So you’ve daydreamed, you’ve brainstormed, you've outlined. You’ve grown the seed of your idea into something that can become a story, perhaps a novel.
Now comes the hard part: the writing. This is the heavy lifting of the whole writing extravaganza, the manual labor of it, and there aren’t any shortcuts or tricks. You just have to do it.
I don't count notes and outlines as “writing.” I reserve the word “writing” for when you’re IN the story, telling it, putting words together that put flesh to your idea’s bones. At a party this summer I met a guy who said he was a writer, and then he explained that while he had been working on two different fantasy trilogies since the 1970s, and had outlined them and dreamt up the worlds, he hadn't yet started. . . writing them. ULP! Now, I get this. I really do. World-building was the big fun for me as a young "writer." Dreaming up the cosmologies and character names, even drawing the maps of imaginary lands. I loved that part and I still do. But it isn't writing. Make no mistake. Outlining is not writing. "Dreaming stuff up" is not writing; it's the threshold of it. Progressing from the one to the other is like jumping off a cliff. It is so hard. And it has to start somewhere. Some call it the first draft.
Me, I have recently taken to calling that first flawed, juicy, wild draft the “exploratory draft.” It sounds so much more exciting than “first draft.” It sounds fearless, like you’re stepping into an unknown territory with a knife strapped to your thigh, or like you’re sailing around an uncharted island, looking for a place to drop anchor so you can dive in and swim ashore. And it IS kind of like that, because in your early days with your idea, no matter how well you think you know it from your daydreaming, brainstorming, and outlining, you can’t really know it until you’re IN it.
You have to find the story -- and that’s what exploratory drafts are for: exploring the unmapped lands of your idea and mapping them. It IS exploring, and for me, thinking of it like that helps dispel the expectation that it should be easy, casual work, that the story should somehow be waiting for me like someone’s dropped grocery list, all ready to go and just lying on a sidewalk. No story of mine is so tame! For better or worse, my stories are jungles.
There’s bushwhacking involved.
Okay. I’m very serious about this. I’m really not into new-agey visualization exercises or anything, but just follow me for a minute.
Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a jungle in, let’s say, Borneo (because I have a fascination with Borneo). You have a rough idea of how big this jungle is -- you’ve flown over it in a helicopter and seen dense green treecover, and you know what’s on the other side. You know where you want to get to, and you have a very vague idea of what’s IN the jungle, but you have no map, and as of yet there is no trail. What you do have is a machete, a blank roll of paper, and a grease pencil.
There’s only one way to get to the other side of the jungle: take out your machete and start whacking. Carve your way forward and forward, sometimes sideways and sometimes back, until you get to the other side. That first time through, you’re going to come across ravines, swamps, viper nests, rivers, all sorts of things you didn’t expect and you’ll deal with them and get around them, over them, through them, in all manner of resourceful ways. And when you step out of the jungle on the far side, what you’ll have in your hand is a sprawling, wrinkled, sweat-stained mess of a map of the territory you’ve just discovered. It might not look very pretty, but it is a glorious thing, a document of discovery. You clutch it to you, and after you’ve rested and healed for a while, you go back to the far side of the jungle and. . . you start again.
This time, with your messy map in hand, you’ll know where to go and where not to go. Some of the things you discovered your first time in, you’ll want to avoid like the plague; others will be perfect, serendipitous things that make the journey richer than you could have imagined when you set out. You’ll know your jungle/story intimately, the good and the bad, from ground level. Outlines, I think, are kind of the equivalent of aerial photography -- you get some idea, but you can’t really see what it’s like down below -- not until you’re walking through it. And when you find things to be not exactly as they had seemed from the air, you have to adapt.
The second time through, your passage will be much more elegant than the first, and it will also be less exciting. Nothing will ever be so miserable or so thrilling as that first bushwhack. . . that first exploratory draft. The misery and the thrill are intertwined -- that’s exploration for you, taking the leeches and fevers with the discovery and getting to name islands and swamps after yourself! The second time, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll be refining your map. It will get more perfect and less exciting with each pass, and then one day you’ll be done. Done with that jungle and ready for a new one.
Okay, thanks for humoring me with that visualization. That crazy metaphor actually helps me to relish the early stage and take it for what it is: exploration. Sure, there are times I wish it was easier and more orderly, but it’s not, and I imagine if it was, it would be like finding a paved concrete trail through the jungle -- like someone had been there ahead of me. That sounds more like walking through a housing development than mapping a jungle. Unthrilling! And I don’t think it’s supposed to be like that.
I have heard rumors of writers to whom things come easily. I heard that William Styron claimed Sophie’s Choice flowed out of him perfectly and was published exactly as he first set it down -- that it is a first -- an only -- draft. And that book is big and gutsy and complex and heartbreaking, so if that story is true, well, I don’t know what to think. It doesn’t seem possible to me, but I’m not calling William Styron a liar. And if you come up to me and tell me you wrote a book in three weeks, well, I’m not calling you a liar either. I’ll just glare at you and plot your demise. Ha ha. Not really. I’ll just whisper behind your back that you must have been on drugs the whole time. Okay, okay! Not really. If you write well and with ease: kudos. You are blessed.
But I’m not really jealous. Not really. (At least, not at this moment.) My way might be tortuous and miserable at times, but I still love it, like someone loves their own ugly baby. It’s MY tortuous, miserable “ugly baby.” And I happen to think my ugly babies grow up into pretty good books!