What kind of crack was Jane Smiley (a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less) smoking when she said this? – was the first thought that popped into my head the other day when this ‘inspirational quote’ came through my twitter feed.
My second, more rational, thought was – what does she mean?
Every draft is crappy, to a certain degree. I should know, for I’ve just finished the first draft of a full-length novel. 76,547 words, to be precise. Three-hundred typed, double-spaced pages. The working title is Dark Matter, and it’s the story of a seemingly perfect family which discovers, after a terrible tragedy, that it’s not so perfect after all.
I’ve been working on it for two years, and this week typed the words – The End – an experience accompanied by a curious sensation of quiet satisfaction, coupled with relief, and guilt.
Writing a novel is a solitary, almost selfish, process.
I am impressed that my brain has managed to spout out 76,547 words. I think it speaks of perseverance, to have actually written those 300 pages. But I also think of the hours, devoted to this largely selfish project – a project which has little prospect of ever earning me or my family a single dollar. I think of what I could have done with those hours – cleaned the house, played more with the kids or (gulp) tried to earn some actual money.
Finishing the first draft of a novel comes with little fanfare. As with the writing of it, the celebration of the end is largely an internal one.
Besides, a first draft is only a beginning. What lies ahead is many, many more hours of hard graft to try and corral this book into something worth reading. And even then, it may all be for nought. This latest work is in fact my second effort at a full-length work – the first found a happy place in the bottom of many publisher’s slush piles, which is where it has remained (deservedly) ever since. Do I regret the hours spent on it? No. At least not enough to deter me from trying again. That work was an extraordinary learning experience. From it, I discovered the limitations of the first person, present tense narrative voice – and decided to never write in it ever again. You have to write, to learn these things. I left that experience feeling that I could do better.
As an unpublished author, the writing of a manuscript involves a tremendous leap of faith; sacrifices must be made, without any hope of reward. The writing, the learning – that is the reward. In short, it makes me feel content with life. It gives me a distraction from the all-consuming nature of raising three young children.
I gather that many aspiring writers never get to the point that I have now reached twice. There are so many inspirational quotes and blog posts out there about finishing first drafts, that I have to assume that many people never get there.
This is Jane Smiley’s point. A first draft might be crappy. It probably is crappy. It probably has to be crappy. But that’s OK, because at least it exists. It’s there. Something has been made from nothing. And now, something better can be fashioned from what’s already there.
A first draft doesn’t have to be good – it just has to be.
Now, I just have to make it better.