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Writing Articles : Recipe for First Draft: ¼ cup structure, ¾ cup imagination

Recipe for First Draft: ¼ cup structure, ¾ cup imagination

By Sheila Williams

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
— Albert Einstein

I'll tell you something that you already know: writing is work. It is work that requires structure and rules: subjects, verbs, semi-colons, question marks, diagrammed sentences, outline plots, character dossiers, synopses and query letters. Writing has tools: Jane Austen may have penned Pride and Prejudice with a quill and ink well; I have the option of using a manual typewriter or a laptop with wi-fi access. Note taking is no longer limited to the back of receipts (or the palm of a hand) or cocktail napkins — it's the age of PDAs. Nor is a writer dependent on her or his personal resources (or memory) for research or plot development: software can do it for you and you can Google it! If your story doesn't feel right or appears to be missing something, drop it into SuperDuperFictionWriterPlot Organizer XP and your problem is solved. Voila! A great novel is born.

Or is it?

Maybe it's just me, but there's something missing from the efficiencies, structural rules and regs, grids, outlines and carved-in-stone thou shalts. Maybe it isn't chic or modern, but what happened to creativity? Gadgets and technological improvements are tools but not the only tools. At some point in the writing process (perhaps at the beginning?!) the story will need the cerebral equivalent of elbow grease: creative thinking. Writers spin stories and their spinning wheel is uncensored thought. Stories need outlines for clarity but their genesis is in the imagination.

The first draft is the first step and should have no boundaries. It should be as deep as the Pacific, long as the circumference of Jupiter, as well-seasoned as bouillabaisse. No limits — throw everything into the pot, let your pen or keyboard take you to wonderful places — and don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar or even plausibility. Just put the idea onto paper before its creative flash goes out — before you forget.

Writers have different opinions on first drafts but they all agree that they are necessary and never perfect. Nora Roberts calls hers the "vomit draft"; Stephen King recommends writing straight through from prologue to epilogue without revision. Anne Lamott advises that all first drafts are poopy (I'm paraphrasing due to recent puppy house-training experience). The first draft is your opportunity to spread your writer's wings and soar.

Now is the time to dream, wonder and experiment. Don't take any plot ideas or characters at face value or fence them in. If your Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall, do as British mystery writer P.D. James did — ask questions. Did the old egg really fall off the wall? Or was he pushed? Maybe the Round One was despondent over an impending meeting with the King's Men (I've heard that they were feuding over bridge crossing rights held by a union of uncooperative trolls). Or maybe he'd had a falling out (pun intended) with his girlfriend, The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe. Was her shoe a Manolo or a Birkenstock? The story goes in different directions depending on where she resides. Can you see where I'm going with this?

Rely on your imagination first — it is the leader of your "A" team, then pull in the rules, software and outlines later to refine and refresh the story. The thread that you've spun is the beginning. The garment that you make is the finished poem, short story or novel.

Without creativity, all the rules, note cards or plot software in the known world won't help your story. Imagination illuminates the possibilities — it opens the Pandora's Box and lets the devils and delights dance together.

As for me, I'm curious about Little Bo Peep. (Her real name is Brenda Jenkins; I don't know what's up with the "Bo Peep" alias.) What's really going on with her and those sheep? You hear the oddest things. Not only that, but it's time for a makeover. Petticoats are so 18th century. And then, there's the incident with the Three Little Pigs, something about a brick house...but I digress. •

Copyright © 2006 Sheila Williams. All rights reserved.

Sheila Williams is the author of Girls Most Likely as well as On the Right Side of a Dream, Dancing on the Edge of the Roof and The Shade of My Own Tree. Ms. Williams was born in Columbus, Ohio. She attended Ohio Wesleyan University and is a graduate of the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. Sheila and her husband live in northern Kentucky. For more information, please visit www.sheilajwilliams.com.

Updated 1/6/14