All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You
Why I'm a convert to Track Changes

Crazy First Draft

It's nearly NaNoWriMo time, but every now and again, when I'm talking about the shitty first draft and other NaNo-ish concepts, someone says "I don't understand why anyone would want to write shit." Of course the idea is not that you want to, but that it may help if you accept it may be - well - shit. For many writers running every word through the shittiness-censor before you allow it onto the page may not be the best way to get and keep the creative imagination working at novel-scale, or at all. But there's no denying that for some people the concept isn't so helpful. So how else could you think of it? 

There's Barbara Baig's Zero Draft, I was thinking. And then in my Historical Fiction Masterclass at this year's York Festival of Writing we were talking about historical voice. Voice is one of the most important but trickiest things about any writing, because voice is both medium and message. And in hist fic the historicalness needs to colour and inflect the voice of both narrative and characters, but the voice also has to convey the story and all its nuances to the reader as compellingly and clearly as possible. What words are "allowed" and what are "authentic". What "weren't used then"? Already the hand is tensing on the pen. And then there's the haunting fear of Foorsoothisms and Odds-bodikinery: the minute you "hear" something not-modern, you're at risk of "hearing" your Inner Critic (dressed up as your best friend/writing teacher) laughing at it. You're hamstrung in both legs by the need to get this narrative voice two different kinds of Right, and how's that for a powerful censor to have in your head?

And so at York, when we'd worked on a character I got everyone to write a letter from them, because it's easier to find a voice when that character is speaking, or writing, directly. This character wants or needs something urgent and important to happen, and the letter is trying to make it happen. "Go over the top," I found myself saying: "Don't worry about sounding silly or whether words are authentic or wrong for the date. You can check that stuff later. Just try and hear this person, and write, as mad as you like. You've heard of the shitty first draft? This is the crazy first draft." 

I didn't know that phrase till I'd said it, but it promptly reminded me of the work actors often do in rehearsal: playing everything wildly, ridiculously over-the-top. All inhibitions, all sense of what's convincing or naturalistic or right for the actual circumstance of performance, get set aside, and whatever seeds of feeling and thought are in the script are allowed to flower physically and vocally, un-constrained, even if that means ending up with ridiculous tropical blooms or even triffids. Of course it helps to have done yoga and Alexander technique, trained your voice and body to be free and flexible, so your being can respond so fully to whatever the character's mind and feelings do. But it's only by letting themselves leap and shriek, whisper and crawl  - the equivalent of gagging the censor - that actors discover what is the heart of the scene. They can then work to make the crazy first draft of their performance the right size and style for the production, while keeping that heart in it. 

Of course, lots of writers - and actors - start quiet, tentative, feeling their way, and let things get bigger once they know what kind of species they're tending. That's fine too - although you'll often find that later rehearsals still include some kind of censor-evading work, such as the famous and delightful Speed Run, or playing a whole scene but with only the vowel-sounds, not the whole words.  But if you recognise the need for your first draft to evade the censor, but don't find that telling yourself it's allowed to be shitty does it for you, how about telling yourself it's allowed to be crazy?