But What About the Shitty Second Draft?

Well, the honest-to-goodness truth is that I am now in full possession of a shitty first draft, authored by yours truly. I can indeed vouch for its shittiness. In fact, I had to dig down deep to pull out such a heaping load of crap, but I did it.

Things I know:

1. It is not the best first draft ever written.

2. It is not the worst first draft ever written.

 

Congratulations to myself! I have achieved my life-long goal of absolute mediocrity.

All in a day’s work, my friend. (Actually, like 100 days’ work, but who’s counting?)

Ok, then. Do you want to know something that is absolutely devastating? After you write a shitty first draft, you have to write a slightly less shitty second draft, and then keep revising and revising until you die or the world ends, whichever comes first. I mean, I technically knew this before I started the process but I don’t think I really knew knew it, you know what I mean?

I have heard people say that 80% of the work of a novel takes 20% of the effort, leaving the last 20% of the work with 80% of the effort.

What in the name of all hell?

I call that a very bad system. And if you’re telling me that this draft I just did was only 20% of the effort I’ll eventually have put into it, then – well, you can just take that 80% and stick it somewhere extremely uncomfortable, thanks very much.

Ok, ok, fine. If I’ve come this far I guess I better slog on to the finish line. Kidding! I’m thrilled!

But here’s the thing about the second draft. In order to achieve it, you have to read your first draft. You can’t just write the shitty first draft and then move along with your life feeling excellent about yourself. You have to experience your own terribleness first-hand and then try to make it better.

There is so much wrong with this that I can’t even get into all of it here, but suffice it to say that reading your own first draft is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy. Maybe that’s and exaggeration (yes), but you see my point.

You always do because you, Internet, are my truest, dearest friend.

So! Onward with revisions – it’s been painful so far, but it’s going to be worth it! (Right?)

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Shitty First Drafts.

Every writer I’ve ever talked to or even glanced at has told me that the writing process consists first of simply dumping words out and sorting them after. The lovely Louise Penny told me that I must just heap a pile of merde onto paper first before anything else can happen. Anne Lamott has an entire chapter dedicated to Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird.

I can’t even enumerate all the times this concept has been explained to me, and in so many different, helpful, illustrative ways.

I repeat the words to others and I say them to myself even more frequently, like a mantra. I remind myself that what I’m doing here is finishing this thing. I’m not writing the damn Bible. No divine inspiration here, guys.

So HOW is it, I ask you, that I still can’t seem to get this idea into my so-thick skull?

Every time I write a paragraph (or page or several pages or 100 of them) that feels shitty to me, I’m devastated. Shocked. Appalled.

How could this happen to me?

If this is the point of it, if this is what I’m actually supposed to be doing – then what is the problem? Why do I feel like this? I’m fairly certain it’s because, in my ever delightful mind, what’s going on is that I’m not allowing for an ACTUALLY shitty first draft. I’m allowing for a slightly less perfect first draft. Like Da Vinci’s sketches. They’ll still be famous and clamored after. But just, you know, not quite the Mona Lisa.

It’s so uncomfortable for one to feel that one has failed. There’s a sentence with some distancing. It’s uncomfortable for me to feel that I’ve failed. Shitty first drafts are basically a series of not-quites and failures strung together into a lengthy testament to human frailty, and not only that but of the writer’s particular frailties as well.

Anne Lamott says:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

This perverse perfectionism is just pride, which is deeply connected to fear. I’m so unchill about failing that I won’t even wait to actually fail before freaking out about it, I’ll just refuse to allow it to happen. My fragile ego can’t handle even the thought of it. And it is a kind of insanity. Perfection is impossible. Trying to be perfect is an exercise in futility. And what is perfect when it comes to creativity, anyways? Don’t we love our flawed, imperfect creations? If we can love people, we can love imperfect art.

Sometimes I think creation is this impossible mixture of arrogance and humility. You have to be convinced that you have something worth putting out into the world yet completely at peace with the fact that everyone might hate it, and possibly even for good reason. You yourself may hate it. It may be garbage.

But – and I’m not saying I know how – I have to get to this place where I can write something terrible, because that is the only way I will get to the place where I will be able to write something. I need to write an entire terrible book and feel that it was worth doing. And, sure, if my book magically turns out to be awesome after the first go-round, great. More than extremely unlikely, but sure. Great. But that is not my concern. It is so far from my concern that I should never spend any time thinking about the possibility.

I should simply be thrilled if I end up with 300 pages of total refuse, because that means I did the thing that all those wise and brilliant writers talk about. I wrote the shitty first draft. And the books that we love and treasure and read again and again – most of them were once shitty first drafts. Just like all the lovely people we adore and want to spend time with were once lesser, more immature and horrible versions of themselves.

So the project is to dig deeper down inside myself and find that acceptance and humility I need in order to actually do this thing (or anything, for that matter).

That sounds easy.

In Character.

I’m writing a murder mystery. I expect to finish it in about 10 years.

I’m at the “plotting a murder” stage. Which, I’ll be frank, is a strange stage. I’ve never plotted a murder, though I’ve solved many. Fictional murders, people. We’re talking about fictional murders. Concentrate.

When I started writing this novel I, with my usual attention to detail, had no plan whatsoever. I just sat down and channeled my muses for about an hour or so, letting the words drip from my fingertips like honey.

Shockingly, every time I would re-read the paragraph or so that had taken me an entire hour to craft (efficiency above all), I’d think to myself, “What is this god-awful slovenly mess?” and delete it all dramatically.

It’s a very emotional experience, writing.

The interesting thing about plotting a murder (fictional) is that it’s primarily not about “the murder.” It’s not about the clues, it’s not about the weapon, it’s not about the concealment of the crime – or any of the cliches.

Plotting a murder, like anything else I can write about, has everything to do with plotting people. We all know that narratives often center around some kind of crucible because situations that test us reveal who we are at our very cores. The murder-y setting is a crucible of chaos and fear into which I throw my characters to see their true selves emerge. I’m surprised this didn’t occur to me sooner. Actually, I’m not. There is this pattern in my life of me not realizing crucial things at crucial times.

I struggled and struggled to start this damn book. I decided to start at the beginning because I really had nowhere else to start. I started with WORDS, I started with FEELINGS. I started with self-indulgent descriptions of fantasy realities. None of this took me anywhere. Everything I wrote felt aimless and ungrounded.

So then, not knowing what else to do, I decided to put all these characters in a room and started a conversation. I sat down and thought about the people – started to get to know them. Their names, jobs, personalities, flaws. And, though I couldn’t tell you the details of the beginning, middle, and end of their story by any means, the nothingness I’ve been staring at for months has now become a very blurry picture.

I looooove this blurry picture. Let me tell you. After staring at a depressing void for months, this blurry picture is GORGEOUS, full of all this potential.

Thoughts on Novel Writing, in No Order Whatsoever.

The writer’s brain is a diseased brain.

I am convinced that to be a writer is to have a kind of disorder that demands you to write words but then turns off the “writing words” function.

Haha funny joke, brain.

Things that help me write that are not my brain:

1. Being incredibly busy with other things, such that I have no time to write.

2. Being incredibly busy with boring things, such that anything else sounds better.

3. Being told that I will never be a published writer. I find discouragement inspiring, whereas hip-hip-hooray encouragements frequently depress me and cause me to lose all motivation. This may not be good.

4. Late, late, late nights, when I should be sleeping.

5. Sadness.

In conclusion, this whole writing thing is very perverse and probably not good for my mental health.

 

Laws of Nature.

Occasionally I come upon words I wrote in years past (usually while bludgeoning my way through writer’s block) and they still ring true within me. Probably because people don’t change very much, really. This still rings. Its sounds rather depressive, but it’s just thoughts. Thoughts are roller coasters that plunge and soar and everything in between, all in a moment’s time. Writing them down just makes them seem more serious because then they’re words on a page, black and white, taking up space – no longer tucked away inside tidy, well-groomed heads. (Or maybe not well-groomed, if you’re me and it’s an in-between day when I don’t wash my hair.)

 

I find myself at odds with those things that cannot be escaped: this spinning world, some kind of falling fruit prove the grave truth that I am, as I have always suspected, earth-bound.

And not a sky full of suns can hold my upward gaze as long as there is down to fall – as long, that is, as time.

If only I can find something just to keep my head up, well then perhaps I’ll fly, though I am but dragging arms and legs, heavy skin, bones, blood and sinking heart.