This article was written by NUPSA Project Officer (and almost-author) Hugh Milligan.
Okay, quick preface: I am not a PhD student. Though I work for NUPSA, and hear stories from PhD students on a daily basis, I have never known first-hand the agonies of confirmation, or of referencing a thousand million quotations in Endnote, or of stitching together a thesis like some hideous Frankenbeast and, with a bolt of lightning, giving it impossible life.
I am, however, a writer. I know the constant climb, one sentence after the next, to ascend a vast and imposing Everest. I know the force of will it takes to sit and write at the end of a long day (or in the earliest hours of the next one), even when you’re exhausted, even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing.
I’m currently writing a sci-fi novel. It’s a labour of love, to which I have committed the last three years of my life – scraps of time before and after work, lunch breaks, weekends and holidays. I have finished the first draft, and now I am editing it, chapter by chapter, to produce the second.
And so, although I am not a postgraduate student, I’d like to share with you the story of my first draft – a gothic tale of ugliness, despair, and the mad pursuit of perfection. At the heart of it lie three gruesome truths; here is the first.
Drafts are ugly
I wrote the prologue of my first draft seventeen times.
Even as I type that, it looks ridiculous on the screen. But it’s true: seventeen times.
It was almost three years ago, and – like every young aspiring author – I had just set out to write the greatest book of all time. Everything was prepared: the setting, the characters, the narrative, the twists and turns. I had a good idea of what I wanted my novel to be about, and how I wanted it to begin, and proceed, and end. And so, with a great swell of optimism and adventure, I opened my laptop and wrote the prologue I’d mapped out so perfectly in my head.
It was about a thousand words, and for a moment, I was terribly proud of myself for having written it. I don’t remember the precise details, but I probably drank some wine.
Then, however, rather than proceeding to Chapter One, I decided to stop and read it back. And this is when I made my first gruesome discovery: it was ugly.
Like… blob fish ugly. Gollum ugly.
In fairness, it wasn’t as ugly as that. The grammar was meticulous; the prose was sound; the narrative was coherent, and exciting enough (that is, someone had their ribcage torn out by the end of it). But it didn’t feel right as I read it, like a portrait hung so slightly askance that further attempts to straighten it only make it worse. But attempt I did, rewriting it again and again and again, fiddling with the minutiae of every word and phrase, trying to make it fit the picture I’d constructed in my head.
One could argue that the seventeenth version of a draft is hardly the first draft anymore, but the point here is that I completely misunderstood the purpose of drafting. I believed (as many do when they set out to write a major work) that, given all my research and preparation, the ideas should leap from my head fully clothed and armoured for battle, like Athena from the head of Zeus.
Instead, I had produced some newborn creature, all gangly limbs and disproportionate features, still covered in muck and stumbling over itself.
Now utterly despondent and quite insane – and possibly eating my own hair – I stepped away from the project for a fortnight to take stock of it. I made further notes on my characters, did more research, and read several books and essays on the writing habits of other authors. (Write Good or Die, for example, is a fantastic collection of essays by 21st century writers, though it does deal almost exclusively with fiction.)
Through this period of reflection, I gained a better understanding of my own habits. And this led me to my second gruesome discovery.
Ugliness is vital
There’s something else I should have included in my preface, though it should now be obvious to you. I am a perfectionist.
You are probably a perfectionist as well, I suspect, or you wouldn’t be here at UON, obsessing over the migratory patterns of ducks or the division of an obscure protein for three to five years (and preparing to write up to 100,000 words on the subject).
As a perfectionist, I have a relentlessly critical eye for my own work. This can be useful if the work is limited in scale (such as a short story or a newsletter article) or if I’m at the editing stage, where I can be as persnickety as I like, and take a scalpel to every sentence.
When writing a first draft, however, perfectionism is a curse, in the same way that lycanthropy is a curse. Because perfectionism recoils at the slightest blemish or mistake; anything imperfect is ugly, and utterly intolerable. And first drafts, like werewolves, are ugly – and they are meant to be. Their ugliness is absolutely vital to the writing process.
A werewolf, or lycanthrope. (And possibly a perfectionist, I don’t know.)
I apologise for all the gothic horror metaphors; I recently binge-watched two seasons of Penny Dreadful
in a single weekend, which wasn’t the best idea, in hindsight.
And this was the source of my discomfort: my prologue did not read as I wanted it to because I didn’t know what I wanted. First I had to write the entire draft, every chapter – to see them all laid out before me, and understand how they fit together.
So if I was going to make this book happen, I would have to write thousands and thousands of ugly words, in ugly sentences, in ugly paragraphs. I would have to vomit my characters and settings and plot points onto the page and mix them around with my fingers, letting them blur and expand into new ideas.
And as a PhD student, this is what you must do as well. Start writing even when you don’t entirely know what you’re trying to say yet, or where you’re going. Your first draft is unsculpted clay; it’s the point at which you extract vague, inchoate musings and half-arguments and let them sit, nice and ugly, until you’re able to shape and refine them. Your first draft should be part of your thought process, not the end result of it.
Once I’d accepted this, I knew what I had to do. That was gruesome discovery three.
Ugliness takes practice
To complete my draft, I developed a new plan. I called it the ‘Orpheus technique’ just to make it sound deliberate and terribly clever, but you can call it whatever you like. (If you want to know why I called it that, you can read up on the deliciously tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but otherwise, ‘don’t look back!’ is the gist of it.)
The method was simple: as I completed each chapter, I set it aside and moved on to the next, at which point I was absolutely forbidden from altering a single keystroke. I’d want to, of course – there’d already be a thousand changes I was desperate to make – but that was the siren song of perfectionism, drawing me back into its dark cycle. So instead, I’d make a list of them all, point by point, and I’d tuck that list away with the completed chapter and forge ahead. No looking back.
‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, by Edward Poynter. Unfortunately, singing and playing the lyre are no longer medically accepted treatments for snakebite, but beseeching the gods is still a popular remedy.
Simple in theory, but the execution was maddening at first. Drafting each chapter and letting it rest within my laptop, crude and incomplete, was exquisite torture; I was consumed by the fear that someone would see it in this state, like being seen in public without clothing, or skin.
But with time and perseverance, it became easier. I burned through the chapters more quickly, concerning myself less and less with specific phrases and sentences. Wherever I was stalled by a missing detail, I began to write out certain sections in dot points, or skip them entirely until I knew more.
Fleshing out my ideas on the page gave me new ideas, and I began to make changes to the characters and setting I’d never even realised were necessary. And eventually, as I neared the end, I began to see all the pieces in front of me, moving them around until they fell magnificently into place.
By the time I’d written ‘The End’ (actually, I wrote ‘Fin’, because I’m a ponce), I had a first draft of 200,000 words.
That all makes it sound quite breezy, of course. It wasn’t; it took me the better part of two years. But now I had something to work with, and a hundred pages of adjustments to make, and absolute permission to start making them. To my perfectionist brain, this was tantric release. Every Christmas come at once.
Picture this, but poncier.
Now I’m in the editing process. Much of it involves reworking my earlier chapters to agree with the later ones, incorporating all my new ideas and clearing out the ones I discarded. Writing the draft helped me collect my thoughts and figure out what I was trying to say; now when I spend an hour fine-tuning a particular passage, it’s based on more than a vague, ‘this painting is askew’ impression. I’m far more certain of my intentions, and my adjustments have real purpose.
And that wretched prologue? I have since rewritten it almost completely. There is now little, if anything, left of the work I agonised so much over, and from which I extracted such misery.
Your thesis – and your journey in writing it – may vary from mine. But our aim in writing a first draft, I believe, is much the same: take whatever you have, however much or little it may be, put it on the page and play with it. Experiment! You’re good at that.
It will be ugly, and messy. It will have fangs and claws, and howl at the moon. But don’t poke and prod it yet; be comfortable with its ugliness, let it be precisely what it is. Keep writing, keep adding to it, keep sticking bits on. Its true identity will eventually become clear, and then you’ll know just how to shape it into something glorious.
Like a werewolf transforming into Josh Hartnett. (Damn you, Penny Dreadful.)
Werewolves, like first drafts, scrub up pretty well.