Given that I’ve sold exactly zero books in my life to date, it’s a little presumptuous of me to give out writing advice*. But the writing process is a long one with many distinct stages. So I took a quick inventory of those parts of writing that I have a handle on:
* Writing first drafts.
* Taking bids for a cover.
* Attending writing workshops.
* Blogging about writing.
So let’s take that first one, anyway.
The novel I’ll be trying to sell in a month or so isn’t my first one. It’s probably my fourth. I say “probably” because I have a hard time nailing an exact count. Every time I make a mental catalog of my past efforts, I forget some early project that I tacked together years ago. And even though this is my fourth, I wrote two others before revisiting this one and making some serious rewrites. So maybe it’s my sixth. I don’t know.
If you’ve read any sort of writing advice – Stephen King, Anne Lamott, any of them – you’ve come across the guideline that your first draft is going to suck. It will be full of poor words, bad sentences and dumb characters. It’s okay, the experts say. Keep going. Conventional wisdom holds that the novel doesn’t really emerge until at least the second draft, and maybe even later.
Let me tell you: that is exactly true.
The only fault I can find with that advice is that it’s not very evocative. You can see Stephen King write, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” (On Writing) And that’s an odd enough image to be clear. But that doesn’t tell you much about what it feels like to write a first draft.
Ira Glass touches closer to the subject:
And I urge you to watch that video again, even if you’ve seen it before, because Ira puts it better than almost anyone else. But while he’s great at giving voice to the feeling, he doesn’t describe the process. He doesn’t tell you what it’s like to create crap.
So let me give it a shot:
It’s dark out when the alarm goes off. You roll into a seated posture and slap the alarm before you’re fully conscious. You wrap yourself in a bathrobe, gnaw on a breakfast bar and fire up the computer. You set a timer for forty-five minutes because you made a deal with yourself, write every weekday for forty-five minutes before you go to work, before you get dressed for work, before you take a shower, every weekday, every day that you go to the office, no exceptions, and you get to call yourself a writer, and because it’s a deal with yourself, not with your girlfriend or your supportive pals or your writing group or your coworkers, it’s a deal you can not break and forgive yourself.
Your head jerks forward. You rub at your chin to keep yourself awake and fire up Word. You page down or search through to find where you finished yesterday. You stopped mid-sentence, because that’s the discipline. What were you thinking? You had something really clever in mind, something really powerful and moving. Whatever it is, it’s gone now. You look through your notes – scraps of paper from notebooks you stole from work or got at conferences as dealer schwag – but find only hints.
Time’s wasting. You feel cold. You pull the bathrobe tight, fire up the timer and start typing.
The words plop out of you like chunks. You struggle with dialogue. You struggle with description, sweat beading under your armpits as you look for the right way to depict a man passing an open elevator door. You forget why this scene started, so you stay in it like a child in a hulled lifeboat. Only now the scene’s become the entire chapter. You give a weak smile, telling yourself that this is one of those crazy moments that authors talk about, when the characters get away from you and the book takes on a life of its own, but you know better: the characters have escaped from you and this book is now the nightmare life-in-death.
You know with fatal certainty that what you’re writing now, right this second, will not survive the final draft. It won’t surprise you and turn out to be the secret heart of your novel. You’re wasting your time. You could be in bed right now, or fixing breakfast, or showering and dressing and starting a productive day. Nothing that you’re creating right now will be here in six months. It’s a total loss. You’d be a fool to continue.
And yet you keep going. And the pipes start to run clearer and the words start to come smoother. Suddenly you’re humming along. Everything fits into place. You come to some amazing revelation that’s going to turn your characters down a path that’s both completely unexpected yet absolutely perfect for them in hindsight …
And the timer goes. Forty-five minutes. Time to start the day.
The first draft isn’t the time to be creative. The first draft is when you dump all the Legos on the table. The second draft is when you start building. The first draft tells you what your characters could do; the second tells you what they actually did.
We live in a culture that credits all success with hard work and prizes effortless mastery above all else. While hard work is necessary to succeed at writing, it’s not sufficient. You also need patience, creativity, a supportive network and insight. But above all else, you need to have a high tolerance for your own mistakes. You need to give yourself permission to suck. Then, once you start sucking, you need to show up the next morning and suck all over again. There is no other path to progress.
Those of you who are trying NaNoWriMo this month, please keep that in mind.
* Yo, come here, come here.
See right here … he says it’s presumptuous, right? Now watch, he’s going to do it anyway.
No, he wouldn’t … damn.