first exploratory drafts

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.

Be nimble.

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!


Anonymous said...

I like that 'bushwhacking through the exploratory draft' metaphor. That makes the editing process seem more palatable to me - something I might actually be able to keep focused on, instead of my eyes glazing over.

I didn't know Styron wrote Sophie's Choice in one draft - that's amazing.

Amber said...

This essay post helps me relax, so much. Thanks. Because doubt creeps in, like it should be better. Right now I am actually writing, but it is like doing it in a really dim light...if that make sense. So your jungle thing helped.

" it would be like finding a paved concrete trail through the jungle -- like someone had been there ahead of me. " --- And this. It shouldn't be the best yet. It is just the start.

Thanks Laini!


andalucy said...

love love love this metaphor. i think i am in quicksand right now in my "exploratory" draft.

i heard that katherine anne porter sat down and wrote flowering judas in 2 hrs.

holly cupala said...

Even having been through the jungle once, I'm a little bit at a loss trying to do it again for a second novel. So I'm trolling for inspiration, and here, I've found it! The idea is there, the big picture is there, even lots of the details and characters are there, but no, I'm not relishing the SFD - but an exploration...I think I can take a machete to that.


Anonymous said...

Ya, I like calling it an "exploratory draft" better then a "first draft". I haven't started my exploratory draft yet. It's good that I read this first. It is all very helpful!

Anonymous said...

I have been working through my exploratory draft and hope to be done soon! Thank-you for writing this helpful section! Every time I get stuck I refer to here, and that bushwhaking metaphor is a really neat way for me to think of it.

Q said...

Yes. That is the true story of a first draft. I hate them. With a fiery passion. Mine happen to be completely awful--I don't know how ANYONE could write anything readable in one draft. It just makes no sense to me.

Living2Dream said...

Laini, thanx so much for the whole jungle metaphor thing. i am still in the outline, dreaming stuff up stage, and i keep getting to the put when im pull out the machete to start whacking...and put it back again. you are so right, writing is hard!! but so worth it, I just finished Blackbringer, and it's amazing, you are such an inspiration and help to me, thank you!

jaecy bells said...

Laini, I have a question: I am writing a novel,but I am not sure what stage I'm at. I have an outline; I have written the begining. I have richly imagined and written a little of the end. But the middle is quite blank! I'm not sure if I should be brainstorming or what. Any advice??? Anyone?

Linda said...

I've been reading your blog for, jeez, almost a couple of years now, Laini. And I just wanted to say 'thank you' as well as 'curse you!' because oh dear oh dear oh dear I have been bitten by the writing bug. It's been a long time coming. The *decision* to write was a very scary one for me...putting myself out there, blah blah blah...and it's been exhilarating to have finally taken the first step to start. So this is my first time venturing over to the Not For Robots side of things, and I really liked what you wrote above. I'm excited to begin this journey. And it's going to kick my butt...but that's ok.
You are one of my inspirations because you've been kind enough to share not only your writing process but your publishing process and your life as a published writer, and you've helped me start to believe that it is possible for me to really do this thing.
Guess I'm just trying to say that I know it's been in me all along, it just needed some coaxing to come out and join the world. Whatever comes of my writing, I am for now just happy to be doing it at all. So, thanks!

Meredith said...

Wow, I loved this post. Thank you. I struggle more than anything with that first painful, wild, messy draft, and the analogy of the jungle fits my process perfectly.

I may start calling it the "exploratory draft," as well.

Amotherwriter said...

This is my first time visiting your blog...while I was procrastinating (ie. brainstorming). I love the term "exploratory draft." It is so liberating! Many thanks for taking the time to share with other writers. Your posts are encouraging, uplifting and motivating.

Ollie said...

While writing my book I often wondered if it went the same way for others. Going back over everything from the begining and revising and revising the map/story. It's good to know I'm not alone.


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Britta Kirk said...

Really wonderful essay, Laini. I'm in the midst of my 'exploratory draft' now of a novel I've been 'writing' for the past five years. Sometimes it gets truly frustrating, but your essay is so encouraging! Thanks so much for writing it!

<3 Britta

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Laini, you're truly inspiring. I have read the first two books of daughters of smoke and bone and lips touch. While I liked lips touch, I'm not quite a fan of the former and have said so in my reviews. I know it probably doesn't matter to you but now it kind of feels like I owe you and is making me kind of uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Laini, you're truly inspiring. I have read the first two books of daughters of smoke and bone and lips touch. While I liked lips touch, I'm not quite a fan of the former and have said so in my reviews. I know it probably doesn't matter to you but now it kind of feels like I owe you and is making me kind of uncomfortable.

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