After finishing a memoir, I had the crazy idea to write a novel next, which is basically the opposite of a memoir. Memoirs have all the raw materials in place—the characters, the settings, the action. The writer ‘just’ has to string them together so they express some idea or lesson or theme. In fiction, you start with an idea and have to fill in all the characters, settings, and action yourself.
To me this felt like a lot of pressure. I was paralyzed by fear that my first draft would reveal my pitiful lack of imagination, that it would be a travesty, that it wouldn’t remotely resemble my vision. I was worried I’d sit down to write a key scene only to find I wasn’t clever enough or creative enough at that moment to get it right.
People talk about “shitty first drafts,” but somehow I thought that didn’t apply to me. I sometimes write blog posts that are more or less good to go on the first draft. Why shouldn’t I be able to write a novel the same way?
Of course, novels aren’t blog posts. If writing a blog post is like making a popsicle stick birdhouse, writing a novel is like building a cathedral. Unless you’re very lucky or very talented—one of those rare geniuses who can write deathless prose straight into an evolving structure—it’s not something that can be done well on the fly.
But then there was an even more paralyzing thought: I didn’t know exactly where the story would go, so what if I did sit down and write a beautiful chapter only to have to delete the whole thing later on?
Needless to say, it was not easy to do my best work embedded in this fog of fear.
What finally broke me out of it was thinking of the first draft as scaffolding. A large, unwieldy placeholder, a rough shaping-in. Scaffolding is not meant to be a cathedral—it’s only meant to show you where to build it. Once you’ve blocked it in fairly thoroughly (without worrying too much about polishing it), you can look at all the chunks and see how they fit together. You can arrange them into the shape that makes the most sense given their general colors and dimensions. These rough wooden shapes are much less painful to move, modify, or cut than big blocky chunks of granite would be. And it’s easier to see them objectively if you haven’t been sweating over them for days trying to get them just so.
This framework (no pun intended) allowed me plow ahead with my first draft with much less fear. And now that I’m writing around a frame instead of into thin air, it’s so much easier to craft the individual pieces in a way that helps the overall structure hang together more elegantly. And it’s psychologically easier because I know I’m polishing something that will almost certainly stay.
If you’re lucky, the scaffolding itself will have some gems embedded in it that can be used wholesale. But for the most part, you’ll be tearing those scaffolds down and replacing them with carved and polished rock and finely turned-out stained glass that will let the light shine through in glorious colors.
How do you get over the terror of beginning—and actually finishing—a first draft?
Pamela Olson is the author of the award-winning memoir Fast Times in Palestine. She’s working on her first novel, The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom. To pre-order the novel for $5, visit the book’s Kickstarter campaign. To read Chapter One, click here.