Piecemeal Manifesto – Entry 2 – I Embrace the Shitty First Draft
I try to read a lot of books by author’s about writing. It’s comforting in some weird way to hear a writer talk about the struggles he or she goes through. On days when I feel like I’m absolutely terrible at this, I can pull down a writing book and usually get a piece of advice or solace that makes me feel somewhat better.
Probably the most useful piece of advice I’ve ever gotten from a book about writing came from Anne Lamott’s excellent BIRD BY BIRD. Obviously it’s a book about writing, but it’s also about Lamott’s life, lessons she’s learned, and whatnot. Lamott’s also honest in ways a lot of other writers aren’t. She talks about feeling jealous of other writers and just how damn hard writing can be at times. That honesty is what makes the book one I return to a lot.
Anyway, the piece of advice I mentioned above? It’s this – Lamott is a proponent of giving yourself permission to “write the shitty first draft.” I like so much about this. First, the idea of giving yourself permission. Writers know that, as someone (Michael Crichton?) said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” But man, we don’t want them to be. We want them to be right the first time, with the golden light of the universe shining down on us and making that first draft beautiful and ready to publish. But they never are. At least not for me. And if they are for you, keep it to yourself because I hate you.
But what I really like here is the admission that stories develop as you write. I usually discover my story and characters as I write. I outline, sure, but it doesn’t take too much drafting before I have a better idea. But somehow in my head, I want it right the first time. I don’t want to have to put the extra work in because it is just that–work. Good work, to be sure, but work nonetheless. So I outline and outline and take copious notes, putting off the inevitable actual drafting, writing Chapter 1 and starting because I want it right the first time. Hell, I’m going through that now, outlining and plotting a novel I should just start writing and figuring out along the way. I need to trust that’ll it work. It sure did with THE WATER TOWER 5. From shitty first draft to sale took less than two years. That may seem like a long time, but that includes the four month agent search as well. And I outlined the sucker for a long time. If I’d just given myself permission to write a terrible first draft sooner, who knows how long it might have taken?
Because here’s the thing, and this is what I need to remind myself of all the time–I’m a much better reviser. I work so much better when I have pages to work with. But drafting, man, I hate it. Following Lamott’s advice though takes a lot of that pressure off though. I can get the ideas down, work out the plot and the characters, then use those pages as my real starting point. I don’t have to get it right, I just need to be writing. Others may feel differently, working and reworking the same page until it’s right and moving on, but this is what works for me. Lamott too, apparently. It reminds me of that other writing commandment I follow that’s closely related–Write it, then right it.
Heck, let’s give the final word to Lamott as she’s so much to the point than I am:
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
TL;DR: Sometimes you just need to vomit all of your words and ideas onto the page then clean it up later.