Sh*tty First Drafts

Photo credit: Denny Müller on Unsplash

I’ve got a problem.

Okay, not a major problem. Not compared to what some people are dealing with this week. But it’s a problem for me.

My book is all over the place.

It’s my own fault. I’m the one who started writing random pieces here and there, figuring they’d eventually fall into place. It’s always worked before. But this time, the story is resisting.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of participating in the Connecticut Book Festival. Except for the brief period when I read from State v. Claus, I spent the day sitting at my book table, chatting with anyone who came over.

I knew there would be lulls throughout the day, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to write. For a start, I was nowhere near an outlet, and my Surface battery isn’t what it used to be. Besides, my table is only 2’ x 4’, so by the time I set up my display, I had very little spare real estate. Plus, if I was lucky, I’d get interrupted regularly. The last thing I wanted was for people to hesitate to come to my table because they didn’t want to bother the Writer Listening to Her Muse.

So instead of the Surface, I took a spiral notebook. In between visitors, I made notes about the characters and the plot. I wrote down every question I could think of, trying to identify plot holes and leaps of logic and things that still needed to be written.

It was the kind of exercise I undertook after I finished the first draft of State v. Claus, when I realized that Meg needed more law partners because the one I’d given her—her friend, Michael—would never turn his back on her, and I needed characters willing to do precisely that. The difference between then and now is that back then, I had a completed draft to critique. It was far from brilliant, but at least it was coherent. Now, I have a boatload of pieces, and I’m not sure if I can sew them together.

Maybe I’m expecting too much out of this draft. After all, Draft #2 of State v. Claus was such a massive overhaul of the first draft that the book nearly doubled in size. (Draft #2 was 579 pages. Seriously.) In fact, in all the subsequent drafts, my biggest goals were chopping away as much as possible and streamlining the rest. Granted, it was my first book, and maybe that’s why it took years to write. I already know that this one is much more complicated, because when my mother asked me last week what it’s about, I found myself sketching out four distinct story threads that need to be woven together and ultimately reconciled.

Which may mean that I shouldn’t let myself get worked up just because Draft #1 of the current book won’t be perfect and polished. After all, it’s a first draft. It’s not the final version. (If I thought there was a chance anyone was ever going to see it, I’d lock it in a trunk and ship it to the North Pole.) As the wise and wonderful Anne Lamott says, we all write shitty first drafts. In her classic tome, Bird by Bird, she tells of her process back in the days when she wrote restaurant reviews, how she struggled and imagined critics mocking her as she tried to write her first draft. But eventually, she would let herself trust the process, and she’d write that terrible first draft, except it would be so awful that for the rest of the day she’d worry that she might get hit by a car before she could write a decent draft and how people would read that terrible draft and decide it hadn’t been an accident at all, that she’d committed suicide because her talent was waning and her mind was shot.

Right now, I know exactly what she’s talking about. I once heard an author talk about how, after a few books, he could write a first draft polished enough to send to his agent. Personally, I suspect that he polished the hell out of that “first draft” before sending it off, but I didn’t challenge him. I just know that the longer I write, the more revising I do before showing a story to anyone.

I’ve been planning for weeks to have a completed draft by October 16. I still want to hit that goal even though the past few weeks have been tremendously busy and hence not productive writing time. Mind you, my house is littered with scribbled notes about how to approach this bit or that angle, and I’ve even incorporated at least one of those notes into the manuscript. The more I think, though, the more I wonder what a completed first draft even looks like. Is it enough that it has a beginning, an ending, and stuff in the middle? Does it matter if the main characters are lacking a major conflict? Is it okay that I’ll need to rearrange a lot of sections in order to pace the various plotlines? (Thank heaven for Scrivener.) Is it okay if it sucks?

I used to have a fairly straightforward writing process. The initial draft was about one step off a script, primarily dialogue with minimal narration. In the second draft, a character might sit down. In the third draft, I’d identify where he was sitting, i.e., whether it was a sofa or a chair. Not until the fourth draft did the reader know he was sitting in an overstuffed red armchair with bits of stuffing showing at the worn spot on the arm because somebody had lost the arm cover, and it might take until the fifth draft before the reader would see that he was trying to cover the worn spot with his sleeve so his guest wouldn’t notice it.

Maybe my problem is that I’m trying to do too much with this first draft. Maybe all it needs to be is the place where I lay out the story in barebones fashion. Maybe color and nuance and logic and all the rest should wait for subsequent drafts. Maybe I should just relax and wrap up this draft so I can start revising.

In other words, maybe I need to do as Anne Lamott does and simply trust the process—and also make sure I don’t get hit by a car before I get this hot mess of a shitty first draft revised.

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