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Monday, October 22, 2012

Always Write Terrible First Drafts

The Skeleton: A Terrible First Draft
At least when it comes to fiction, I write the worst first drafts, and I know I’m not the only one. In Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott says that her first drafts are so bad she worries about getting into a car crash and dying…because she’d never want others to see her stuff before she’s had a chance to revise it. 

Whether you’re an outliner or a pantser, things are still going to flow differently once you start writing, and insisting on having a reasonably good first draft may cause a variety of problems. 

First, it’s important that every writer realize that a first draft is just that – a first draft. No matter how great it may have seemed while you were working on it, everything needs to be proofread and polished up over several more passes. One of the biggest mistakes I see beginning writers making is that they’re impatient with editing – they want their masterpiece out there, already. Often before it's ready.

But masterpieces not only require you to review the manuscript to work out the kinks, they also require feedback from others, who will let you know where the problems you can’t see are. And if you always consider your first draft terrible, you’re not going to be offended when others point out weak areas.

Second, if you’re snailing along trying to get everything right the first time, you may not notice places that the novel’s tension drops. That is, when I’m writing frantically to get all the ideas onto the page in some form, I really notice when everything sloooowwsss down, and I know that those are places that are going to need particular work (or they may even need to be cut completely). 

I’ve always liked that Iris Murdoch quote, “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” In other words, what ends up on the page may not capture your vision as well as you’d hoped. And if you’re spending the whole process worrying about that, you’re never going to accomplish anything.

To put this into psychological terms, if your inner critic is sitting on your shoulder tapping its pointy-nailed fingers, it’s unlikely you’re going to break into a “flow” state.  Flow, as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, you can pronounce that – it’s me-high chick-sent-me-high), is a state of complete involvement, elevated mood, serenity, great inner clarity, and a sense of competence. It is, in other words, that feeling you get when you’re completely immersed in a project, time is zipping by, and the words just flow. Csikszentmihalyi argues that this occurs when we have a perfect balance between our skill level and the challenge before us.  If the inner critic is worrying too much about doing things “just right” the first time, flow can’t happen. 

I think of writing a book as a layered process. I see the first draft as the skeleton. It provides a framework. Next are the tendons and muscles and organs. The stuff that makes your story (forgive me for using this word) meaty. This stage takes several passes for me, each time building another layer. Finally comes the skin, the hair, the features. This is the fine-tuning, the polishing, the part that makes your manuscript truly presentable. 

At the skeleton phase, I’m telling the story far more than I’m showing it. And I write everything – the awful melodrama I really want to put in there (but shouldn’t), conflicting information if I’m not sure exactly which way I’m going to handle something (or if things are changing as I write), the stuff we don’t want our parents to see. (Darned if that stuff doesn’t usually end up being some of the best stuff for me. But if I weren’t writing a Terrible First Draft, I’d never put it in there.) 

If I think of something important that has the potential to interrupt my single-minded creation of the Terrible First Draft, here’s what I do. Let’s say I have an idea for what I want to write tomorrow, or somewhere farther along in the story. If you have an outline, or use outlining software, you may find it easy to pop those things in with a new notecard or file. But if you don’t know where the idea goes, or you don’t want to stop long enough to go back to your plotting board, you can always write the idea right in the first draft. I usually write these pieces in ALL CAPS (I started doing that in my manuscripts before that was known as shouting) or in italics. They just go in there wherever they occurred to me, single-spaced to make them stand out, and then I plunge right back into the story.

Later I might move the idea into a writing program like yWriter so I can play with it some more, but when I’m writing, I’m writing.

So don’t be afraid to write Terrible First Drafts. I know if I didn’t, I’d miss out on a lot of great possibilities. Plus I’d be too paralyzed to get much done in the first place. 

If you’ve never tried writing a Terrible First Draft, you might want to try NaNoWriMo, which starts November first. Writing 50,000 words (or more) in a month is one way to shut off the worry about producing something Good the first time. There’s no time to worry – only to write!

So how about you? Do you write Terrible First Drafts? What are the benefits you’ve discovered?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook


docstar said...

The title of your post is really misleading. Writing a terrible first draft works for you - it doesn't work at all for me. Completing a terrible first draft and then having to go back and rewrite the whole thing seems a terrible waste of time and energy to me, not to mention being boring as all get out.

What works for some authors will not work for others. There is no right way to write, and the best way to write is whichever one allows the author to finish.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one. My first draft of my first novel was so horrible that I couldn't look at it for a year. It actually burned my eyes to open the file. :-) I guess I could have thrown it away, but the story was a good one, it was just terribly executed. Several edits later, it's still not perfect, but it's coming along. The point is, if you believe in your story, you can overcome any shortcomings.

Stina said...

My first draft is the chance to get telling out of my system. :D

Andrea Mack said...

I tend to want my first drafts to be too perfect, so I love your points. I think accepting that a first draft will be terrible could be very freeing and I think I may try this approach with my next novel.

Anonymous said...

"Snailing along trying to get everything right the first time" is a great way to give yourself writer's block. But many people think that's the only way to get the polish they see in published works. Ellen Raskin did writers a great service by sharing the messy drafts of her Newbery-winning novel, The Westing Game . The drafts--with all their arrows, crossouts, write-ins, and stets--are online at www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/authors/raskin/intro.htm

Raskin was a pantser. Those who aren't quite as fearless about diving into a draft might prefer your method of building a skeleton. What a great metaphor!

Cecelia Munzenmaier

Marsha Sigman said...

I'm workin' on a pretty awful one right now.ha

Sarah P said...

I love this! It speaks to my inhibiting perfectionist tendencies. And I love Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD. You are too nice to call them what she calls them: Shitty First Drafts. And she finds them as necessary as you and I do.

In answer to docstar's criticism, there is more than one way to do this. I always write a terrible first draft of a section of my document. Then, I usually need to circle back and figure out what's working before I can construct the next part. Otherwise, it is indeed possible to drive too far down the wrong road. But then I plunge ahead again, adding on in shitty draft form.

Is risk taking for wimps, I guess.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I actually do what Sarah mentioned -- I go in circles as I work and figure the story out, rather than create an entire first draft without stopping. (Cecelia, I'm actually a pantser. I have no idea what's going to happen next while I write. I'll have to check out Ellen Raskin's stuff.) But I still have to get the stuff OUT without worrying about whether it's GOOD as I do the first draft. As I said in the piece, it can be paralyzing to edit as you write each word. I don't know about you, but I can spend hours working on the first line in those situations. (Probably why I have trouble with loglines!)

With regards to what docstar said, s/he is right -- what works for one person isn't going to work for everyone else. That's true of any writing advice you read! (And true of anything you read, period. :)

blog-tour: That's funny, that it practically burned your eyes. And man, do I know what burned eyes feel like! (http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2012/10/using-lifes-disasters-to-add.html)

Andrea also makes a great point that accepting that what comes out first can (and probably is) pretty terrible can be extremely freeing. Even Stephen King says he writes Terrible First Drafts.

And Marsha -- so am I!

Anonymous said...

As much as I'd love to write perfect first drafts, I learned long ago that it's easier to rewrite a terrible draft than a blank page. Once I get my thoughts down on paper (or computer screen), I have the raw material I need to shape and chisel.

I'm also a big fan of freewriting as a way of generatind ideas. When you write without self-censoring, you can surprise yourself.

Cat Russell said...

I agree with the first commenter that what works for one will not work for everyone. That stated, this reminds me of my very favorite writing quote. "The first draft of everything is sh*t."~ Hemingway Heck, I figure if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.

Incidentally, though my first drafts are anything but perfect, I've noticed that the more of them I do (separate novels), the less terrible they are. My first rough-draft novel was pretty unreadable. My second, readable with lots of plot holes. My third, wasn't too bad. And my fourth, I've been revising and editing it for the past two years. Practice makes perfect (or at least, better); right?

Unknown said...

I write books like I draft contracts (attorney for day job), which is pretty much what you said. I get it down and then go back and fill in the missing meat, correct cracks and gaps, make it neat and add flesh.