Friday, 27 May 2011


How is your hand-to-draft-co-ordination? I know so many writers who believe they can only get that first draft down if holding a pen, or tapping a keyboard, or using a certain notebook, or writing in a certain place in their house. Some writers find it hard (some find it impossible, but I guess they aren’t doing much writing) to overcome the first attempts  at drafting something new. 
We all have your own hand-to-draft co-ordination, and understanding this may help make the best of our long as we fully understand that it’s only a part of the creative process and not a block that prevents us from ever attempting something new. 
One of my students, Josephine, recently wrote to me...
I firstly hand write so the process can be spontaneous.  These first attempts are always terrible but I carry on knowing that it is only for me.  Then a pause is necessary for the story to start reforming in a more understandable narrative.  Then I can draft and redraft on the computer.  Each process is different, and all absorbing.  During this time I allow myself to change my mind, while I feel it organically taking shape.  I chose many names for the two protagonists...until my choice works.
I personally find writing by hand very difficult nowadays. Clearly, my ‘hand-to-draft-co-ordination’ has a direct link from my ten touch-typing fingers to the writing part of my brain. But we’re not  all the same. I know writers who must ‘talk’ their first draft into a tape recorder and others who have to sort of ‘sketch’ out their idea, because they see it so visually at first. Film directors in the making, I suspect! But Jo likes to write by hand and that process is undeniably organic and active.
I loved the way Josephine openly confessed she thought her first attempts are ‘terrible’. I bet they aren’t as terrible as she thinks. We are usually our own worse critics, as Gustave Flaubert pointed out in Madam Bovary...The human word is like a cracked cauldron upon with we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance, when we are trying to move the stars…If even Flaubert thinks his writing isn’t up to much, I’m sure the rest of us can relax about our lack of self-confidence.
Anyway, Jo has got that covered, because she knows this first draft is ‘only for me’. What she is sure about is how to move on from ‘terrible’ to something she is pleased with. She has a routine she can move along, and that can be very helpful for any writer - it prevents us floundering around in a slough of writerly despondence. What Jo choses to do is sensible. She puts the work away for a while. This allows it to continue to brew in her head, which often picks up the underlying problems and begins to solve them, almost subconsciously. It also allows the piece to feel ‘new’...almost ‘someone else’s work’ when it is read after the resting phase. 
There is probably an equation that gives the appropriate length of time this brewing process should take. Let us say; at least a couple of days for something quite short; at least a week for a short story proper or a new novel chapter; at least a month for an entire full-length piece.  Jo uses the ‘putting away to brew’ technique quite early on in the writing process; I tend to do this much later on, say when I’m half way through a final draft of a novel...or when I’m pretty happy with the draft of the short story I’m writing at the time.
This might be the most frustrating part of Jo’s process, but it’s well worth while. And putting things away does not mean that she can’t go on writing. If she can’t manage two projects at a time, I’d recommend she writes a diary, a blog or letters to friends to keep going - or tackles something completely different, such as ‘filler’ articles for magazines or letters to the editor. This will keep her writing brain well-oiled without constantly scratching at the item that is being brewed.
Finally, Jo recognises that things must change. She looking for ways of reforming until she has ‘a more understandable narrative’. During that almost subconscious spotting and solving of problems, radical ideas might enter her head - ideas she should consider, and only dismiss when she’s sure they are wrong for the work. Changing the names of the characters can help a lot, but it should be only a small part of the things she’ll be asking. Major questions to tackle would be...does the story feel plausible all the way through? Does the beginning draw the reader in, or can I omit the first line...even the first paragraph or page? Do the characters start out with an aim/difficulty/need/blockage/desire? And if so, is it resolved well? In fact, are my characters right for this story...or is my story right for these characters? Will the reader feel satisfied with the end - surprised or engaged? 
By the time this process was over for Jo, and she’d sent her work to me, she had created a solid piece that she could be proud of.  
Have a look at your own hand-to-draft-co-ordination. Ask if it’s working for you, or if you need to change it. Sometimes two heads (or lots of heads )are better than one, and you might like to make a comment on your own early writing process below this post, and see what others come up with.
Thank you Jo, for letting me quote your letter, and I’m sure your co-ordinated writing process will constantly help you in your writer’s career.