The Exploration Draft – by Laura Ingermann

The most common distinction writers like to make among themselves is plotters vs pantsers. Epitome of originality that I am, I found another distinction much more interesting: knitters vs. sewers.

Yes, that’s right, I’m still talking about writers, even though I borrowed these terms from the fabric-crafting folks. I hate knitting; I just don’t have the patience to laboriously produce the parts that I then sew together. I want to take a premade piece of cloth, cut it, sew it, and wear it, all preferably in the course of one afternoon. I love to work with what’s already there, not with something I first need to fashion from a piece of string.

It’s the same with writing – I love editing way more than I love drafting. You could say I tolerate drafting. I know it’s necessary. But when I read people’s posts about ‘LOL my first draft is a steaming pile of word vomit what am I even doing’, I was always shaking my head in horrified amazement. I just didn’t understand the attitude. How could you find an unstructured, meandering mess of rumination and pointless character interaction funny? How could you lovingly call it your ‘vomit draft’ as if you were cuddling an especially ugly baby? How could you – gasp! – go into that writhing darkness of incoherent ideas and attacking plot bunnies without a story map and a scene list?

Yeah, I was a snob.

And I was also writing a series and had totally forgotten that the first draft of the first story in that series was exactly this steaming, incoherent heap of pointless backstory and fumbling characterization. I had forgotten – or maybe suppressed the memory – of my four-months writer’s block that hit me in the middle of the first draft, and the weeks of obsessed scene mapping, down to every single scene beat…

… let’s not talk about that time.

Once you’re into the fourth or so installment of a series, its world and the characters have become as familiar and comfortable as old shoes. You don’t have to fumble your way through; you produce pretty clean first drafts, and it’s easy to forget that this is the exception, not the rule.

I was brutally reminded of that truth every time I sat down to write something outside my current series. I hit that damn wall every single time, and I threw in the towel and went back to ‘prewriting’ every single time.

And I think it was partly because I detested the term ‘vomit draft’ and the disgusting mess it implied. Even when I wrote the clean first drafts of my series, I preferred to call them ‘rough draft’, like the rough sketch of a painter. It just sounded… more elegant, more artistic.

Words do have power. Who knows it better than us writers?

It finally, very belatedly, dawned on me that the clean first drafts are the exception, and that they happen only after I’ve explored the world and the characters – and that I don’t do that with ‘prewriting’, but only by putting them through the motions: by writing those backstory scenes that never turn up in the later drafts, but become vivid memories, because both the character and I have lived through them in an actual scene. All those pointless character dialogues, where they and I find their voices. All the detours and dead ends that shape their decisions, make their contours sharper in my mind – they are all necessary, and they cannot be skipped.

But I still can’t bring myself to call it a ‘messy draft’, or a ‘vomit draft’, or a ‘shitty draft’. Words have power, and if I want to move from merely enduring this process to loving and enjoying it, I need a better word for this first manifestation of an unseen world on paper.

I call it an ‘Exploration Draft’. And yes, I capitalize those words. In this spirit of adventure, let us step fearlessly into the darkness.

Without a scene list.

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