First Draft

The First Draft

"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." - Terry Pratchett

I've been thinking a lot about this quote lately and I have come to see the truth in it for me as a writer. When I started my first manuscript almost two years ago, I basically downloaded the contents of my brain into a word document. Every detail, every tiny piece of character history had to be included. During this creative phase I kept a notebook with me everywhere so I could capture that one thought, plot twist, or bit of dialogue before it disappeared into the ether.

I wrote at strange hours. I sometimes forgot to eat. I ignored my husband and kids. But by the time I came up for air, I had a story. A full-length novel actually. And I knew it intimately. I understood my characters, the inner workings of their hearts, the things that challenged them, the things that made them laugh. I knew the complete history of the worlds I’d created. I could smell the air, taste the food, and walk through the forests and city blocks. I dreamed of my creations.

When I wrote the final sentence I breathed a huge sigh of relief (and I’m sure my family did as well). It was out! But it wasn’t even close to finished.

Now I am editing. Editing is mostly not fun. It requires you to take huge chunks of painstakingly crafted writing, writing that may have taken hours to perfect, and delete it. It demands you view the adverb, a previously benign and seemingly helpful part of speech, with suspicion and hostility. It demands you chase your spouse around the house reading bits of dialogue from your manuscript asking, “Does this sound natural?” 

What's fun though, or at least what's satisfying, is transforming your story from a rambling, exhaustive, stream of consciousness draft, to a work that has structure, flow, and even some artistry. I am learning when to reveal a detail and when to let it unfold. I am learning how to create authentic dialogue. I am learning the difference between telling myself the story and showing others the story. I am learning to be patient.

I'm now on my third and hopefully final round of editing this manuscript. Sometimes the process makes me cranky. Often it makes me frustrated. When that happens, I come back to Mr. Pratchett’s quote and I'm reminded that telling myself the story was part of the process, but only the first part. Now, I have to continue the work for it to become both a good story and a good piece of writing. 

Write A Book Already

A little about my journey…

I wanted to be a writer when I was a girl – also an astronaut, an archeologist, and a doctor. I almost got there with the doctor thing, but medical school with small children was, for me, an impossible balancing act. I still dream about it sometimes. I mean really dream, as in when I’m sleeping. And I’ll occasionally wake up in a cold sweat believing I’ve missed a biochem exam or I’m lost and can’t find the anatomy lab.

I’m not going to return to medical school. That ship has sailed. And you know what? It’s ok. The timing was never right and I’ve been able do other meaningful work over the years.

Still, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that every female protagonist I’ve created thus far is a doctor of some sort. I guess it’s my way of processing. One has super empathic powers, and the other is an obsessive-compulsive forensic doc, but really, I’ve moved on.

Now I am a writer, and I often find myself reflecting on how I got from there to here, because this destination feels both unexpected and exactly right at the same time.

For years my husband would encourage me to write. His encouragement sounded something like this: “Honey, write a book already!” I would think about it and answer that I just didn’t have an entire story in my head. I’d written content for websites and ads, some blog posts, a little poetry, and correspondence for work over the years, but nothing truly creative since my college days, and even then, not a full-length novel.

I think so much of my energy was taken up raising my kids, working, and running a household, there just wasn’t much left over for creativity. I am not implying you can’t have young children and write. I know people who do it very successfully, but after my workday, their activities, homework, laundry, cooking, etc. I really wasn’t interested. It was all I could do to string a sentence together. Reading a good book felt much more doable than writing one.

Then my children got older. One even moved out. And when the dynamics in my family shifted, I began to consider changing careers. While I pondered what was next for me professionally I took on a yearlong writing project thinking it would give me the change of pace I needed.

Turns out it was one of the most satisfying things I’d ever done in my career. Since I was in the habit of writing every day for work, I challenged myself to write creatively every day as well. A year later when the report was finished, so was the first draft of a manuscript.

Maybe I could do this writing thing? It seemed as though I'd freed up enough creative space in my head for interesting stories to sneak out. In fact now there are so many, I have to order them to wait their turn!

The artist side of me is someone I haven’t recognized or honored in a long time. She feels like a slightly different version of the person who wanted to practice medicine and fly spaceships (I write about those too!), but she’s been in there all along.

I’m learning to embrace the writer’s life with joy and gratitude. There are certainly challenges like agent rejections, endless editing, and not enough time in the day, but I’m willing to work through them in order to do something I love. So here I am at my kitchen table conversing with the characters in my head and telling their stories, and my husband’s new form of encouragement sounds something like this: “Write the sequel already!” And I will.