Giving in to the Mess
My first draft is a mess. I’ve been playing around with writing for a long time, so I know that first drafts are always a mess. I hate messes. I’m a very organized person, at least when it comes to matters of the mind. As a former attorney, I am trained to think in terms of categories and elements and factors. I like lists, and outlines, and checkboxes, and little colored tabs on notebooks to find things quickly. When something becomes too much of a mess (a project, a craft, a room) I’m likely to abandon it and start fresh rather than work through the disorganization. But I can’t do that this time, because I really care about this story and this character.
When I started this novel, I had this clean, clear picture of what the story was about, the journey the heroine would take from start to finish, how each character in the story would help her get there, and what made the narrative unique. It started out swimmingly, and I churned out something like 20,000 words in just over a week. I know. Insanity.
I should have known something was up when a character who was not a part of my initial concept for the story showed up in the middle of chapter one, walking backwards and making snarky comments and distracting my heroine from her purpose. I let him in, and then didn’t know what to do with him.
My writer’s group loved him. They loved him so much it made them hate the main character they — and the heroine — were supposed to be interested in. The derogatory comments I got about that guy in contrast to this unanticipated volunteer were shocking. Moreover, they could not believe the heroine would like the main character at all, when this volunteer was around and available. That wasn’t the point! They weren’t supposed to hate the main character!
Since secretly I loved the volunteer, too, and had a suspicion that under her bravado my heroine also harbored a deep affection…or possibly more…for him, I let him stick around. Then, the trouble was that my initial story concept got a little muddy. How could I reach that moment of deep emotional change if this new guy was really the one the heroine cared about? It no longer worked.
After much struggle, I let go of my initial story concept. And then I let go some more. And now, after a few weeks of hard brainstorming and thinking and freewriting, I’ve realized the story is completely different than I expected, but much much better, for all its messy disarray. I’ve removed characters that were flat and uninteresting and taking up space on the page and replaced them with characters who are alive and serve more than one purpose for the heroine. By doing so, I’ve made things much more difficult for the heroine. There are now obstacles around every corner.
I’m resisting the urge to step back and organize things. I’m trying to let this part of the process be a whirlwind of scenes and stray thoughts and just get the damned words on the page. It requires ignoring all of the niggling questions that pop up (“but if he screws up that plan, how the heck is she going to be able to be over there in time for this next bit?”) and just moving ever forward, word by word. It’s tough, because every morning I wake up a little scared of what’s going to happen when I put my hands on the keyboard. I have no checklist of scenes to write, things to work on. You know what? It’s working.
It’s a bloody mess, and it couldn’t be going better.