or part-scenes I still have to write.
What I haven’t done yet is make tapes for individual subplots, character development/relationships, significant objects or any of the many other aspects of the book that will eventually require mapping out. I thought I might do this today too–thus the extra (blank) tapes–but I realized that it’s too early. That’ll be second-draft work, the equally-but-differently scary and hard work of revision.
PS: Instead of sticky notes, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black uses index cards–check out his amazingly organized process.
These days I’m in “discovery draft” mode: banging out new material without letting myself think too much about plot arc, character coherence or development, structure, or style. I’m grasping at every trick I know for not stopping, not slowing down, not censoring. For getting Big Brain out of the way so that Little Brain can play.
Little Brain likes lists. She appreciates not having to remember what’s supposed to happen next in the scene or trying to reconstruct the brilliant train of thought she had on the bike ride to the cafe. She also likes check marks and is very fond of pink highlighter.
Oh, and math! Little Brain loves adding up how many words are already on the screen and how many more she needs to produce before she gets to have a croissant, or check Twitter, or doodle some more in the margins.
Horace Walpole, man. Now there was a gent who knew how to have fun. In 1746 he moved to the village of Twickenham, bought a villa called Strawberry Hill and decided to turn it into a Gothic castle-slash-themepark. Using drawings of medieval cathedrals as his guide, he knocked together turrets and gargoyles out of plaster and papier mache. He filled the mansion with his vast collection of historical curios (including Henry VIII’s jeweled dagger and an Elizabethan necromancy mirror made of black obsidian) and threw open its doors to daytrippers from London.
Then he wrote a little novel called The Castle of Otranto, claiming to have translated it from a crusades-era Italian text. When it sold well and he finally fessed up to the authorship, he told a friend that the story had come to him in a dream.
“I am writing; I am building. . .My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole said in 1761, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead. If they had not the substantial use of amusing me while I live, they would be worth little indeed.”
I love the fact that Walpole’s prediction was 240 years off. The Strawberry Hill Trust has just finished restoring his house, and his book reappears yearly on Gothic course syllabi worldwide.
There’s a lesson here for us dabblers and dilettantes, hoarders and hobbyists. Even if you make stuff purely to amuse yourself, even if your stuff is insubstantial or fake, even if your stuff doesn’t make you rich and famous–your stuff still counts.
Two and a half centuries from now, it might even be revered.
At the Dirt Exhibit in London I got to see John Snow’s “ghost map” graphing cholera cases during the 1854 outbreak:
This map helped prove that cholera spread not through “miasma” in the air but tainted water (the deaths marked on the map cluster around the Broad Street pump). It’s commonly credited with contributing to the birth of epidemiology.
Here’s another map, this time pertaining not to disease but to literature:
This version was drawn by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer via Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
The hero’s journey (Campbell calls it the “monomyth”) may not have saved as many lives as Snow’s map. But it arguably led to the birth of literary criticism.