Dear NaNoWriMos: first drafts suck

Ernest HemmingwayThis 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.

Comments

  1. Pingback: The F.D.O. Scott Sigler Visits Chicago – Joins Heavy Metal Band |

  2. Mark Carver

    I remember when I wrote my 1st first draft and was horrified at all the corrections and changes. And the same thing happened when I wrote my second book. And third. And fourth. By now I’ve made peace with the fact that what I’m writing now sucks but it will (hopefully) come out smelling like roses after it goes under the scalpel. I can really relate to the clay analogy, since I’ve been a hobby sculptor for years. As the piece takes its shape, it’s all rough and gnarly but the general form is there. Once that’s hammered out, then you back and refine it.

    It does take a bit of mental fortitude to persevere with something knowing that it sucks in its current form. You have to keep your hands working in the present while looking towards the future. The fantasy of a finished product after the first pass is just that, a fantasy.

  3. Mark R Hunter

    I entered and won NaNoWriMo once, but I didn’t like the results too much. I’ve found the best way for me to write is to go through my previous day’s writing first, to get back into the groove, and I did make edits as I went along. Editing as you go is a disaster for some writers who just can’t seem to stop editing, but it worked well for me — so my first draft is really a second draft, by the time I get done.

    But with the NaNo effort I didn’t stop for anything, and the first draft was such a wreck (at least in the middle) that the amount of edits actually intimidated me, and I put it aside for months before I went back to work on it. You’re certainly allowed to suck, as Mur Lafferty puts it, but you’re also allowed to do it your way — and in the end, I decided to stick with what went well for me.

  4. Profile photo of Stefani RobinsonStefani Robinson

    Thanks for this so much! This is my seventh year doing Nano, I have been successful every year but this one seems to be escaping me. I just got married and am starting to try and have a baby, I moved recently and trying to set up house, and working a full time job and a part time writing job. I am strapped and exhausted. I am about 5,000 words behind right now, and it’s all utter garbage. My main plot has become my subplot, my new main plot is something I hadn’t even thought of until November 5th, somehow my characters are meeting with mobsters, and I have no idea just what in the hell is going on with this story anymore!

    But it’s all okay. I just need to throw more crap at the wall and will make it work later. If the great Sigler can do it, then by God so can I!

    1. Profile photo of scottsiglerscottsigler

      @Nannite_Swarm_of_Doom: Hopefully you got the version I just uploaded, and not the version I uploaded last night, which was pooched. Hence, that’s why you should wait until you see the episode posted. Enjoy!

  5. Profile photo of Jack RichardsonJack Richardson

    Now I feel terrible for bottling it (read: changing the goal) after about a week. The lack of sleep was getting to me and it’s hard to learn a language and read and work at the same time. Instead I’ve given myself a few more months to plan and ferment and six (the laziness!) to write. Take two, here we come!

  6. Profile photo of BigJohnBigJohn

    My biggest complaint about NaNoWriMo is that it is in November, which is an incredibly busy month for me. I’d have to subtract out close to an entire week due to family commitments and my own glorious birthday. Scuttled at the beginning. Fooey.

      1. Profile photo of BigJohnBigJohn

        Nah, it’s every year. With all the family visitation, us hosting thanksgiving and celebrating my birthday, I’m already at least 6 days in the hole. :(

  7. Profile photo of Keith SimsKeith Sims

    I haven’t done it in a few years due to so much on my plate but I remember the first time I did achieve it and it was a tip and encouragement from you that got me there hopefully I will get around to finishing it out real life sucks I wish I could just write but real life doesn’t suck near as bad as that first draft did although it did give me a premise to continue to several more stories all in a basic outline around here somewhere. When I catch up on bills I plan to dedicate a day a week to just fixing stuff and working on the first drafts for the other one since I know I can do it now.

    1. Profile photo of scottsiglerscottsigler

      @KasDJ: If you can fix it and get it done this month, great! If not, there is always next year. Sometimes people have to work their way up to NaNo, using October as a “clear out the to-do list month.” If you’re swamped, you’re swamped.

      Also: EMAIL ME A PICTURE OF THAT DAMN TAT ALREADY!!! scott@scottsigler.net!!!

  8. Profile photo of Grace McDermottGrace McDermott

    I’m a few days behind par at the moment (closing in on 20k as I write this), but that’s still much further than I usually get. And whatever I get down will be a first draft I won’t have to write later – it means I actually have something that can be sitting and stewing for when I get back around to it – and by the time I get back to it (which I’m aiming to be the second half of 2014 due to other rewrite commitments), I’ll have a much clearer picture of what I need this book to be.