Dear NaNoWriMos: first drafts suck

Ernest HemmingwayReposted from a 2013 article on scottsigler.com. The details on what Scott’s currently writing are a bit out-of-whack, but the rest bears repeating. Good luck for a strong finish NaNos!

This month, thousands of working and aspiring writers are banging out a 50,000-word novel as part of National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo.” The challenge is to write 50k in 30 days. Since the experience involves a lot of new-ish or first-time writers who struggle about halfway through, I thought I’d share a current experience of mine that might help.

This week I finished the first draft of Book V in my YA Galactic Football League (GFL) series. My goal was to finish 150,000 words by Nov. 11. it felt very good to pass the manuscript on to my biz partner @ARealGirl for first review, so I could get some closure on that phase and move on to two other critical deadlines that have been put off for months.

It was a strong finish: From Oct. 16 to Oct. 31, I wrote 46,980. From Nov. 1 through Nov. 11, I wrote 31,633 words. That means in the last four consecutive weeks, I knocked out the final 78,613 words of the first draft. In effect, I did my own little NaNoWriMo — damn the torpedoes, we have to push ahead and get this to-do box checked.

And you know what? That first draft sucks.

I mean, it sucks bad. It’s complete and utter shite. It is poop on a stick.

There are gaping holes where entire chapters-still-to-write are marked “TK,” meaning I will get to them in the second draft (in case you don’t know what TK means, it’s an abbreviation for “to come,” meaning, “I will come at you later, bro, but for now I gotta move on to the next part.” As I reached the end, I identified earlier chapters that are going on the scrap heap, at least 10,000 words worth and probably more like 20,000. I have character motivations that pop up randomly in a middle chapter, I have end-of-story notes that tell me to go back into the beginning and add things or the ending won’t make sense, I have major characters that vanish for 40,000 words at a time, and I have general continuity issues that make the damn thing almost unreadable.

Know what else? All of those problemologic issuetroubles? They are fine. Because for me, at least, flinging crap against the wall is largely what a first draft is for.

A first draft is what I call “putting clay on the wheel.” You can’t spin a perfect pot or a symmetrical bowl with no clay, and while you want to finish with something pretty, raw clay doesn’t exactly look that way. First draft = heap of clay on the wheel, so you can actually get to work. The shaping and forming of your fine China come in the second and third drafts. The polish comes in the fourth. The finished glazing comes in the final. If you don’t start out with a giant pile of something that looks an awful lot like lumpy poo (this time, not on a stick), you’ll never create that lovely vase.

Screw you guys, I'm goin' home.I know a lot of NaNoWriMos are frustrated right now. Maybe you are on schedule, maybe you’re a bit behind, but many of you are reading your own words and you are not happy. Perhaps you are stuck on a plot point. Perhaps a character has suddenly come to life in your head, and refuses to do what you want her to do, which mucks up your entire plot. I will venture a guess that more than a few of you have thought, “fuck it, this is awful, I’ll just start over,” or even worse, “screw you guys, I’m goin’ home — I quit.”

DO NOT QUIT. CARRY ON. GET THE CLAY ON THE WHEEL, BECAUSE YOU CAN SHAPE IT, MOLD IT, SMACK IT UP, FLIP IT AND RUB IT DOWN (OHHH-NOOOO!) LATER!

If you are blaming your frustration on a perceived lack of skill or experience, let me share with you a wee little secret. I am a professional writer. I’ve been earning good money from writing for two decades. I am now full-time at this gig: writing has been my sole source of income since 2008. I have eight hardcovers with #9 and #10 hitting in 2014. I’ve had movie options. I’m closing in on TV options for two books. I have a print agent and a film agent. I’ve had several books hit #1 on Amazon’s Horror and/or SciFi chart. I even hit the New York Times bestseller list. I have that super-fun-time track record truckin’ along, and my first drafts are STILL utter garbage.

Does that make you feel better? Does that make you understand that hating the living hell out of what you are writing now is normal, and happens to seasoned professionals? Does it help you realize that you just have to persevere, put words on the page, and kick that 50k dead square in the privates, so that you can stand up, knock your chair back, raise your fists to the sky and scream “I am the god of hell-fire, and you will obey me or suffer my wrath!“?*

I hope it does.

Here is some back-handed positivity for you: if you are good enough to publish books that sell, if you are good and fortunate enough to turn writing into a career, that awful feeling you have in your belly right now? Yeah, you get to have that just about every time.

That, at least, is my experience as a professional writer. I know there are some writers out there who are better at knocking out a semi-polished first draft, and more power to them. A lot of that depends on your skill, yes, and also the style and genre of writing you choose.

So stick with it. What you are writing now is a bad book. Deal with it. When it’s done, then you can get to the real job of editing and re-writes. Don’t quit, and good luck, WriMos.

* I also say this when I eat all the mashed potatoes on my plate. I highly recommend it.

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