Step Right Up and Write Some Crap!

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How to Get the First Draft Done.

Hemingway famously said “The first draft of anything is shit.” So what do think when you hear about people writing novels in a couple of months or even weeks? Hmm. Well, to be fair, maybe they’ve been thinking about it a really long time… or maybe they are just extra special geniuses.

I’m not one of those special types. I slave and sweat and revise, and that’s just emails.

I think most writers have to revise quite a bit to get to the good stuff. True revision is not just about and prettying up the outside; it’s about digging deeper into the story, finding the unexpected, the nuanced, and if we’re lucky, the mythic.

Maybe we feel like we should be able to spit all that brilliance out at the first go. However, for most of us, that fantasy is not only unrealistic, it’s potentially destructive.

If we accept that the first draft will be crap, the pressure is off. Ah the carefree joy and deep wisdom of the writer who knows her first draft will stink to high heaven. No matter! Bravely she wades though the bubbling dreck to find the gems… and then take a hose to the rest.

Here is the process:

1. Get something on the page.

2. Rip it to shreds like it just insulted your mama.

3. Rebuild around the good stuff.

Repeat as many times as needed until your wise readers and your editor tells you it’s ready.

Which Kind of Writer Are You?

I think there are two kinds of writers. Those who love to write the first draft, but hate to edit, and those who cower in fear of the first draft like it’s a flaming ring of fire.

There’s no right or wrong to this – we are who we are. But it helps to know which camp you fall into, so you can capitalize on your strengths and sidestep your weaknesses.

If you can belch out twenty pages a day, that’s great…

But 40,000 words does not a novel make. Those words have to form a complex and beautiful series of interlocking shapes, and for that to happen, you’re going to have to edit, A LOT. Although it goes against the grain, after that first draft, you’re going to have to slow down, speedy Gonzales, really think about your story, and be willing make radical changes.

If you try to make it perfect as you go, your sentences will sing…

But will you finish anything longer than a short story? (this is me… so ridiculously, painstakingly slow… though blogging is wringing that tendency out of me pretty fast.)

Understand that even if you take an hour spit shining a paragraph, you still may have to throw it out later if it doesn’t serve the story. Although it goes against the grain, the best thing for you to do is stop worrying about the details and get through that first draft. Just take a running start and get ‘er done. Then you can edit to your heart’s content. Ten drafts, twenty… there’s no end to the fun you’ll have.

Write First, Edit Later

Any writer who can learn to master both the art of slathering the page with verbiage at a rapid rate, AND the art of critically tossing out most of those words in favor of other (hopefully better) words, will have the best chance of telling a great story and seeing their project through to completion.

How about you?  Are you a word-belcher, a neurotic tinkerer, or something in between? What’s your biggest challenge to getting writing finished?

4 Responses to “Step Right Up and Write Some Crap!”

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  1. Ella says:

    Your words do take the pressure off! You are a truly gifted writer, writer, writer! best, ella

  2. I definitely cower from the first draft….once I spew it all out, I really enjoy the rest of the process!

  3. Linda Brigman says:

    Being a high school English teacher for 31 years and earning a Masters in English literature in my 40’s automatically places me in the category of people who has probably written a few drafts here and there: poems, short stories, articles, dramatic dear John letters, long-winded emails, etc. I like to write when I have time, but I am one of those writers who can write something reasonably quickly and then spend days editing it. Nothing I write is ever officially “finished”. I had dreams once upon a time that I could write a facinating autobiography under a clever pseudonym so no one would really be able to connect the real me to the character in my book. My father being a Methodist minister probably influenced my need for non disclosure of every detail of my life. I realized after I moved to Mexico that I was officially the “black sheep” of my family since I was the youngest of 5 females, all happily married, none of them ever divorced, with the expected number of offspring, and all still living in North Carolina. Well, actually my sheep color is more like gray or off-white compared to the details of many people’s lives. But I digress. (I might have just written the introduction to my first slightly autobiographical novel!) Anyway, I enjoy reading your articles and book reviews. Keep up the good work. Linda Brigman

  4. Linda,
    Glad you’re enjoying the articles! I like the idea of you being an “off-white sheep.” I think you should write that autobiography. They say often when you write autobiographically, even under your own name, people often don’t recognize themselves!

    I endlessly revise, too. Finished means either published or after hundreds of drafts I’m so sick of revising it I just can’t read it one more time…

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