Is the first draft the hardest? Is it different from a third draft, or a twelfth? Does a first draft possess unique challenges that we have to attack in a one-of-a-kind way?
Yes, yes and yes.
A first draft is different from (and more difficult than) all subsequent drafts because in a first draft we’re filling the blank page. And we know what that means: Resistance.
We were talking last week about the “Blitzkrieg method” for attacking a first draft. Here’s another way of thinking about it. This is my main mantra for first drafts:
“Cover the canvas.”
I think of myself as a painter standing before a big blank canvas. What is my aim in a first draft? I just wanna get paint on every inch of that canvas. I know I’m done when I can stand back and see color from end to end and top to bottom.
Imagine we’re Leonardo and we’re laying out “The Last Supper” (in other words, a first draft). Here’s what we want to do. We want to sketch in the apostles, get an outline of Jesus in the center, get the supper table down so it works nicely from left to right and right to left. And we want the perspective in the background. Beyond that, we will not sweat the details. It doesn’t matter if Matthew’s hair isn’t right, or Peter’s left hand has four fingers. We’ll fix that later. Get the picture down. Cover the canvas.
I’m working on a first draft right now. I’m into it about two months. It’s half done. I’ve got one scene that I know in finished form will be about two pages long. Right now it’s twelve. I’ve got repeats, digressions, all kinds of weird stuff in there. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy. I’ve got paint on that part of the canvas.
Another sequence in finished form will be probably forty pages. Right now it’s one sentence. It’s a big TK (“to come.”) I’m fine with that. At least I’ve got SOMETHING as a place holder. I’m covering the canvas.
Why is it so helpful to think of first drafts in these terms? Because in the first draft, Resistance is at its most powerful. First drafts are killers. The blank page, day after day is a monster. Fighting that fight, we give Resistance ten thousand chances to come up with reasons for us to quit. If we dawdle on our first draft, even good external news can destroy us. A raise, a new baby, a winning lottery ticket. Aw hell, there goes our symphony.
Some smart son of a gun once said, “There’s no such thing as writing, only re-writing.” He was wrong. The first draft is writing. Pure blue-sky, blank-sheet writing. But he was right too. Because after Draft #1, it’s all rewriting.
That’s our goal in a first draft: to get to the point where we can start re-writing.
Lemme say it again: Our enemy as artists is Resistance. If we make the mistake in our first draft of playing perfectionist, if we agonize over syntax and take a week to finish Chapter One, by the time we’ve reached Chapter Four, we’ll have hit the wall. Resistance will beat us.
But if we can stay nimble and keep advancing, slapping paint on the canvas and words on the page till we’ve got something that works from east to west and north to south, however imperfectly, then we’ve done our job.
Remember, we’ll probably do ten drafts or more before we’re done. Those drafts are for fixing the stuff we laid in roughly in Draft #1. But by putting paint in every square inch, we’ve laid the groundwork for those subsequent drafts. There’s lots left to do but we’ve established a beachhead now. We’ve got something we can work with.
Cover the canvas. It works.