Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Bash-Through Draft

I started a new book this month, a sequel to the thriller I just finished (Huntress Moon). It’s the first time I’ve ever really done a sequel, and it’s pretty new and terrifying.

To jumpstart the process I spent a week at Weymouth Writer’s Center – which is also the haunted mansion I used in my poltergeist thriller The Unseen – with my magical writer’s group, the Weymouth 7.  (You can read more and see photos on my Pinterest board, my new favorite distraction!)

Weymouth – and our group – did its magic, as always; I went into the manor with no idea whatsoever what that sequel would be about and came back from that one-week retreat with a 23-page sequence-by-sequence outline of the new book, start to finish.

So now I am in the throes of my least favorite part of the writing process, to put it mildly, and that’s the first horrific bash-through draft.

Because I come from theater, I think of my first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the whole play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me. As you all know, I outline extensively, index cards, story structure grid, all of it. Then when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing a book  (the suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark called it “clawing through a mountain of concrete with my bare hands...”) and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that I will finish a book or a script.

I do five pages a day minimum, more is gravy. I write the page count down in a calendar every day. And I never, ever, think about how much is left to go, I just get through those pages one day at a time, however I can. I think of myself as a shark – if I don’t keep moving, I’ll die. (What I would really like is for someone to put me to sleep for three months so I could just wake up when the bash through draft is DONE. I would pay a lot of money for that.)

And I’ve written about this before, here, but as far as I’m concerned the only thing a first draft has to do is get to the end.   (Your First Draft is Always Going to Suck). 

But then everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier for me to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

After that first draft I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

I may be totally wrong about this, but I’ve had a lot of contact with a lot of writers over the years, and I would unofficially guess that the ratio of writers who grimly bash through that first draft to THE END without revision to the writers who polish along the way is about 90 percent bashers to 10 percent polishers.  A recent Facebook discussion I started seemed to back up those percentages. I might even go as high as 95-5.

Yet the interesting thing is, a lot of writers are surprised to hear that other people besides themselves use this “bash your way through to the end” approach. So I thought I’d bring it up today just in case this is news to some of you, so you can consider it.  It might just set you free.

So what about you?  Basher or polisher? Do you swim sharklike through that first draft to the end, or when you write THE END, are you actually done?

Have you ever tried doing it another way? How’d that work for you?

- Alex


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Shizuka said...

Definitely a basher. If I had to polish until I was satisfied, I'd have an amazing first chapter after like a year. I can't make myself be perfect or second guess everything; if I wanted to do that, I'd be a fashion model or a trial lawyer.

Alli Sinclair said...

Oh, I bash all the way through to the end (and I have been known to bash my head on the desk at the same time). First drafts are painful! Hate them! Hate them! Hate them! Call me crazy, but I love the revision process. It's so much easier as I know the characters better and I can see what works on paper and what doesn't. But I will add that my last completed ms had a 9k outline and this saved me much grief when I bashed my way to the end.

Anonymous said...

I'm a basher! But this last one was the first time I pre-plotted (using the handy Sokoloff 8 Sequence board and stickies) and I combined it with Candace Havens FastDraft class and pumped out 15-20 pp a day and got my first draft done in 2 weeks...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Shizuka, I'm laughing. Yeah, a first chapter after a year is about the size of it.

"Dare to be bad" was the motto of our college theater troupe. One of the most important artistic lessons I ever learned.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Alli, I am totally with you. I HAVE to have a detailed outline to start the bash-through. And I love revision, too, especially that one pass that you finally read and think, "Hey, this is a book. Not just a book, a GOOD book."

But talk about delayed gratification!!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Angela, you wrote a BOOK draft in 2 weeks, or a script?

Because a script, sure, but... yike.

aniko said...

I did not realize my first novel was a novel when I started writing, so I did not bash. My second and third novels, I bashed. I do not make outlines, although I do carry around a notebook and pen to keep track of stray plot twists or character traits that occur when I am away from my laptop. I also use the notebook to remind myself of things I need to go back and change, post-bash. I find bashing to be most effective if I don't allow myself to take days off during the course of the first draft. Life intercedes - sickness, a flat tire that strands me in Houston for hours - but in general, I need to keep the flow going or I get panicky. Panic leads to stuck, and stuck isn't fun! Bashing, at its purest, is a lot of fun! Intense, but fun.

Chemist Ken said...

Definitely a polisher. Knowing that an earlier chapter is badly written gnaws at me until I go back and fix it. Of course this is my first book, so I don't know if I'll continue doing it this way for my next book. I suspect I probably will. Just can't help it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I know what you mean about the flow, Aniko. For me it's not so much about panic, more that I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else in my life until I'm just through with that damned draft. It's easier on people around me if I just get it over with as quickly as possible!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ken, whatever works to get you through to the end, it's all good!

Ellen said...

"Bash" is probably an overly delicate word for my first draft process, but for want of a better one, yes. I always feel like I'm writing with baseball gloves on at this stage (bashing right now, as it happens).

We all breezily talk and teach about the necessity of the shitty first draft, but when you're DOING it, it does feel a bit like living in your own dirty diaper. (YMMV)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ellen, you are as always a riot.

Bash is indeed, an inadequately delicate word for the bloody shit of a process involved...

Cannot WAIT to read, though...