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On sloppy first drafts

My thoughts, let me show you them.

I've read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. And I understand her point about first drafts. Here's what she writes to introduce the second chapter of her book:

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

And I know lots of people who interpret this statement as meaning that one should simply push ahead, writing down any old thing during the first draft, then fixing it later. Heck, I know several writers who do just that - pedal to the metal, full speed ahead, damn the torpedos (sort of NaNoWriMo-style, now that I think of it).


I find it's just not how I work, even if it's how I plan to work. My intention when writing my current work-in-progress (contemp. YA romance based on an Austen novel) was to forge through fast and fix it later, but I find that doesn't always work. For the scenes that do basically what they're supposed to do, it's just fine. There have been a few scenes, however, where what I wrote fit the "chubby outline" I created, but just wasn't right. I don't mean "close to perfect"-right, either. I mean the tone or content or expression was just off.

And each time that has happened, while I'm busy trying to forge ahead, I find that moving forward feels like I'm dragging someone along with me. Whoever he or she is, they're big, and they've got their hands around my ankles, and it's damned hard to move at all. And I struggle and flail, trying to trudge along, expending tons of energy but not really getting anywhere.

I have learned to pay better attention, and to respond to that feeling by doubling back to find out where those hands grabbed my ankles. And then, I figure out how to fix it. Sometimes I write myself a big note in the "Document Notes" section on Scrivener to tell myself what I need to work on during the next draft (when I know that I left a little something out, but it's not entirely essential) and most of the time I add, subtract or revise what's there. The point is, I figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done to fix it.

In every case where I've doubled back, I've ended up with something so much better than what I wrote the first time - and something that allows the next scene (or three) to trip merrily along.

And then I realized that this is my process for writing a shitty draft. Because even shitty first drafts require work. More power to those of you who can boldly go where no writer has gone before without looping back to rework things on your first draft - it would be nice, I think, to be able to do that. In the meantime, I'll keep prying those fingers loose from my ankle so I can get back to skipping.

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( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 18th, 2011 11:31 pm (UTC)
That's my method too-- write a paragraph, revise whole manuscript. Write two paragraphs, revise whole manuscript. Slow, but you get there eventually...
Mar. 19th, 2011 04:41 am (UTC)
Oh my - that's way slower than my methodology! Although there was a past (long-abandoned) project that went pretty much that way for me. (I didn't abandon it for that reason, btw.) Mostly I've been moving ahead wherever I can, even if I know something needs work later and I have notes on it. But every so often, there's something that is off, and I have to deal with it before I can move on.
(no subject) - lizjonesbooks - Mar. 19th, 2011 12:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Mar. 19th, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2011 11:57 pm (UTC)
My first drafts are wretched -- and they are so, so much work too *sigh*.
Mar. 19th, 2011 04:42 am (UTC)
It's funny, because Lamott doesn't truly say you should just damn the torpedos and go full-speed ahead. She just says you have to give yourself permission to write a less-than-great first draft. So I think we're in keeping with that, even if that first draft comes hard, instead of easy.
Mar. 19th, 2011 12:04 am (UTC)
I'd never finished a first draft before I decided to plough on through,allowing myself to write a shitty first draft. What I have learnt though is when something isn't right, rather than go back and correct it, make a note of it, and carry on as if I had written it differently, in one case I decided two of my characters would actually work better as one, combining aspects of both, so rather than go back I just wrote the rest as if that was the case - of course then there's more to do in the second draft, but also much better than knowing something is wrong and carrying on regardless. I think everyone has their own ways that work for them.

I do however know someone who constantly self edits and never finishes a first draft : /
Mar. 19th, 2011 04:46 am (UTC)
I have plenty of places where I've left myself notes and moved on, and one case where I haven't done something at all but left notes to add it in later.

In Chapter 14 (at least, what I call Chapter 14 - it's at least Chapter 16, in real life), the interaction between my MC and her mother was just wrong (too heavy, not open enough) and didn't include a major topic that should've been there. Going back and fixing those things has made it zing along, and I'm feeling much better about moving ahead because I'm not hobbled any longer!

I know what you mean about constant self-editing, though - I have an acquaintance who did something like that with a nonfiction project - research and outline and note-take and research and never, never draft the actual proposal or sample chapters. It can be frustrating to watch, and I imagine feels worse to the person with the issue.
Mar. 19th, 2011 12:11 am (UTC)
I've sort of learned that I have my own pace and my own weird way of doing things and since it seems to be working I should probably stick with it. I'm incapable of doing a NaNo type vomit on the page, but I also don't over revise as I go along. Guess I'm middle of the road-one foot on each side. :o)
Mar. 19th, 2011 04:47 am (UTC)
I think that allowing yourself to have your own pace and to move along at that pace is terribly important. Which is why I've accepted this particular part of my process (at least for this project - ever notice how process can alter from one piece of writing to another?), and I'm going with the flow.
(no subject) - kimmiepoppins - Mar. 19th, 2011 01:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 19th, 2011 02:19 am (UTC)
I just can't do the shitty first draft thing, which is why I am not a NaNo kind of person. Sometimes I wish I were, but I yam what I yam. The plus side is that I need a lot less revision once I'm done the first draft. I revise plenty, but it's not usually major overhauling.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Mar. 19th, 2011 04:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Mar. 19th, 2011 04:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - afraclose - Mar. 19th, 2011 07:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Mar. 19th, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - afraclose - Mar. 19th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 19th, 2011 02:56 am (UTC)
I couldn't agree with you more. Brava!
Mar. 19th, 2011 04:50 am (UTC)
Why does this not surprise me in the slightest?
Mar. 19th, 2011 12:49 pm (UTC)
Hmm...I keep changing. I used to be a pantser, then a plotter. And now, someone who does both. I find (for myself) it's best that I force myself to write a chunk at a time, that's bad, and go back and work on it. It's easier to work with material once it's there, but it's hard to get that material on the page for me unless i force myself to do it. But if I have 100 pages of pantsy material, it's too big a mess, and I end up getting lost.

So I'm like you, Kelly. I do need to go back. But I have to make sure I don't go back for too long, or else I get stuck doing that for a long time without moving forward. Often I plot a chapter at a time - I know how the chapter is going to end before i start writing it, i know how the next chapter starts. But that's it. Kind of the headlights in the dark approach. :)
Mar. 19th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
You can indeed complete an entire journey that way, Sheela. Good for you for knowing what works for you!
Mar. 19th, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC)
I wish I could write something good to start with instead of plowing on - the closest I've had is when I work on a new prompt every week with rachelswardrobe - I guess I have the time to think about creating something that someone can actually read!

Although, I guess, even in Nanowrimo I will rewrite scenes where I don't think I got anywhere close to what I want - but then I don't plan at all before I start writing - only if it's vaguelly in my head so characters and situations often need to change but I don't tend to go back and edit the original stuff.

It would be really nice to plot before hand - I want to try that one day, I'm just worried I'd lose interest before I got to writing.
Mar. 19th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
Lots of people write using the seat-of-the-pants approach, and there's no reason you can't complete a novel that way.

The real trick is to remember that when you're writing that first draft, it's just for you. Nobody else is really supposed to see it - or if they do, it's because they're a trusted partner who is on your side and hoping for your success. I recommend Jo Knowles's wonderful post from last week, Write Like There's No One in the Room.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 20th, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
True that.
Mar. 20th, 2011 01:30 pm (UTC)
As you are far too well aware, I'm a pantzer until about page forty (which is usually also about 40% of the way into the book.
Then I go back. I fiddle. I revise.
Often after that I get a sense of the ending. Sometimes I even write it.
Then I go back. I fiddle. I revise.
The middle is always the hardest (and it's where I am now -- working on pages 50-70)

I say that you are right in your interpretation: allowing the shitty first draft is about not needing to be brilliant and perfect and not getting discouraged by what shows up on the page. But it doesn't have to mean write any old thing and never look back. (Unless that's what you need to do to not get discouraged . . .)
Mar. 20th, 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)
So far, it's working for me. I've just finished my most recent doubling back, which involved putting something into Chapter 13 and then rewriting the start of Chapter 14, and that sick feeling I had that something was terribly wrong is now gone, and what's there feels right, and I feel much lighter and more carefree moving ahead with the rest of Chapter 14, etc. Phew!
Mar. 20th, 2011 01:31 pm (UTC)
I'm more like you--I try to push forward as much as possible, but if something's not working, I have to fix it before moving on.

I think the key to revising as you go is knowing what to revise immediately and what to leave for dedicated revisions. If things aren't working, I tackle those immediately. I've had experiences where, if I leave them, I end up trudging forward and tipping right into a long, dark, rabbit hole. But as for things like making sure I've chosen just the right word and that sort of less critical thing, I leave those to revisions. Mostly. I allow myself to re-read the last bit of what I wrote in my last writing session when I start my next session to kind of pick up the rhythm again, and sometimes I do tweak a bit at that time.'

Great post!
Mar. 20th, 2011 02:26 pm (UTC)
What you've described is just what I'm doing - leaving word choices and such for later (and possibly even leaving better fleshed-out descriptions or conversations for later in some places), but fixing what I know isn't working. And I also re-read the last chunk before moving ahead, which allows me to fidget and tweak as I find my way back in. It usually results in stronger text as I remove my waffle words and such, which is an added bonus.
Mar. 20th, 2011 08:51 pm (UTC)
I never leave anything bad behind. If I know it's not good and right... I effing delete it immediately and try again. As I've gotten to be a better writer, that's been the only way to do it. (When I don't know something is wrong... that's another story. But knowing = deleting.)
Mar. 20th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC)
This is good to know - I have the utmost admiration for your writing, as you know, so if I've stumbled onto something that you're doing, I feel like I'm finding the right path, if you know what I mean. Of course, I don't always immediately know something is wrong, but I'm starting to pay attention to that draggy feeling when it arises, and that seems to be helping.

In other news, I STILL love that icon. In other other news, I wish you were visiting me, because there's a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream playing in Philly and I'd like a "date"!
(no subject) - tessagratton - Mar. 21st, 2011 01:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 21st, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
I get that way, too -- if I know something is wrong, or if it just doesn't feel right in the first draft, I'll backtrack. Even if I know I'll need to revisit that same scene or point again in revision, I'd rather make a change now, then move forward, then carry the weight of knowing something's not quite right all the way through the rest of the draft. Here's hoping you're back to skipping now!
Mar. 21st, 2011 05:51 pm (UTC)
I made my way back to the path, and I think skipping is likely!
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )

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