Thoughts on First Drafts and Stephen King’s Fossil Metaphor

“Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world.”

Stephen King

I read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, a couple years ago, after I finished the first draft of Tattoos and Tans, and even though I was captivated by the book, I didn’t put too much stock in his first-draft-as archeology concept. You know the one. Where the writer is like an archeologist, using the process of writing his first draft in order to carefully, piece by piece, reveal the characters and the fossilized story hidden in the imagination. 

It’s the third week of November, and so I’ve been chipping away at my own first draft (the working title is The Asian Cajun) for twenty days now. My goal was to complete the entire first draft by the end of this month. That’s definitely not going to happen, but I’m not too worried about it because one, I know I’m going to start my second draft entirely from scratch, and two—because it’s pretty clear to me that Stephen King is right. The first draft really is just a process of discovery. 

All I really have right now is two characters and an interesting situation. It’s a dude from South-Louisiana (named Horace) and a Chinese girl from, well, from China. Her name is Mei. The situation is Horace convinces Mei to marry him so they can open a Chinese-Cajun fusion style restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana. That’s the idea. 

Beyond that, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. And the first draft is bearing that out. Even though I did sketch out a loose narrative (a kind of lite version of “pantsing”, the act of writing by the seat of your pants), the story is not going like I expected. In fact, to be totally honest, it’s not really going anywhere at all. 

I spent the first two weeks of this month writing the most boring stuff you could possibly imagine. I’m sitting there at the keyboard writing sentences in which I’m describing Horace sitting in his crumbling apartment in a windswept, isolated place in Outer Mongolia, waiting for something to happen. And the only thing interesting about any of it is the kind of meta quality of the experience. Here is the half-formed character struggling to be interesting on the page while his creator struggles to make something interesting happen. 

Technically, I was writing, and so I give myself credit for “working the process”, which is really the essence of how I view novel writing now . . . but I’m nearly positive I have about twenty thousand useless words. 

But over the last couple days, I finally managed to get Horace and Mei out of China, where they met, and in Lafayette, and finally a couple of small but interesting things are starting to happen. I still don’t really know if I have anything usable yet, but the one thing I do know is there is only one way to find out. If it’s true what Stephen King says, the most important thing is the archeologist cannot walk away from the dig. You have to keep going. 

In my case, I suspect what’s happening is that I happened to start working on the least interesting part of the fossil. If the story in this case is a dinosaur, then maybe I just happened to get assigned a grid that’s in the space between two giant rib bones. I had no way to know that I was just excavating empty space. It only became apparent once I finally reached the edge of one of those ribs. I still don’t have a sense of what all is underneath, but at least now I have something to hold onto.

If I didn’t have my primary rule for first drafts in place—which is to scrap the entire thing and start the second draft with a blank page—I think I’d be a lot more anxious about where I am. But really, I’m not bothered. And the reason is because I know the first draft only serves one purpose, and the only way it works is to let yourself go and write through the whole damn thing. Now, it’s true that Stephen the King has been at it much longer than I have, so he’s better with his archeology tools. But that’s okay, because I know that even if I hack off a leg bone by accident, I can still pick the thing up and fuse it back into place during the second and third rounds. The main thing is just knowing that it’s there in the first place. 

I’ll let you know how it turns out! 

Published by New Bayou Books

Jason P. Reed started New Bayou Books to spark a revolution in South Louisiana literature. The goal of the company is two fold: to discover great new writers from Acadiana while building a global community of readers and listeners. Join us! Sign the enlistment form.

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