Just in time for our big house move, the manuscript for my new book is reaching a pivotal point: the end of the first draft.

Now, I like first drafts. Really, I do.

Their youthful jubilance, the way they forge ahead with such unbridled enthusiasm, like a pack of children at play, running this way and that, letting fancy take over, throwing confetti in the air. First drafts are the only time during the writing of a novel when you can let — when you must let — creativity take the lead. Where anything and everything can happen to your plot and characters, where ideas flow like champagne and the only task your analytic mind has is to move your fingers across the keyboard.

A first draft is creative freefall, it is pure, unadulterated joy. And it is secretive and intimate, too, because 99% of the words written here will never be seen by the public eye. 

A first draft is just you and your book, the way it will never be again

So you have to love first drafts, the way you love a giggling, gorgeously joyful baby. At the same time — first drafts are also stroppy and messy and, often, utterly exhausting. They defy order, they are out of control, they do whatever the heck they want.

I’m an orderly kind of person.

I love knowing where I’m going, I need maps and directions, I sort out problems across a grid (preferably colour-coded) and I adore my label-maker. It makes me very nervous when I don’t have an overview, when I don’t know exactly what will happen in Chapter Five. I lie awake at night counting through the beats of my story. This first, then this. Definitely not that. And absolutely those three things before that one.

But having written four first drafts in my time as a writer — one soon to be published, two for the sock drawer and one waiting for me right now (impatient and, yes, more than a little cranky) — I’ve come to realise that all this wrestling for control is not only unnecessarily hard but counterproductive.

So, my first draft and I have to come to a compromise.

It puts up with my label maker and my word counter and my A3-size plot-grid-outline-character-sheet in a bemused, good-humoured(ish) way, and I — I let it run. And when it does run, when I do give up control and let it find its way, something quite wonderful happens. Ideas come out of nowhere, like little sparks and shooting stars, twists and turns raise their heads, tentatively at first, then more boldly when they realise they won’t be squashed by order. Characters take on lives of their own that I could never have foreseen on my grid, they become more flawed and more sympathetic as they’re allowed to do their own thing and find their feet. Mistakes are made, dead-ends and cul-de-sacs explored and more often than not, both my manuscript and I are utterly lost.

And little by little, between analytic order and creative chaos, the magic happens. A story is born.

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