Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Thoughts on the First Draft

I don't have much of a Word-Craft Wednesday for you today. These are just some thoughts on writing that have occurred to me over the last few days. They're unorganized, but I thought I would share them with you anyway. 

I’ve been working on learning a new musical piece on my guitar. Learning the piece is just one step, though. Once you know what to play, you have to focus on how to play it.  It’s not enough to know, “Okay, I hold ‘B’ for an eighth note, then ‘E’ for a dotted quarter note.” Granted, that’s a huge part of it, but there are other factors that go into performing. For example, which note should be played more loudly? Is one accented over the other? Sometimes, the composer writes this type of information for you. Other times, well, you just have to figure out what sounds good for yourself.  

I was working on this piece the other day, and suddenly it hit me that I was playing all of the notes equally loudly – to where the canto forte (“strong song” or melody) was totally lost. It should have been totally obvious to me that this was happening, but it wasn’t until I’d practiced the thing a bazillion times before I’d noticed it. Then I felt kind of dumb. Now I’m realizing that I’ve imposed absolutely no dynamics (volume changes) on the piece whatsoever. It’s totally flat.

The writing process is very much like learning a new musical piece. First, you have to have all your mechanics in place – who does what, what happens, how long, and so on and so forth. This is what happens when writing the first draft. At least for me, when I write my first draft, I feel like I myself am learning about my story for the first time. I’m not always sure where it’s going, and sometimes it surprises me.  

Once all the mechanics are in place, you have to revisit your writing. This is when you’ll notice that the story might have a theme – a canto forte, if you will, that you didn’t even realize that you’d put in. You need to rework your writing so that this shines through, but you also don’t want to drown out the other elements. Everything has to blend harmoniously. This is what the second draft is about.Unfortunately, you'll probably notice lots of things that should have seemed obvious and you might feel kind of silly about the whole thing. However, it's fun to watch your second draft come together as you watch it improve.

But what you’ll notice about all of this is that before you can tweak the dynamics and really bring it to life, you have to have the mechanics in place. In other words, don’t put the cart before the horse. You can’t have your second draft before your first draft.

So, when you write your first draft, you ought not be thinking about it as something that people are going to read, just like when you first learn a piece, you aren’t going to perform it until you’ve polished it.

This is something that it took me a shockingly long time to figure out, believe it or not.  I wrote with the idea that I needed to polish as I go, so that when I was done writing, all I’d need is a quick once-over and Bam! my writing would be ready for publishing.  As a result, it took me a really, really long time to get everything written. There was so much pressure that writing wasn’t even fun, and consequently, I got very little writing done. Telling yourself that you need to get your writing right the first time is about as much fun as sitting down at a musical rehearsal with music you’re looking at for the first time and trying to play it in front of people. It’s stressful and embarrassing.

So you have to let go and give yourself permission to make mistakes, because right now, you’re just learning what your story is all about. Don’t go in expecting the literary equivalent of a concert performance – right now, you’re just practicing and learning.  Don’t worry about the dynamics until you have the mechanics.  Hey, that could be a slogan or something, huh?

I’ll write more about how to change the dynamics next week, but I wanted to really emphasize the fact that your first draft is your playground. Have fun. Experiment. Nobody is watching you but yourself, so write with your eyes closed and your imagination open. 

Share any thoughts in comments. 

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