Shitty First Drafts

December 1st, 2010 § 4 comments

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life, or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird pp. 21-22

I did something in November.

I wrote a shitty first draft.

This is the seventh year I’ve done NaNoWriMo, and aside from the first year when I signed up but never really started, I’ve only failed to finish twice. Most of the time, what has come out has been passable, even though the format means it’s not my best. In fact, in two of the years, what came out was positively lovely for the most part. So I always figured, hey, my shitty first drafts are pretty good. I must be lucky.

Not this year.

I hated every word. Well, to be fair, some of the articles were okay, and I imagine most of the conjunctions and prepositions. But outside of that, there’s probably 47K of junk that’s going to go down the drain. Somehow, my concept found me writing women’s lit, a genre in which I feel out of my own skin, and as much as I tried to bend it back toward literary fiction, the damn thing wouldn’t go. I wanted to quit every second, even at 48,000 words when I knew one more hour would get me finished.

But I didn’t quit. Why? Because laying down the shitty first draft gives you something to work with. I have an idea where I’d like this novel to go, and now I have some characters to help scaffold it (even though several of those characters changed names and circumstances en route and I’ll have to go back and reconcile that). The conflict hit at about 40K, which will need to be shifted back a great deal to a more logical place for an 80-90K work. A lot of it is exposition and a bunch of drivel about mothers-in-law which is funny since I don’t have one. But I have a draft. I have something to which I can go, yank the characters forward, and write a novel. A good one.

I didn’t mean to ignore my fics for a whole month, and for that I apologize. Last year, I cranked out an entire 25K of fic–the longest chapter of Ithaca is Gorges and most of the chapter which followed, while writing my NaNo novel. I figured this year, turning out a chapter or two of Stregoni, which is only 3-8K would be a piece of cake.

Not so.

This novel fought me every inch of the way. The characters were dull. The plot didn’t make sense. The relationships developed too quickly and others too slowly. People spent pages dwelling on organic cotton, of all things. I kind of wanted to shoot myself, or at least spend some time snuggling with Carlisle instead. After fighting with Becca, Christine, Topher, and Matthew, I was too exhausted to write much else. I wanted to quit.

But I didn’t. And last night at 9PM EST, I hit 50,160 words.

How many of those words will last? Very few, I’m sure. I may just take one character and run with her. But I believe sincerely in using November to scaffold a little, to let myself come out of the month with something I can use. My fics are yours as much as they are mine—I don’t intend to pull them, even if that means that, if someone publishes one of my novels, I can’t tell the fandom—and I write them with the intention that I won’t do anything with them but give them away.

However, this was an eye-opening experience, and one by which I am humbled. I’m glad to know I can stick to a project I’m not crazy about, and that I can hold on even when I want to claw my eyes out. I know now that I can write 1667 words in an hour and not feel entirely frazzled by that pace, if I put my mind to it. (This bodes well for Stregoni, because that means I should in theory draft a chapter in two to four hours.)

And now I have a shitty first draft. It’s kind of a cool thing, really. Freeing.

So, thanks for not crucifying me while I abandoned you to do it.

§ 4 Responses to Shitty First Drafts"

  • amymorgan says:

    At least you tried! November was a horrendous RL month for me, and my first year with NaNoWriMo and all the encouraging e-mails fell away. I got nothing done for the cause. I feel guilty, but I have to listen to my husband and my doctor.

    Stregoni B’s next chapter will come when it’s ready!
    You can’t force art. I don’t believe it’s a “muscle to stretch”. Thank you! =D

    • giselle says:

      Hmm. I do think to some extent it’s a muscle to stretch, but on the other hand, you can tear muscles if you aren’t careful. This story isn’t ready to be beautiful yet…but that’s okay. 🙂

      Thank you for your patience and encouragement.

  • sandraj60 says:

    This has been so inspiring. I am not a writer but I try. Misery does love company, because it’s good to know that even writer’s like you don’t write a pultizer each time they put pen to paper. Thanks for sharing!

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