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.