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The First Draft

When writers talk to readers at book clubs or book signings, they are invariably asked more questions about their writing process than about their characters and scenes. I am no exception. Is there a preferred time for writing, a specific space, a ritual? My answers: yes, yes, and yes.


I’ve been known to randomly pick up my phone—at any time or place—and start typing words or phrases that seemingly come from nowhere, but I prefer dedicated writing time in the morning. Although caffeine likely has a role, it seems my energy levels and creative juices are at their highest levels after a refreshing night’s sleep. My preferred writing time is 8 A.M. until 1 P.M. and I have specific writing spaces in both our Las Vegas and Whitefish homes. Each has a small office that is cozy and comfortable where I can be alone, quiet with my thoughts and computer. I begin each and every writing session with a brief (2-3 minute) meditation where I offer my thanks for such a wonderful life, and pray for guidance and inspiration. And then off I go, with a goal to write 1,000 words (about four pages) during the session.


Most writers have quirks and those are but a few of mine.


But there’s another important aspect to the process I’d like to discuss. It has to do with writing the first draft and capturing the story. I’ve read several how-to books about writing fiction and most favor a formal, more regimented approach with completed outlines and timelines and character histories before any prose is created. This method gives the writer a roadmap and guideposts, and helps to reign in stream-of-consciousness writing that can threaten to run wild. I do use this method . . . but only after the first draft is complete. I build character histories (with descriptions and page number references), I check dates and timelines, and I look for inconsistencies (historical and story related), after I’ve celebrated finishing the first draft with a special bottle of wine.


So here’s the thing: my favorite part about writing fiction is allowing the characters, trusting them really, to tell me their story. Other than knowing the protagonist’s major conflict and having a vague sense of how it resolves, I know little else when I begin writing. It’s cool because I am much like a reader at this stage; I am so eager to find out what happens next! With Love, Lizzie, for example, I knew Emma’s conflict dealt with the serious health issues surrounding her pregnancy, and the societal pressure to have a family in the 1950’s. But, as I listened to Emma, the story became so much more. Once she set the general direction of her journey, I trusted the supporting cast of characters to tell me their roles and backstories. Chapter by chapter, my characters wrote the book.

Experiencing what many authors refer to as The Muse, the “where did that come from?” and “aha!” moments—when a scene or details or storyline progression magically fits—are a writer’s reward for perseverance. I imagine it is similar, in some respects, to a runner’s high. I crave those moments. They are addictive. And they typically appear while writing the first draft.


An analogy might be useful.


Compare constructing a house to creating a garden. Precision is required for the building. Architectural designs and blueprints, exacting measurements, specific materials and strict timelines are all essential components for a safe, well-constructed and aesthetically pleasing structure. Creating a garden is different. You have an idea what the finished product should look like, and you plant flowers, trees, and shrubs that hopefully transform that vision into reality. But colors and sizes and textures are not perfectly predictable because they depend on nature; you don’t know for sure what the initial outcome will look like until the plants grow and the flowers bloom. Certain plants will be smaller or larger than you imagined, colors might vary, some species might be more dramatic than you thought, others less. But, much like trusting characters to tell their story, gardeners trust nature to bring their creations to life before they prune and shape the final product.


Layers upon layers of rewrites and revisions follow my first draft—crafting the manuscript into a book—and I follow a regimented and disciplined approach. It’s like washing and waxing, and then detailing a car; it has to be perfect. But gardening my first draft, listening to the characters and allowing, even appreciating them veering in an unexpected direction, is a crucial (and fun) part of my process.

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