I find writing a first draft can be a little bit like being alone in the house and trying to scratch that spot between your shoulder blades that you just can’t quite reach. You have to do it, you want to do it, but you can’t quite get there, and it drives you crazy.
Some writers, I know, write a one-sentence synopsis of each chapter on cards and tack them to a board so they can follow along, writing chronologically. I can’t do that.
I am an inefficient and intuitive writer. I can’t outline. I just can’t. I have to start writing, and what I start writing involves whoever has been walking around in my head saying things. It’s always been that way. Somehow I know something about my main character and her crisis—it’s usually a woman—and I “see” her. I “hear” her. So I write down what is there, waiting in my head like a blinking cursor, to write. Perhaps, the first day, five pages.
The next day, I wake up, grab my coffee, and read what I’ve written. Immediately, I know, “Oh, she doesn’t say that!” And I begin to edit and cross out and scribble in the margins and write five more pages. (I keep all the pages I write until I’m really finished writing the novel.) (Stacks of paper loom in my study!)
I work like this for perhaps a month, more or less, until I finally know what my novel is going to be about. At that point I can pull together a synopsis to present my editor. I know there will be changes, lots of changes, suggested by my editor and my agent and my husband. And myself.
An ad man, Dick Mercer, once said when we worked together on a library committee, that if you present a blank sheet of paper to a committee and say, “Give me five ideas,” the pages will stay blank. But if you give the committee a sheet of paper with five ideas on it, everyone will have lots of suggestions. I think that’s the way first drafts work. I can sit waiting for the perfect sentence, character or plot, and I can wait all day. But once I’ve written a sentence, I know if it’s right or wrong.
But right or wrong for how long? Once I’m in the middle of a book, I often realize a scene in the beginning is completely wrong. Sometimes I have to get rid of a character. I often finish a book, let it “cool,” reread it, and edit out entire scenes or people or action.
When I started writing Beachcombers, I was thinking about three young sisters who live on Nantucket and are working to grow up and away from a terrible loss in their lives. Why was I thinking this? Perhaps because I have a daughter in her thirties, and I know her friends who are in their thirties. Perhaps because I was seeing how what happens to us when we are young influences how we act even when we’re living adult lives. Probably I was walking along the beach, as I do almost every day, bending down to pick up a shell, lulled by the shimmer of the ocean—and a woman in my head started talking.
That, for me, is the best way to get started on a first draft: take a walk. Look at nature. Get away from the computer or pen and paper, move your body, and let your mind be free to receive whatever the mysterious dynamics of writing sends you. Then go home and write. Write, even if you know it’s wrong. After a while, it will be right.
Nancy Thayer is the New York Times bestselling author of Summer House, Moon Shell Beach, The Hot Flash Club, The Hot Flash Club Strikes Again, Hot Flash Holidays, The Hot Flash Club Chills Out, and Between Husbands and Friends. She lives on Nantucket. You can visit Nancy Thayer’s website at www.NancyThayer.com.