Sunday, 6 May 2012

The first draft

Currently reading: Contact by Carl Sagan
Currently listening to: "Up All Night" by Alex Clare
Current weather conditions: Sunny

Today I will approach the finish line of the first draft of another book.

There are times when I feel total elation, and few moments in life compare to the feeling that the first draft of a book is finished.

Things like: getting a great seat on the train (next to the window, facing forward); someone confiding in me when they can't bear to tell anyone else; an agent asking to see my manuscript (to borrow from another burgeoning author: "They like my face, but will they like my toes?"); the last day of school before summer break and the weightless feeling you get when you find the perfect shoes/house/book/song that you can identify with, and through which you can project your own personality.

Everyone has their own ways of doing things when they approach the completion of the first draft (like having that one celebratory cigarette, Snicker's bar, or a trip to the Dominican Republic), and my end-of-first-draft ritual is mainly formatting-related. It might seem pretty nuts-and-bolts, blunt and boring. But for me, it means shaping what I've written (wild, typewritten pages on Microsoft Word shrunk down into 67% print layout view) into something that resembles an actual mansucript, something with polish and, very cautiously, approaches the appearance of the actual printed page in a book.

WHAT do I do? I add page numbers! I justify the paragraphs! Nothing beats a clean, even edge along the margins! And at the top, the final touch: MY LAST NAME / TITLE OF BOOK added to the upper right-hand corner to every page (except for the first page).

These are such easy minor details that really, when you look at it, are so major. By adding page numbers, you are claiming sequence as well as measuring the narrative pace of the shitty first draft. By adding your last name and the title of the book into the header of every page (except for the cover page, on which the title appears about a third of the way down), you are laying claim to ownership, and you are giving it the name that has been in the back of your head (distant, foggy, a little desperate, hopeful, like a whispered prayer) all this time.

By applying those little formatting elements, it's like your shitty first draft is saying: I exist! Look at me! I speak the truth!

And this means you should congratulate yourself. This is why: you have scraped out of all those nights of lost sleep, and all those days shaking like a Chihuahua from all the gallons of coffee you've consumed, something real. When you've drank the last dregs of what it means to be human, you have put together the bare bones of a story that looks a little bit like a tired, uncurried horse. Covered with bits of mud, a little underfed, bleary-eyed (like yourself).  But it exists!

The next exciting step is the editing of the first draft: adding to it, subtracting from it, to make it the plumper, beautifully groomed, proud, lovely show horse it is.

(I don't know who painted this, but it sure is lovely.)

For those of you reading who don't like horse similes, you can replace 'horse' with any animal of your choice. It could be the stray cat that becomes the fluffy Persian in those Fancy Feast commercials. It could also be the dirty mongrel that transforms into the pampered Crufts contender.

But for now it's time to sit back, relax, and then... edit.

Happy Sunday, everybody!

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