Your First Draft: Close Enough For Horseshoes And Hand Grenades

Toby + Doyce = Doyby, or ToyceThe name “Doyce Testerman” doesn’t even sound like a real dude. He sounds like the character — to be clear, a very cool character — in a book. Were I to ascribe him a fictional personality, I’d expect him to be a cleaner. No, not “juice stains from a white shirt” cleaner, but a “two bodies and blood stains from a rich man’s apartment” cleaner. On par with the talents of Winston Wolf, but less precious. A blunt, blue collar edge. You need shit cleaned up? You made a mess, little baby? Doyce Testerman is on the job.

Thing is, Doyce is not a fictional character, but a real dude. Or, at least, a very clever construct of the Internet designed to trick me into believing he’s flesh-and-blood. Either way, he sort of looks like a bad-ass version of Toby from The Office. (Actually, his pedigree suggests he could be the love child of Toby and Vic Mackey from The Shield. This is a credit to Doyce. I mean, look who’s talking — I’m basically the mutant offspring of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters.)

You should be reading Doyce. Right now, he’s on the proper side of the NaNoWriMo process. By “proper side,” I mean, he’s getting it done instead of whining about not getting it done. When I balanced the pro’s and con’s of the NaNoWriMo gig, he’s the type of guy who’s knows what he’s into and knows where he wants to end up. Smart man, is what I’m saying.

Anyway. This post from Doyce a week back says a lot of good things. He highlights for me those reasons why the “it’s okay that you’re writing crap!” advice exists in NaNoWriMo. I’ll let you go read that post, but the basic gist is: Hey, you’re neck deep in this shit, you’ve got shit about to go up your nose, so grow comfortable with shit. You can’t make gold when running a marathon through fecal swamps. Or something like that. I dunno. I’m paraphrasing. You can tell I’m paraphrasing, because I talk a lot more about poop.

I agree with the spirit of Doyce’s post, but me, I’m a hard-edged man. Doyce is pleasant. You want pleasant, you should go read him. He’s the angel on your shoulder. I’m the Devil in your armpit. I’m punching you while he’s giving you feather kisses. He has a harp whose strings are gilded with God’s own tears. I have a trident covered in blood and hair.

I made a comment on Doyce’s post, and in case you didn’t see it there, I’ll quote it here:

That’s exactly it. Writers should enjoy the writing. Work is best when you enjoy it, whether you’re a janitor or a rocket scientist. Or a rocket janitor.

I usually aim for the middle ground on first drafts — I know it’s not going to be perfect, but I aim for a solid B to B+ range. Hell, I’m going to go through five drafts anyway (if the latest novel and screenplay are any indicators) — but if my first draft is littered with lots of little problems, I’m looking at six or seven drafts. Further, the little issues take a lot lot lot of time to go back and fix.

So, for me, it’s a matter of economizing the process. Fixing small errors now — largely by making sure they don’t happen in the first place — actually saves me a shit-ton of time on the back end.

Also, from a professional standpoint, while the big picture is to enjoy the writing and to love the work, it’s also good not to get overfocused on one’s pleasure factor. Sometimes, writers have bad days. I don’t love those days. I don’t love writing on those days.

Often, though, I love the writing I *do* on those days. Maybe not that day. Maybe a week later, or a month. If I concentrated too much on how much I enjoyed it, I might not have gotten it done in the first place.

So, for me, writing is about satisfaction and long-term enjoyment rather than the pleasure factor of ass-in-chair. It’s marathon-esque that way. During the long run, you might be ready to quit, ready to run headlong into a tree to make it end. But you push, and you feel awesome for finishing when the day is done.

Do with that comment as you wish.

Let me re-frame it a little. Let’s talk about the novel of mine. I won’t bore you with the broad spectrum analysis, but what I will say is this: from fourth draft to fifth draft, I did a lot of tightening. I track all my changes in Word so that I can turn on what I like to think of as “Murder View!” — suddenly, click, the page is filled with red slashes and letters, like a postcard written from a serial killer in his victim’s viscera. This makes me feel good. Lots of red means lots of progress. (The cutting of fat. The redistribution of dismembered limbs. The flaying of ugly flesh.)

That said, what do I mean by “tightening?” I don’t mean “fixing.” In fact, from draft-to-draft, what I do is maybe 10-20% fixing actual errors. (Yes, they do creep through. Don’t tell anybody. If you tell anybody, I’ll hollow you out with a melon-baller and live in your skin like a parasite.) Okay, tightening may very well mean ripping out whole chapters like rotten ductwork. Sure, tightening might involve murdering a number of precious darlings (characters, paragraphs, metaphors) and leaving them floating face-down in a murky bog. But it doesn’t mean fixing a billion writing errors with tweezers and a magnifying glass.

This makes my life a lot easier, because I endeavored to get the writing right the first time.

This is a good time, perhaps, to define “getting it right.”

I don’t mean churning out a perfect draft. It’s what I meant by aiming for a solid B to B+ grade. Let’s call it a line drive, in baseball terms, rather than a home run.

Again, why do I do this? It’s a very simple equation:

The more broken the first draft means more time fixing those errors, which means a greater number of interim drafts, which means more months out of my life.

A stitch in time saves nine actually means something in this context rather than being a twee platitude. Slowing down and getting it closer to correct the first time (i.e., not crap) will give you more free time later. Free time for porn or jet skis or narwhal-wrestling.

This math is entirely made up, but I think it captures the essence of what I’m saying (and further captures the essence of my piss-poor math-making skills):

Each minute you spend now saves you an hour later.

No, really. Think about it. Let’s say you’re building a house. Or training a dog. Or engineering a solar-powered death combine, whose spinning black tines will tumble and stab and harvest the souls of those who fall beneath them.

Let’s say that that, on your first go around, you aim solidly for the, ohhhh, D+ range. Grade-D Crapola. Mayhem and foolishness. Utter fol-de-rol.

The house will be a death trap.

The dog will probably bite you in the face.

And your death combine will probably, I dunno, plant daisies or play Neil Diamond.

By producing crap, you’ve gone and done two things:

One, you maybe learned a few things about the process.

Two, you just ensured that you’re going to have to tear down the house, brainwash the dog, and re-engineer the death combine from the ground up. More specifically, you’re basically going to have to undo your work and start all over. The best you can hope for is to reclaim parts and go for a swifter build on the next go ’round.

Now, that first element — the part about learning things — is not a baby that should be thrown out with the bathwater. That’s a good baby. You can get nice money for that baby on the open market. (Don’t go eBay, though, you’re just going to butt heads with a bunch of corporate baby-sellers; they have marketing dollars. Pro-Tip: Craigslist.) You want to learn things about the novel-writing process, just write a shitty novel. Actually, write about five of ‘em. Throw caution to the wind and write, write, write. It’s what I did. I’ve written a bunch of novels. They all blew syphilitic mountain goats, but I did learn a lot about the process. Or, rather, I learned a lot of What Not To Do, which is still a valuable basket of lessons to carry home and show to Grandma.

To be clear: this will take you years. Five novels? Let’s roughly benchmark that at 2.5 years. Me? Well. It took me about 10 years in the wilderness.

Sure, you can write a shitty novel in a month. But it’ll be so shitty, you’ll need some time. Time to hate yourself. Time to wonder if you’re doing the wrong thing. Time to binge on heroin and cookies.

Alternately, if you learn your craft, you can bypass some of that. Your first novel will probably still be shitty. But you might not need to write five of them to get all that poo-poo out of your system.

So, what am I saying, here?

I’m not saying that you should edit as you write. It may sound that way. But your ears and eyes are lying to you. Punish them with ant-covered sticks. Jam the sticks in your ears and eyes to teach them a lesson. Let the ants work in and out of your tear ducts and ear holes. That’ll learn you. That’ll learn you real good.

No, I’m saying you should get it right the first time.

Don’t write shitty.

It’s easy to do. Just don’t be a crappy writer. Learn your craft. Figure out how to string together a sentence. Know where quotation marks go. Know how commas work. Regard adverbs with suspicion. Again, you’re not aiming for perfection, but you are aiming for ability. Too many people think they can just write! Well, you can. But it’ll be fetid garbage, or rather, foetid garbage (if you like to spell it that way). Your end product will be a lump of malformed monkey dung.

This doesn’t mean you won’t have draft after draft, and it doesn’t mean you won’t have some big rewrites. But, I’d rather write five drafts than seven. Or nine. I’d rather come out of the gate with an admirable product than one that I hold up and when I read it, it forces me to make a face that looks like I smell shit on my upper lip.

Writing is work. Writing is a craft. Find comfort in this, not distaste.

Also, and since I’m the surly Devil in your sulfurous armpits (well, they’re sulfurous now, at least since I set up shop up under there) –

I’ll also say that you need to figure out what kind of writer you are.

Are you the kind who writes to make himself happy?

Or are you the kind who writes to make his audience happy?

Do you write to write, or write to be read?

If you write to write, go for it. If your happiness and enjoyment are paramount, please, enjoy the process. Don’t worry about revising. Just write. Have fun. Keep singing in the shower. Keep crumpling up your work and gleefully pitching it into a dark, dank hole somewhere.

If you write to be read, then learn your craft and worry about the end product, not some mystical writer’s journey that fills your airy spaces with bliss. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy writing. You should. You should always endeavor to enjoy your work, whether it’s operating a ferris wheel or assassinating political dissidents for a shadowy government agency. But don’t think that every day is going to be a fun day. A happy day. A giggly day. It won’t. Writing can be hard work. It can feel like toiling away in the word mines. This is okay. Grow comfortable with that fact. Even the worst writing day is, for me, a great day. The satisfaction isn’t in running the marathon. Satisfaction comes when I finish. Each sentence on the page isn’t happy-making celebration time. But each finished blog post, short story, novel, screenplay, or witty doormat damn sure is.

And the better that finished product is — meaning, the further from D+ Crap it happens to be — the more satisfied I find myself.

Final summation?

Look at it this way.

Writing is a cruel industry. Your product needs to be an A or A+ to stand out.

Two writers write first drafts. One writes a D+ draft. The other writes a B+ draft.

Which one is going to spend less time and effort revising the work to that vaunted A+ status?

Anybody? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

Writing is work.

But you can minimize that work by getting it right (or right-ish, quasi-right, right-esque) the first time. Happy word-making, penmonkeys.


  • Are people doing this? “I’ll go back and break it into sentences later,” they say? “I’ll capitalize in the second draft,” really?

    For me, the thing that’s weak in my first drafts isn’t the syntax and the punctuation, it’s the storytelling. It’s the sentence that I discover elsewhere blows the surprise for two chapters later. It’s the character description that needs to be shortened. It’s the two straight pages of sounds without visuals without a design behind it.

    Even when the storytelling is flimsy or brutish, I strive to put the commas in the right places, because that’s an essential part of how a sentence reads. That’s not part of what I think when I say “give yourself permission to suck.” That not every comma will land in the right place — that’s permission to suck.

    The permission to write a whole chapter that you’ll cut later, but that helps you get to the next one? That’s what I think of when I think of just grinding out first drafts so that the rewriting can happen.

    • Will:

      Are they doing that? I don’t know. I suspect so. NaNoWriMo rules encourage a certain laissez-faire, hands-off attitude. Doyce’s post certainly speaks to this.

      As for nailing the storytelling in the first draft? Hey, part of this is why I advocate outlining. You’re more likely to have a more complete and stronger draft if you put in preliminary work. But even that doesn’t guarantee an A or A+ product.

      Writing chapters that will get cut later — you don’t believe that this can’t and doesn’t happen, right? It’s not “grinding out a first draft” — I’m not suggesting that you continue writing a shitfuck chapter just because. I’m suggesting that, when the time comes to look back, you’re going to find sentences, paragraphs, descriptions, chapters, and plot threads that just don’t work. And that’s okay. An outline is a great map but it doesn’t guarantee a perfect machine from the outset. One cannot write the first draft afraid of the cuts ahead, both dramatic cuts and ones that are less drastic.

      In writing the fourth and fifth drafts of the novel, I lost an entire… ohh, 20k of text. I just killed it. It was an entire flashback thread throughout the book, and while I’d hesitate to say it was an Abject Failure, it *did* bog down the draft. So, I folded those elements into the text and moved on with the draft.

      Our current film script is also on its fifth draft, and it has seen similar dramatic cuts between each iteration. New characters gained, old characters lost, entire revisions of first and third acts — I mean, we’re talking meat cleaver shit. Hackity-hack. I found comfort in it, because each change made it better. The first draft was capable. It was solid. A line drive. But, we’re aiming for a home run, and in this profession you don’t get a home run in your first at-bat.

      Further, those edits would’ve been infinitely slower and more painful if the original product was written slapdash, with little regard to the actual technical act of writing.

      — c.

      • [EDIT: Oh, and I got comments back from an agent on the manuscript that suggest it’s possible more changes — some big, some small — are in store. Am I happy about this? I’m not jumping up and down, but I don’t look at it as a failure. I look at it as the difference between maybe an A- and an A, to go with the probably shitty grade-based analogy with which I keep running.]

  • I think he’s saying that it’s okay for the first draft to not be perfect. That in itself is an intimidating thing to some writers (actual and would-be) because it implies all the work still left to do, but that’s the job.

  • Obviously, I don’t mean that you write a chapter that you know you’re going to cut later. You write it, thinking it’s good, and find out later that it’s not essential. So it goes.

    Sometimes, even the best outline can’t protect against the breakthrough that happens during the writing.

    • Well, said, Will.

      I think that, ideally, an outline shouldn’t stop that breakthrough. That breakthough is an essential element, and it may not even come from the original writer — it may come from outside critiques. In my experience, it often does. Forest for the trees, new perspective, etc.etc.

      — c.

  • I think one of the biggest peices of advice I had on cutting material was “Find the piece you love the most, the part of your script (in this case) that the entire story absolutely can’t do without. Now cut that fucker out. If you made it all work off one scene, you did it wrong.”

    What he was basically getting at was that the one bit you love the most you probably had a case of word-shits, and it’s fluffed up higher than Ron Jeremy at an orgy.

    • Scionic,

      That is either crazy-brilliant, or crazy-crazy.

      I learn toward the former in theory, the latter in practice.

      But it’s a neat concept.


      — c.

  • I went back off what he said and would look over my favorite parts, and sure enough nine times out of ten I had overinflated it. You like it so much that you wanna put the shine on it, and you attach more important bits to it left and right… until it the important bit magnet. I’ve tried taking out my favorite bits before (or at least neutering the fuck out of them) and making the entire thing work by spreading the info out more, and it works better… in practice, it’s easier for a script than with prose.

  • Scionic —

    I can see that, yeah. Giving some precious part of your manuscript prominence is a dangerous act. And, killing your darlings remains valuable advice.

    Editing scripts in general is easier than editing prose. Scripts are light and loose; pull pieces out, put pieces in. Prose work requires a much meaner machete.

    — c.

  • I started my first novel roughly 18 years ago. I was 12 and I wanted to write about a spy. An American James Bond. Somebody who could be cool in the ways I knew then I’d never be. I’d never be an astronaut or a naval aviator or even a submariner. I didn’t have the chops and I knew it. But I knew I could write about it, so I tried.

    It was crap.

    I tried again, in college, with the same character only female. It was better. It flowed more freely. I kept the story tighter, had bad things happen to characters I liked, avoided adverbs when possible and ended up with a much better manuscript.

    It still wasn’t right.

    So now I’m rewriting for a third time. It’s going much better, it’s much more interesting and definitely more in line with the speculative fiction that seems to be my niche. What does this have to do with this advice I probably shouldn’t be taking?

    I wouldn’t be this confident about what I’m writing now if I hadn’t written a completely crap manuscript from end to end – not once, but twice.

    • Josh:

      Well, sure — and I follow a similar path. I wrote novels throughout, all crap. On the one hand, I learned a lot. That said, I don’t know that those were necessary steps, either. After all, I was young, and I don’t think it was particularly possible that I write something of caliber at that point. I dunno. Skill, patience, comprehension — these come with time, not necessarily with failed attempts. If you had endeavored three full drafts when you were 12, or 18, you wouldn’t be in the position you were now, feeling confident and possessing what may be the proper course for the tale.

      Mind you, I’m not knocking this approach; again, it’s the same way I’ve gone with it.

      These days, though, I don’t have time to write crap manuscripts.

      — c.

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