By Steven Pressfield
Published: May 25, 2016
Is the first draft the hardest? Is it different from a third draft, or a twelfth? Does a first draft possess unique challenges that we have to attack in a one-of-a-kind way?
Yes, yes and yes.
A first draft is different from (and more difficult than) all subsequent drafts because in a first draft we’re filling the blank page. And we know what that means: Resistance.
We were talking last week about the “Blitzkrieg method” for attacking a first draft. Here’s another way of thinking about it. This is my main mantra for first drafts:
“Cover the canvas.”
I think of myself as a painter standing before a big blank canvas. What is my aim in a first draft? I just wanna get paint on every inch of that canvas. I know I’m done when I can stand back and see color from end to end and top to bottom.
Imagine we’re Leonardo and we’re laying out “The Last Supper” (in other words, a first draft). Here’s what we want to do. We want to sketch in the apostles, get an outline of Jesus in the center, get the supper table down so it works nicely from left to right and right to left. And we want the perspective in the background. Beyond that, we will not sweat the details. It doesn’t matter if Matthew’s hair isn’t right, or Peter’s left hand has four fingers. We’ll fix that later. Get the picture down. Cover the canvas.
I’m working on a first draft right now. I’m into it about two months. It’s half done. I’ve got one scene that I know in finished form will be about two pages long. Right now it’s twelve. I’ve got repeats, digressions, all kinds of weird stuff in there. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy. I’ve got paint on that part of the canvas.
Another sequence in finished form will be probably forty pages. Right now it’s one sentence. It’s a big TK (“to come.”) I’m fine with that. At least I’ve got SOMETHING as a place holder. I’m covering the canvas.
Why is it so helpful to think of first drafts in these terms? Because in the first draft, Resistance is at its most powerful. First drafts are killers. The blank page, day after day is a monster. Fighting that fight, we give Resistance ten thousand chances to come up with reasons for us to quit. If we dawdle on our first draft, even good external news can destroy us. A raise, a new baby, a winning lottery ticket. Aw hell, there goes our symphony.
Some smart son of a gun once said, “There’s no such thing as writing, only re-writing.” He was wrong. The first draft is writing. Pure blue-sky, blank-sheet writing. But he was right too. Because after Draft #1, it’s all rewriting.
That’s our goal in a first draft: to get to the point where we can start re-writing.
Lemme say it again: Our enemy as artists is Resistance. If we make the mistake in our first draft of playing perfectionist, if we agonize over syntax and take a week to finish Chapter One, by the time we’ve reached Chapter Four, we’ll have hit the wall. Resistance will beat us.
But if we can stay nimble and keep advancing, slapping paint on the canvas and words on the page till we’ve got something that works from east to west and north to south, however imperfectly, then we’ve done our job.
Remember, we’ll probably do ten drafts or more before we’re done. Those drafts are for fixing the stuff we laid in roughly in Draft #1. But by putting paint in every square inch, we’ve laid the groundwork for those subsequent drafts. There’s lots left to do but we’ve established a beachhead now. We’ve got something we can work with.
Cover the canvas. It works.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
In January of 1966, when I was on the bus leaving Parris Island as a freshly-minted Marine, I looked back and thought there was at least one good thing about this departure. "No matter what happens to me for the rest of my life, no one can ever send me back to this freakin' place again."
Over forty years later, to my surprise and gratification, I'm far more closely bound to the young men of the Marine Corps and to all other dirt-eating, ground-pounding outfits than I could ever have imagined as I left Parris Island that first time. Gates of Fire is one reason. Dog-eared paperbacks of this tale of the ancient Spartans have circulated throughout platoons of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since the first days of the invasions. E-mails come in by hundreds. Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps' Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico; and Tides of War is on the curriculum of the Naval War College. In 2009, I launched the blog "It's the Tribes, Stupid" (which evolved into "Agora"), to help gain awareness of issues related to tribalism and the tribal mind-set in Afghanistan—with the goal of helping the Marines and soldiers on the ground better understand the different people they were facing in Afghanistan.
My father was in the Navy, and I was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943. I graduated from Duke University in 1965. Since then, I've worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout and attendant in a mental hospital. I've picked fruit in Washington state, written screenplays in Tinseltown, and was homeless, living out of the back of my car with my typewriter. My struggles to earn a living as a writer (it took seventeen years to get the first paycheck) are detailed in The War of Art.
With the publication of The Legend of Bagger Vance in 1995, I became a writer of books once and for all. From there followed the historical novels Gates of Fire, Tides of War, Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign and Killing Rommel.
My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call "Resistance" with a capital R (in The War of Art). The technique for combating these foes can be described as "turning pro."
I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist's role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of "where it all comes from" and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.
There's a recurring character in my books, named Telamon, a mercenary of ancient days. Telamon doesn't say much. He rarely gets hurt or wounded. And he never seems to age. His view of the profession of arms is a lot like my conception of art and the artist:
"It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warrior's life."