Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "How can I make a good, quiet and put-upon character more interesting to readers?"
Dreaming the map: the efficiency of magic

The Prig's Writ, and Other Writers' Stories

In the comments on my post How Don't You Do It?, Glen says that he's been in writers' groups where:

they regard any form of deliberate intentionality in the first draft stage (as opposed to the later reworking stages) to be completely noxious to any eventual artistic merit. Now, this is all fine, but then these authors seem to imply that EVERYONE has to do it this way, or else you're being a fool to yourself and a burden to others (so to speak.)

I know exactly the kind of conversation Glen means - and I speak as one who's often explaining (even preaching) the merits of what you might call the NaNoWriMo or Shitty First Draft approach to writing. Various thoughts about this in no particular order.

I There are lots of people in the world who are very uncomfortable with not having their advice taken, even if it's about something, such as your writing, which isn't going to make any difference to them. For reasons deep-rooted in their personality they need to feel that you're actually persuaded of their case. And if you show that you're not persuaded, let alone that you still believe the opposite, they'll push amazingly hard to get you to concede. It's nothing to do with how right they are, or how important it is, and everything to do with them. Although it's worth asking yourself if your resistance has its roots in fear of what they're suggesting - some of the greatest NaNo devotees are people who used to be terrified of "writing rubbish", and vice versa.

II If I lined up a class of twenty new, "I want to write" students, the majority would need encouraging to stop the Prig clapping his hand over the Daemon's mouth, as Auden put it. When I suggest that a first draft is "thinking aloud on paper", not trying to "get it right" (whether "right" is for Teacher, or for publishers) you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief. Some only reach that point when I say, "We won't be sharing this." Immediately after the sigh comes the scratching of pens, as all sorts of mad, daemonic stuff comes up from their guts. If it's real free-writing I then ask them to ring three or four words that seem to have resonance, and they discover that this is just the start of a piece, but a start you couldn't have made without all the dross that came up with it. The students who don't need telling this are the ones who've already discovered it.

III This idea - that you need to learn to hold off the Prig for later, when he'll become your editor - is all about process, and mostly process at the beginning (though I've had some wonderfully mad ideas come along thanks to the need for a tweak in final revisions). But it gets mixed up, by the sound of Glen's interlocutors, with a different (but just as inadequate) idea that good writing can only come from direct, authentic experience, not from crafted, directed imagination. So, in the same spirit that Graham Swift was abused for having "made up" what readers had thought was autobiographical experience in Waterland, any writing which doesn't come from that unmediated outpourings from your daemon is thought to be, by definition, inauthentic, compromised, inevitably inferior.

IV So I would say that it's not at all that the first draft needs to be a mad, free-written splurge. I think aloud on paper, so for me writing-down is part of the process: my detailed imagination (as opposed to my rough idea of where the scene's going) is only a sentence or two ahead of my pen. The Prig gets his chance at the end of the chapter. But lots of writers aren't like that. Susannah Rickards says that half of the time it takes her to write one of her extraordinarily wonderful short stories consists of lying on the sofa under a rug. When the story is finally all there in her mind, the writing-down is quick, and doesn't usually need drastic revision: you could say she writes her shitty first draft in her head.

V So If you're someone whose Daemon and Prig operate on a one-sentence-in-the-head cycle, rather than a whole-draft-on-paper cycle, or anything in between, then you won't, apparently, be allowing the daemon his wicked way at all. But you are; it's just not visible on the page. I do think, though, that it's genuinely important to learn to find the place in yourself where the Prig's writ doesn't run. When students or anyone else's writing is dull one reason is always that their sense of story and voice, though it may be competent, is essentially second hand: nothing is really new and fresh and taking-aback for the reader, because they're not letting their own personality and imagination loose on their material.

VI Shitty First Draft is slightly different, as a discussion. Telling students that it's an inevitable stage, on the way to a good second draft and a brilliant third one, is saying that however coherent your first draft does or doesn't look, at this stage external judgement doesn't come into it. It's about shutting up your Inner Critic. It's also about shedding the "get it right first time" mentality as Barbara Baig puts it. (She's also the one who suggests thinking of it as a Zero Draft, which I think is brilliant.). To me it doesn't say that a first draft must be shitty, let alone that its shittiness is the guarantee of its merits. It's just that a shitty first draft is Good Enough. For now.

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