Max Gladstone: “First Drafts Suck”

First drafts suck.

Does that sound too fierce for you? Too general?

Let me try again: my first drafts suck. And in all probability so do yours.

That piece where as you wrote “The End” you heard angels sing to you from on high, and saw Gabriel hisowndamnself descend from shining clouds to thank you for your contribution to world literature? Odds are it sucks. Trust me. I’ve been there.

I don’t mean that there’s nothing in what you’ve written that works. I don’t even mean that the piece you finished and feel great about doesn’t hum with inimitable bassy deliciousness or read like a chocolate milkshake drinks. I just mean that if you’re anything like me, the piece, as a whole, is probably busted.

Maybe your characters cough too much. That’s happened to me—ruined the effect of a perfectly good final chapter. Maybe you use the word “fire” forty times in one six-page segment. Done that, too. Maybe your central character’s a total cypher, and her big turn doesn’t make any sense even though it sang in your head. That’s, like, every other draft of everything I’ve ever done.

You may be sensing a pattern here: this is written as much for my benefit as for yours. But current run rate indicates I am not alone.

First drafts are, well, first. Even when you’re proud of them, they’re not done yet. And this is good.

This is good, because first drafts can be made better.

You can spot word overuse. A shower-revelation will fix your story structure. A sudden lightning bolt will inform you there’s a missing scene between your tenth and eleventh chapters, or that the eleventh chapter should be the sixth (it’s happened.). The fourth read through the story you’ll realize there are too many scenes where characters contemplate the stars—or that you’re using cigarettes or coffee cups like commas, that your rhetoric’s gone stale or your sentences are all the same length. On your eighth read you’ll spot the glaring hole at the center of your plot.

And you’ll fix it. Each and every time.

Some days you’ll despair, because dammit, how can I be doing all this work to produce a first draft that will require the prose equivalent of full facial reconstruction and a heart transplant before it’s worth reading? You’ll come back to old manuscripts from which you thought wafted sweet ambrosial perfumes, only to catch a whiff of something else entirely.

But it’s better than the alternative.

Because for every draft you think is great when you put it to bed that first time, you’ll write one that just doesn’t work. Where you know, when the last line comes, that you’ve committed a crime against God and literature and the only thing for it is slink into a tiny shadowy cubby hole to stew in your own sweat and hope nobody notices.

The funny thing about those drafts is, I mean, yes, sometimes they need more work than the ones that flow like honey. Sometimes. But they both need work, and when you start off thinking, no matter what this is, no matter how I feel about it now, I’ll need to work to make it better? Then the despair isn’t nearly so sharp. If the book is broken, and you know it, that’s just one more reason to throw yourself at edits. In a way it even helps. Because you have less attachment to the first draft, you pay more attention to structure, timing, language—to the architecture of acts and the necessities of character and plot. You tweak everything you can in a bad draft, because the book needs all the help you can give it. You’re Rocky up against Apollo Creed on pub date (or submission date, or “date you ask your crit group to read your MS,” or whatever). Training isn’t just a chore; you need it to survive. There’s potential in the story, somewhere, or you wouldn’t have pushed through to take it this far. You just need to bring it out.

I went through this whole rodeo with my most recent novel, Full Fathom Five. On writing “The End” after the first draft, I almost wept. The book was too long by half. The ending landed funny. The first act’s pacing was, charitably, off. There was a whole middle section that went nowhere. The theme was muddy.

But I could rebuild it. Make it better. Faster. Stronger. I’d seen how much I could improve first drafts I thought were, if not perfect, at least in the neighborhood; now I turned my hands to flaws I knew were there, and others friends and first readers and editors illuminated.

The work was hard. I wrote 20,000 new words, then deleted 80,000. Prose tightened. Images sharpened. Characters found their light and voice. The plot slipped into the right key, and the tempo tripped into time. And one day, reading the book through again, I felt it hook me. And when a book you’ve read twenty, thirty times does that, you know you’ve found something special.

I’m as proud of this book as I am of anything I’ve ever done. It’s golden. It’s right. And as for that first draft…

I’m glad I knew it sucked.

* * *

Max Gladstone has sung in Carnegie Hall, been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published the first two books in the Craft sequence are THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE.

And now, just released, is the third in the series, FULL FATHOM FIVE:

On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World.

When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.

[editorial note from cw: the first book is amazing -- when I once again grab hold of that mythical beast known as 'free time' I will ride it straight into the rest of the series]

Max Gladstone: Website | Twitter

Full Fathom Five: Amazon / Powell’s / B&N / Signed Preorders | First 5 Chapters

41 comments

  • Nice blog Max, Its always comforting to know that first drafts are allowed to suck :)
    A first draft is like building up your blob of clay. You then get to sculpt that ugly heap into something worthwhile.

  • I really needed this, thanks! I’ve been editing a short story for the past two months with the help of some wonderful beta readers and right now even thinking about it makes my head explode! But it’s gotten better and better bit by bit. And I’m getting better at spotting sloppy language, confusing sentences, repeating words etc. Maybe it’ll get easier with time?

    So proud and tired of this short story, but it’s worth it! :)

  • Thanks Max! Your words are both a comfort and an inspiration – and soooo true. Even as I wrote draft one of my current w-i-p I knew it was probably going to suck at least a bit – but it’s only now, as I squirrel through draft two, that I am fully appreciating the Dyson-like depths of its suckiness. (Thank the heavens and assorted star-stuff I didn’t just vomit it up to Kindle and hit that ‘Publish’ button with nary a care – I’d probably have had to fake my own death and assume a new identity, I think.)

    I once heard it said that the first draft is where the writer is telling themselves the story, and that all the subsequent drafts are where that writer works out the best way to tell it to the readers. So I don’t mind that my w-i-p’s draft one sucks as much as it does – I’m kind of enjoying wrecking the jigsaw puzzle so that I can put all the pieces back properly. :)

    Your book sounds brilliant, by the way – you had me at ‘Kai builds gods to order…’ I think I shall be checking this series out…

    • Thanks! I like that formulation of “telling the story to yourself” vs “telling the story to others”—though for me first drafts are often a process of figuring out what story I’m trying to tell in the first place.

      Hope you like the books!

  • It’s true – first drafts are usually terrible. I find that by the time I have something near a completed story, it’s almost nothing like the first draft; characters change, entire themes get tossed, etc. But like Max says, the draft needs to suck, or a better story won’t emerge. The first draft really is a beachhead – you get a foothold on the story, enough to look around and see what else possible. Then you push on and leave that sucker behind.

  • Always good to be reminded that a bad first draft is still a success, albeit success at step one. Also nice to know I’m not alone when my second draft turns out to have nothing in common with my first draft… right?

    “The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

  • Perfect timing, Max. I finished the first draft of a novel yesterday and needed a little push to climb Second Draft Mountain this morning.

    I hear great things about Full Fathom Five, but I’ve got to start at the beginning of the series. I’ll pick up Three Parts Dead first. Thanks for the motivation!

  • Finishing up my third draft now, and my question is … how can you know when the singing you hear is real? So many times I’ve heard the grand symphony of perfect structure and poignant characterization crashing together like the music of the spheres, and then I come back a few hours/days/years later to realize “Oh, that was total crap.” So how do you know when you’ve edited enough that the music is actually coming from the page rather than playing in your head?

    And I guess I really do know the answer: you don’t. You let it sit, read it over, ask other people and believe the most critical of them, you develop your ear for edits, you rethink, and tweak, and rewrite … and then, when you can’t find anything more wrong, you cast it out into the world and cross your fingers. Maybe you can try to trawl the reviews you get for hints on whether it worked or not, but you never find out for sure. And for the vast, *vast* majority of us, the music never makes it from our heads onto the page, and we never realize it didn’t get there.

    …Which is kind of seriously scary. Does anybody have a less ominous take on this?

    • Less ominous take, to the extent I can offer one: the music is there a lot more than you think. But in the first brush of creation it’s easy to put a lot on the page that’s not the music you want. (Or to ignore unintentional discords in the music you *do* want.) Editing is the process of removing non-music, identifying discord (or introducing discord if you need more), capitalizing on opportunities for new and unexpected harmony, etc. At some point there’s no more you can do at your current level of attainment—you’re moving commas around the manuscript to no good effect, adjusting rests, switching time signature from 6/8 to 3/4 and back again. When you reach that point you should probably think about moving on. (If you haven’t already moved on, drawn by a cool new project.)

  • When I first started writing I was so ignorant of the whole process that I didn’t even know you were supposed to write more than one draft, so I took my time and tried to get it right on the first pass. I sold the first draft of the first three short stories I ever wrote, and the first draft of my first novel. I’ve sold a lot of first drafts since then when deadline pressure made any rewriting impossible. The best two pieces of writing I’ve ever done sold as true first drafts, one written in four hours, and the other in twenty minutes. Both sold to major magazines, and both were published without a word being changed.

    Traditionally, if a first draft of mine really was crap, if it needed more than a quick second pass to tighten a few sentences, improve dialogue, and eliminate typos, chances are it wouldn’t be any better after the fourth or fifth draft. It probably had no chance of selling, however long I worked on it.

    Now, like Dean Koontz and quite a few other writers I’ve known, I edit/rewrite each page before moving on to the next, and when I’m done, I’m done, so I don’t know how to count drafts.

    I know first drafts can be bead, can be horrible, and still result in a wonderful story, but I hate the attitude that a first draft should be horrible, or automatically will be horrible. Assuming the writer has enough talent to write a good, publishable story, I think most first drafts are bad because the writer believes they’re supposed to be bad, and so doesn’t try to make them really good.

    • I write the same way, editing as I go. There’s a great interview with Tanya Huff (http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2013/12/tanya-huff-builder/) where she talks about two different styles of writing:

      ‘‘I believe that there’s two types of writers: the brick-layer and the house-framer. Brick-layers have to get every brick in the right position, or three rows up, the wall falls down. That’s the way I write and, usually, if I find myself not able to move forward it’s because something’s wrong a few rows down. The house-framer, however, throws up the frame, tucks in some insulation, throws on the drywall, does some taping, some mudding – every section is another rewrite, and finally you have a finished house, carpets down, drapes hung. That said, I certainly don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way to write. I mean, if you have to write standing on your head in the bathroom – that’s the right way for you.”

      It turns out I’m a brick-layer, and James it sounds like you are, too. That said, when I’m stuck I find it very helpful to think “oh, just write the shit version for now and fix it later.” That ‘later’ just ends up being the next time I open the file to write rather than once I’ve finished the draft.

      • Neat analogy. Never heard that before. I’m definitely a framer, I get all of the action and dialogue down during the first pass. Draft two is description, foreshadowing, emotional moments, and other layers.

      • Awesome description of it–that’s it exactly!

        I’m totally a bricklayer. (I’ve been thinking Jenga tower, just because it all feels a lot more precarious and tippy than an actual house … but anyway.) If I try to write the next chapter when the chapter before it isn’t right, I end up compensating for all the wrong things and leaning in the wrong direction. I have to polish and edit and edit and edit as I go.

        That said, none of this has saved me from getting to the end and needing massive rewrites. It’s simply a different beast when it’s fully written, and I, at least, have always needed to go back and fix rather a lot.

        • (Also, it’s really nice to hear somebody else say it. Every now and then, I come across a professional writer being all “IF YOU EDIT AS YOU GO, YOU WILL DIE” and it’s like … “but … but … I couldn’t *get* anywhere without the editing!”)

          (Granted, I haven’t written *quite* enough books to say I have found my one and only way of doing things, so … ehn, maybe I’ll come to agree with the other side someday. But still, I maintain that any strategy that ends in a working book can’t be that bad.)

  • I just finished a first draft of a third WIP. There is so much truth to the post I had to comment – particularly the points about using words over and over, and other seemingly mindless drivel we can pump out. Not only do first drafts suck, first drafts are “shitty.” (to quote Anne Lamott from Bird By Bird)

  • I see your ‘cigarettes and coffee cups’ and raise you a ‘tumblers of whisky and glasses of wine’. I swear characters in all my first drafts are boozed up, over caffeinated nicotine fiends!.

    Great post though. I went to a writers workshop once where the teacher insisted that we label any new piece of writing ‘shitty first draft’, her idea being that you should allow yourself to be sucky lest you decide not to write at all.

  • I can’t sit down to write thinking “this is going to suck” or I wouldn’t write anything at all. Knowing it is going to need work is a different mindset to “suck” which to me means it has no value at all so why bother?

  • I write my first draft like a script. First I plot like crazy, scene by scene. Then I write the first draft just to get the story out – which means dialogue, a few setting descriptions and character thoughts. And I don’t worry about how it reads – a lot of my sentences have ??? instead of words because I can’t think of the specific words yet. I usually write about 1200 words a day at this stage.

    Then I do structural revision (check for plot holes, delete what needs to be deleted, add more first draft scenes where needed).

    Then once I’m happy, I fill it in. This is where it goes from script to novel. I go one page at a time, adding the five senses, making my paragraphs read nicely, and getting the rhythm of my sentences right. This is a slow process. Getting out a nice paragraph is painful. If I get 500 words a day on this part I’m happy. Usually this process ends up at least doubling my word count. I’ll go from 50k word first draft to 110k second draft. Then I have a novel.

    Of course, after that there is more revision still. Beta readers read it. Things I didn’t notice needed fixing get fixed. Etc. And then lots of cutting to tighten. In effect, writing a novel is a three draft process for me.

    So even if I wanted to, I couldn’t publish my first draft. Of course, when I first started writing I thought the first draft would be my final draft so I wrote it like I write my second draft now. But when I found myself having to throw away 140k words of those carefully crafted paragraphs, I realised I’d wasted so much time and effort! Now I get the story right first, then worry about how it reads. Saves a lot of time.

    • This is the way I’m doing it too. I find that I write much MUCH faster in script format, scene by scene, with directions re emotions and actions in parenthesis.

      It literally gets the scene out of my head as fast as I can type it and eliminates all the frustration that goes with “I have this scene in my head but it’s taking SO LONG to get it out onto the page! ARGH!”

      Then I go back and flesh it out scene by scene, transforming the script format into prose.

      That’s when the pace slows down considerably and it’s a bit of a trudge but at least the scenes are all there and just waiting to be transcribed and edited.

  • I feel much better when a professional tells me it’s gonna suck…it’s all gonna suck. I mean, I tell myself that all the time but not in a good way. Thanks for the advice!

  • It’s always so nice to hear other authors talk about the crappiness of first drafts. Sometimes you get into a place where you start thinking that you’re the only person in the history of writing to ever produce something so utterly unworthy of being read. I mean, even a first draft shouldn’t be this terrible, should it? (Pass the whiskey.) I’ve come to a place in my current WIP where I’m just allowing things to come out as they like. I have my outline (a damn good one if I do say so myself) and I have my imagination. However those two marry and multiply during the first draft is, at the moment, none of my business. I’ll go in later and micromanage about the drapes and how the children ought to be raised.

  • You never cease to amaze me and entertain. Yep, first drafts suck….. I am reaching right now doing a lot of firsts. I expect them to suck. It’s okay.

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