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The Passionate First Draft

As I round the corner toward the last page of the first draft of a new book, I feel an exhilarating sense of accomplishment, dimmed only slightly by all the work that's yet to come in revisions. I am a firm believer—for me and those like me—in the power of the passionate first draft, written with a clear path in mind but bound by no outline or rigid plan. I've tried to write from an outline, a chapter summary, and for me, it never works. The story changes before I get to item 1.a. You can't keep a good character in line, I've found, and sometimes it's better to follow than to struggle her back into her "proper" place.

If you are a writer who works best with an outline, by all means, use an outline. I know that every writer is different, but my passion for passionately written first drafts is scorned by those who believe that a writer "loses control of the material" if she doesn't follow a plan. For me, writing is all about losing a little control, letting go and seeing where it takes me. I've found myself and my characters in surprising places, with surprising outcomes, and it almost always strengthens my story. If it doesn't, I chop it out in revisions.

That said, when I begin to write, I do know the general story line: how the book begins, the basic course it will take, and how it ends, in very broad terms. The discoveries I make every day as I live the fictive dream with my characters are what make my writing life rich and rewarding, and just plain fun. I wouldn't write if it weren't fun, and I've never enjoyed trying to muscle a story into place.

Very often, the things we write from out of the blue while drafting are the hidden gems in our stories, even though we have no idea what they're doing there at first. They become the metaphorical elements we wouldn't discover if we were trying for metaphor. It may not be apparent where it's coming from, but it's there. Mine it. If you say no to it and try to get your heroine back on track, you may miss an opportunity to get inside her; you may not explore a theme that is lurking under the surface; and you probably won't write a satisfying plot or character. We, as writers, need to trust ourselves, our subconscious minds.

Here's an example from my second novel, Eating Heaven. Eleanor, the main character, is going to visit her uncle in the hospital, and she's taking him a homemade spice cake. Why? I didn't know, except that I knew she liked to cook and would probably take him something, but why not flowers or a card, as most people would? Why not chocolate cake? I didn't know, but I stuck with the spice cake, and was then mortified when, after finding out her uncle was dying, she ran out to her car and binged on that cake with her bare hands. But it told me a lot about her, about her relationship to food and to her uncle. I got deeper into the character. Later, she makes him one last spice cake, which turns out to be his favorite, the day before he dies in a hospice. He has a bite, then tells her it's so delicious he doesn't think he'll ever need to taste spice cake again. He's saying: I'm ready to die. So, why a spice cake? I had no idea, but it became clearer as I got deeper into the story. And spice also turned out to be a nice metaphor for their relationship, and for each of their personalities.