First drafts make me crazy. I’m a reviser. I’ll happily spend days cutting, developing and shaping a story. But how to produce a has-potential-but-needs-work ms in the first place? Even with characters, setting and plot in mind for a new project, a blank screen is so intimidating. I’m always tempted to shut down and go hiking.
Besides revising, I love to hike. There’s something about the physical effort that frees my mind and leaves me open to fresh ideas in a way I rarely am at my desk. One of the many reasons I appreciate living part of the year on Vancouver Island is the abundance of great hiking trails – up mountains, through rainforests and along ocean beaches.
My husband and I are day trippers – we haven’t yet done the West Coast Trail or anything that strenuous. But we do like a challenge, and discovering places we’ve never been. Recently we went looking for Ammonite Falls, outside of Nanaimo, near Mount Benson.
As we walked I thought about why I dread writing first drafts. I think it’s because they always begin so well, but then somewhere around the middle everything goes to mush. The urge to hit delete and switch to another project is overwhelming. Anything would be better than this stupid, contrived, derivative, unpublishable nonsense I’m wasting my time on.
The route through the forest to Ammonite Falls is just over 5 km roundtrip, easy at first and then more rugged, with lots of ups and downs and stuff like rocks and tree roots to trip over. Hmm, kind of like trekking through a first draft.
Around Mount Benson, a popular hiking and mountain biking spot, there are many trails, but few signs. We could easily get lost. Yes, we had a map, but maps aren’t perfect. Hmm again. Kind of like trying to stick to an outline or notes for a first draft. Helpful, but not foolproof.
We decided to follow the sound of rushing water. Our view of the falls from the trail was breathtaking. But for the best photo op, we had to descend a steep, slippery slope, with the questionable help of a frayed rope tied to tree roots. Scary!
I began making my terrified way down. Though knotted at intervals for gripping, the rope was so wet and muddy it was painful to hold on to. I wanted to give up and turn back. I felt the way I do when I’m struggling with a first draft. Like, ohmigod this is such a bad idea why am I doing this it will never work I’m such a loser I need chocolate.
For first drafts, I try to use a technique known as freefall. Don’t overthink, don’t edit, just write. But here, freefall might literally be the end of the story. At the very least I’d land in the wild water with broken legs. Wimping out seemed my best option. And yet, other folks had made it and were admiring the view. I didn’t want to miss my chance, so held on tight and slithered down. Eventually, shaking, swearing and covered with mud, I reached my goal.
Ammonite Falls, so named because of the fossils in the layers of rock below Benson Creek, is lovely. All misty and sparkling in the sunlight, the cascade looked like something out of a fairytale. I kept expecting to see magical creatures frolicking on the rocky shelf behind the falling water, or splashing in the clear green pool below.
It’s also enlightening. Here’s what it showed me about first drafts:
Go somewhere you’ve never been before.
Follow the sound of rushing water.
Trust your instincts and skills.
It’s okay to get dirty.
If freefall won’t work, hang on tight.
Be brave. But just keep going, one foot in front of the other, word by word.
And one more thing: hauling myself back up that cliff was way easier – more like revising.