In a previous post I wrote about my struggle with how to continue with first drafts, especially those that had no clear ending, and how I learned to ‘dig deeper’.
Dig deeper. What does that mean?
It means searching a first draft for the story’s “mysteries and clues” (Jane Smiley in “Creating Fiction“, ed. Julie Checkoway, p.248). I love this idea…but what are these? And where are they?
I used to think the clues of a first draft lay in who does what, and to whom. That searching for the draft’s secrets meant looking at the action, at what happens in the story, and wondering what might happen next.
Yes, that’s important, for sure, but having listened to Peter Dubé (Blue Metropolis workshop 2012) respond to first drafts, I realized I was missing a lot of useful information that was already right there on the paper or screen in front of me.
What Peter pulled out were suggestions hidden in descriptions or quirky details – this might be a description of something the character is wearing, or what s/he is saying or doing (or the ‘how’ of this), or it might be a detail about the surroundings, of how he or she interacts (or doesn’t) with others.
Peter noticed that Mrs. Cresswell (the character I’d just written about) was sitting under an awning (what sort of person, he asked, sat under an awning?), that the tiles on the mosaic table on her patio had ‘lost their varnish’. He pointed out the ‘hideous stone face’ on the wall. ‘A mask’, he said. Instantly I knew Mrs. Cresswell’s problem. Details like these can generate a lot of neat information and insight. But they also require the kind of lively examination that transforms them from literal words into a meaningful image. I had just seen the stone face of a fountain when I’d written and then read the words, but Peter had seen a mask.
I’ve learned to look for clues of what has happened in my characters’ pasts. I’m not talking about ‘making up’ a backstory but more about looking for details that are already there, hidden in the writing.
This is where I find an outside eye invaluable. It’s often much easier for another person to notice odd or significant details in a first draft (in any draft!). I never hesitate to hand over a first draft, however rough it might be, to a colleague for feedback. Inevitably, my reader will point out a detail that I’ve overlooked that illuminates other information in a very particular and useful way.
Instead of ‘what will happen next?’, what I now look for in my first draft is: Who is this person?
What is your next step after finishing a first draft?