Tuesday, June 01, 2010

First Draft, and then...

It's easy to hang on to your first draft. And hard to let go of it. Especially when it seemed to come in a fantastic rush of inspiration. It was like a gift, seemingly so perfect and original when it burst out of you that you can't imagine how it could be improved. 99 times out of 100, that usually means it needs a heap of reworking! Yes, very occasionally (less often than you think) a story does come like a gift, placed in your lap with reverence and awe. I've had one or two poems like that, and hardly had to change a word. Goodness, one of them was even semi-rhyming and every rhyme worked like magic. It's never happened again!

But mostly what we come up with in a first draft is actually us finding our way into what we really wanted to say. It's only in subsequent drafts that we hone in on the real story, the real poem. And I think it's only in those drafts that we find ways of deepening and strengthening what was, very often in the beginning, more like an anecdote. Developing layers of meaning and creating something that leaves the reader with "something to go on with" takes time, patience and, most of all, a willingness to acknowledge that the piece needs more.

Often in workshopping, that's the puzzle to be solved. What you read sounds great, reads well, flows, entertains. But at the end you are left with a sense of ... and? You can't quite put your finger on it but something is missing, something that would satisfy the deeper part of your reading self. You're not sure what it is, but it's not there yet. This can be a huge challenge when it's time to make your comments. To say "something's missing" is of no use to the writer. "What?" they ask. "What is it the piece needs?" And unless you can answer, you're no help at all!

Today, I had to answer this question for someone, and despite years of workshopping and grading student writing, I still struggled to define it. I said words like "substance" and "depth" and "meat". They sound a bit pathetic, don't they? And theme didn't quite cover it, because when you talk about theme, sometimes people go haring off and starting inserting messages instead. It's partly about showing instead of telling, but it's more about what's holding the story up underneath. How would you define the urge to tell a story that "means something", without falling into moralising?

In the end, I came back to the question: why? Why does the character feel like this? Why do they perceive the world in this way? Why do they need to behave in this way, react, act, think? What drives them? How can you show this through the story, without explaining? How can you go beyond the surface to the hidden depths? What, in the story, will subtly reveal what's really going on? Lots of questions, but that's fine. A one-line prescription doesn't work for anyone. It's only by questioning, over and over, that we gradually sink further and further into what truly propels our characters through a story.

And no, this wasn't War and Peace we were discussing. It was a picture book! Thank you to the person I was talking to, because it made me really think about it yet again.


Sally Murphy said...

Very true Sherryl. I am rewriting a story at the moment, and realised when I came to start that my first draft, which I was thought was pretty good, was bare-bones. I had all the events but little substance behind them. Your comments are spot on.

Katrina Germein said...

If I had to choose just one focus question from your insightful list it would be, 'What drives your character'

Sherryl said...

It's answering the hardest questions that leads to a fruitful second draft, isn't it? Even after 18 drafts of one picture book, those questions continued to help me with Draft No. 19!

Kristi Holl said...

Great post, Sherryl. Without the meat and a theme, it's hard to have much in the way of character growth or change. We used to teach that stories needed "take away" value--and I still think they do. That's why we remember them!

nish said...

thanks for the post....i too have a great first draft idea which i just cant seem to let go. it sounded so great when i thought about it but now i agonise whether its inadequate or worse still moralising:( ....and yeah its for children.
I just needed the courage to start all over again and now i think i will:)