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Chaotic First Drafts and Other Writing Quirks

Posted: April 16th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Writing Tips | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

As writers we all have our quirks. Even the literary stars can’t escape their writing tics.

Word has it that Virginia Woolf wrote all her books standing up. Not bad advice considering we now know that sitting for long periods of time is a potentially lethal activity. (In one study, men who spent “six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher.”)

Lewis Carol and Ernest Hemingway also eschewed the chair in favor of penning their masterpieces while standing.

There are also writers with fashion quirks. Edgar Allan Poe was the spooky man in black; Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain chose white– the color of wide-eyed innocence.

Not all writers are sedentary folks chained to their desks. Charles Dickens purportedly walked nearly 20 miles a day (perfecting the art of people watching along the way I’m sure– no wonder he’s a master at the character study and capturing mannerisms). Dan Brown likes to break for push-ups and sit-ups several times a day while writing.

Balzac was a coffee addict, reputedly downing 10 cups of coffee a day.

I was surprised to find out that Stephen King (Mr. King Prolific– cranking out 10+ pages a day) wrote in the same seat at home and arranged his manuscript and notes in neat piles. Other writers are decidedly haphazard. Nabokov wrote on index cards.

The wide variation in these quirks makes these habits less personal rules than a way to ensure creative excellence on a day-to-day basis. Honing the craft for writers is about finding the right combination of habit and defiance, I think– rebellion against convention.

One of my self-admitted quirks is that I have to read before I can write. Reading masterfully written text by others becomes both a warm-up and a self-taunt for me– a challenge to pull off something equally stunning and gripping. It also provides a way to get off-tangent in a creative way. It’s also the best way to procrastinate for half an hour before getting started on work. Writing for me is jumpy and associative– and that’s where the best ideas come from– the alchemy of disparate ideas that produces something new and fresh.

There are works, of course, (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, recently) that I read whose utter balance and perfection floor me for days and I can’t do anything else but slobber on my keyboard…

Another quirk I confess to having: my first drafts are always chaotic (and have to be). When I was in college, I could write something that was orderly and clean right from the first word on the first draft. Today, I’m a much better better writer and my first drafts have regressed into chaos. I write drafts that are more like pages of notes. They spill out like jumpy fish dumped on the deck of a boat. They hurl and flop, gasping for air. Rather than ‘writing’, I’m brainstorming and collating the results, grouping common ideas, banishing minor ideas but later bringing them back as interesting lead-ins. I become essentially a whirling writing dervish.

The first readable draft evolves slowly but steadily (I don’t linger over phrases and words, preferring to edit in a later stage). Writing first drafts is messy (and should be) because it’s as close to creation as you’ll get. To evolve past the first draft, you need to edit. Editing is just as important, if not more so than writing– it is the stage where your piece finally reaches a steady-state of readability and impact.


3 Comments on “Chaotic First Drafts and Other Writing Quirks”

  1. 1 Flustytuh said at 5:17 pm on July 24th, 2011:

    learned a lot

  2. 2 Susan said at 8:32 am on July 28th, 2011:

    I’m curious about what shifted for you between college and now that transformed your first drafts from being orderly and clean to chaotic.

    I find that I tend to fuss a bit over my first drafts–much to the consternation of the muse. I finally realized I have to send my inner editor out to play (or out for tea) for a few hours so I can create in peace. :-)

  3. 3 admin said at 9:56 am on July 29th, 2011:

    Thanks for the comment, Susan! In school, my tendency was to write to the prompt. I rarely deviated in style and presentation. I think I give myself more creative license now as a more mature writer. Also having the Internet these days makes it easy to do research quickly, which reflects in the writing style in those chaotic first drafts. It’s often packed with quotes or background material. Hence, the ‘fish jumping on deck’ :)

    I agree. Send the inner editor on a break for the day during those first moments with the blank page. You can let her back in once you’ve fleshed out your work. For me, it’s always easier to cut and scale back text, rather than to build up a flimsy argument later in the editing process. On the first draft, write without free and judgment! Cheers!