I have never been one to write a garbage first draft of a short story or novel, going from beginning to end in one long vomit of mediocre writing, with the intention that I can fix it all later.
The very idea of that feels like giving up on craft. Yes, many have advised me, the best thing to do is just to write it all down, get the whole story out, and then fix the bugs later. And perhaps if I were the kind of writer who can churn out a few thousand words a day, this might be a feasible option for me.
But that is not the world I live — or write — in.
I deeply appreciate Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts,” that they are children on a playground, carelessly exploring the world of the manuscript to see what treasures lay buried in its leaves. And I fully acknowledge that I have never, in my adult writing life and possibly not even in my adolescent one, given myself permission to write terrible first drafts all the way to the end, and that perhaps this is an error.
But to keep writing away on something I know in my gut is terrible seems an awful lot like wasting time to me, and if there is one commodity I do not have enough of to spend it willy-nilly, it’s time. I write slowly. I have all the usual demands on my attention of the modern wife and mother and career-woman (i.e., with a day job). I write slowly, thoughtfully, paying attention to the words I’m using. Blame it on my being formally trained as a poet. Or blame it on my attention to detail. Or blame it on my taking pride in my work, even my first drafts.
Or blame it on my not wanting to be a writer of crap and on my persistent efforts not to be. (I acknowledge I don’t always get it right, but at least I try.) I see very little value in writing an entire story that I know isn’t going to be good, or in writing an entire draft of a story and then throwing it away and starting over. This might be a viable option if I were immortal and had an eidetic memory. Neither of those being likely, well… I try not to waste any more time or effort than necessary.
When I write a story, I want to make sure to get the foundations of it right, to weave the texture in a way that sets up the rest of it for competence, if not success. Most of my fiction lives in the fantasy genre — magic realism, urban fantasy, literary high fantasy, paranormal steampunk — and I know that if I haven’t done at least a little economical world-building in the first chapter, my story won’t teach its readers how to read it. They won’t know the genre or the rules they’re dealing with, and the story could be confusing and end up a non-starter before we’re even out of the first chapter. (And if anyone thinks an agent or editor reads more than a few pages of a manuscript that appears not to know itself, well, that optimism is worth its weight in gold.)
Getting the voice right takes work. And once you have that, the other narrative vectors (like point-of-view, conflict, setting, pace, etc.) had better be on trajectory. This is a jargony way of saying that you need a strong foundation for a story if you want it to stand on its own. For a succinct explanation of the building-a-house metaphor, read this piece by George Dila; it’s a counterbalance to Anne Lamott’s treatise.
So I’m doing the NaNoWriMo again, or a modified version of it that makes sense in my world. My goal is 350 words a day, because I don’t often have more than thirty minutes a night to work and because the level of my creative energy by then is in in the basement. So I’ve set a generously low bar for myself, and so far I’m exceeding it nightly. (May this ever continue.)
But I realized about two days into November that I had to give myself permission not to write beautifully every time. I’ve been struggling lately with writer’s block — as well as Writer Brain (TM) — and sometimes the thought of sitting down to write stuff that I know isn’t going to be beautiful can paralyze me against writing anything. I’m a literary writer, a poet: words fucking matter. And the way I arrange them for others’ consumption is not a responsibility I take lightly.
So I’m trying to find a balance between shitty first drafts and publishable awesomeness. I recognize that’s a wide spectrum, so I’m feeling pretty good about hitting the mark somewhere in there.
Tonight I wrote about 100 new words on the latest chapter in my WIP. I also edited the whole thing (a good seventeen pages) and sent it off to my critique group. They will workshop it next week, and then I will revise it before I get too far into the next chapter, because I work too hard to weave the elements of a story together to have to unravel that tapestry every time.
After that chapter went on its merry electronic way, I wrote (and revised) this blog post, which is almost a thousand words. That means I’ve exceeded my word count again for tonight. Is any of what I’ve written tonight worth its weight in gold? I sincerely doubt it. But I’m not trying to be a perfectionist in a rough draft or a blog post any more than I’m allowing myself to write crap.
I’m just trying to write. And according to my word counts — and my growing readership — I’d say it’s working. Onward and upward.