I used to be all about the “Shitty First Draft” as Anne Lamott dubs it. I’d throw words at the page and see if they stuck. Usually they didn’t. I always worked with detailed outlines, but I didn’t let the writing itself hold me back. I knew I couldn’t edit a blank page, so I wrote and wrote and wrote no matter how crappy the sentence sounded in my head, no matter how many dialogue tags and adverbs I used, no matter how many times I left notes like [insert witty line here] for Future Shana. I didn’t care. Because later, in revisions, I knew I would rewrite every single sentence until they were the right sentences. That first draft was just a skeleton and in revisions, I layered it with muscle and flesh.
Notice the key words in that paragraph: used to.
I’m nearing the end of writing the first draft of a new book (only 4 scenes left to write!) and recently, I realized I had to get back into that mind set. I had to re-learn how to embrace the suck.
Before I started writing this draft, I had just come off revising not one but two novels back to back. Both novels were already vetted by numerous critique partners, revised a bunch of times, rewritten until every word belonged there, and all that was left to do was incorporate my agent’s awesome notes. Every new scene I wrote in those last rounds of revisions had a specific purpose. It needed to be in the book. It didn’t have to go under trial as I judged whether I could get the same information in another, more interesting way, or if I could combine this scene with another and use less space. Because I knew what was missing. I knew my characters so deeply, I didn’t have to second-guess their actions. Their voices were real inside my head, all I had to do was transcribe the conversations verbatim they were having in my mind. Any new words I wrote dripped with my main characters’ voices.
I wasn’t writing a first draft. I was writing a final draft.
So when it came time to start the first draft of my new book, I went into it with a plan. The plan included a detailed 30-page scene by scene outline…but it also included my new mantra:
“I want to write it right this time,” I told my critique partners. “Not word vomit.” Actually taking care to write decent sentences that could stand the test of revisions without needing to be rewritten.
I knew plot might change, scenes might get cut, scenes would be added, characters would get more layers of personality and traits, but for the scenes that did stay in the book as is, I wanted what’s on the page to be as close to final from the start.
No, really, HAHAHAHAHA.
This is not my first time writing a book. This is not even my 5th time writing a book. I don’t know why I thought this time was different. Probably because I was so used to looking at final drafts instead of blank pages.
Still I set out to start with my new mantra in mind. At the start of this draft, I took my time. I erased words that didn’t make sense. I eschewed dialogue tags in favor of visual actions that conveyed the scene better than a “said” simply could. I went to great depths to capture my character’s emotions on the page. Which is all well and good and that’s all stuff that my final drafts have. What I neglected to realize though is that I didn’t really know my characters all that well yet. The things I thought I knew changed over the course of the draft. The characters have grown and become more nuanced. Their voices have changed, which means the writing itself has changed.
Not only that, the list of revisions I need to do for the next draft keeps growing as I figure out new things. The entire relationship my protagonist has with her mother is the opposite of what I thought it would be. I started out writing their relationship as tense and hate-filled until I realized no, that’s not right. The protagonist views her mother as her role model, not her obstacle. On top of that, the love interest completely contradicts himself in the first half of the book because that was before I figured out how far he’ll go to stand by his convictions. One character started out as a friend until I realized he was actually a villain with a very good reason to be one and would be incredibly angry with my protagonist right at the start of the book. And plot wise, though I knew the mystery solution early on, a lot of the clues and red herrings didn’t become apparent until I was writing. Which means stuff I wrote in the second half of the book needs to be supported in the first half.
“Write it right the first time” no longer made sense. I just had to write it and make it make sense later.
All that time I spent carefully constructing sentences was pointless since I already knew I had to delete most of them to make the book consistent. I stopped focusing on the words and instead focused on the story and characters. I wrote and wrote, letting myself discover things about the plot and the characters along the way. I strayed from my outline. I wrote scenes that read more like a script, all dialogue tags and no description or action because the conversation was flying so fast in my head, I just had to get it down on paper before I forgot it.
I embraced the suck.
And the first draft is better for it. It’s messy and inconsistent. It’s too wordy in some places and too sparse in others. It’s missing scenes and includes scenes that don’t belong anymore. It’s got ugly sentences amongst the gems. But it’s there. It’s not a blank page. Which means I can fix it in revisions.