You’re finally ready to write. You have done every little piece of preparation you can possibly think of. You have reading lists, you’ve done research, you have a world built, you have a basic outline. You’re golden. LET’S DO THIS. But…how do we start something as daunting as a BOOK?
Just as there are different ways to prepare your novel (outline vs. discovery writing, for example), there are different approaches you can take when beginning to write. When I was starting out on my first-ever book, I tried a couple of different methods. The worst, by far (for me), was what I can only describe as The Perfectionist Method…moving on to the next sentence, scene, chapter only when the previous one is absolutely 100% “done.” I imagine that in order for it to work, this method must require extensive planning and outlines, with little to no discovery writing, since you wouldn’t want to develop a new subplot only to have to go back and re-“perfect” everything that came before it. I am impressed with anyone that has ever managed to actually finish a book in this fashion, and if you HAVE…if this is your go-to style…please please please comment below and tell me how it works and how you did it, you god-of-writing, you. When I tried it, I was never able to finish a gosh-dang thing, because it fed into every crippling obsessive perfectionist part of me and made it impossible to move on. No single sentence felt “perfect enough,” so I never got past the opening. Thank goodness I threw that out and discovered what I call…
Drafting is what got me to finally finish a book. And then a second book. And then (almost) a third book (any day, now). It is my heart and soul. My backbone of writing. I am insanely biased in favor of it and I urge everyone to give it a go, just once.
Essentially, at its most basic, drafting means exactly what it sounds like: writing your book over the course of several drafts that become better/tighter/more polished as you go. I find that it’s the most forgiving way to write, because you can explore and make mistakes without worrying that it will ruin every other sentence that came before it. If something isn’t working, you can move on and fix it in the next draft. I have also found that (for me, at least) it has completely eliminated writer’s block. I’m not joking. I never stare at a blank page or screen and have no idea where to go or what to write. As long as I have my idea and a super basic outline, I’m good. I can write whatever I want. So I do. And I don’t get blocked. It doesn’t matter if what I’m writing is garbage or doesn’t really fit. As I said before, I can fix it or cut it in the next draft.
Drafting begins with what is called:
THE SHITTY FIRST DRAFT
It will be the worst thing you will ever create (until you start another book. Then THAT Shitty First Draft will be The Worst Thing You Will Ever Create), and also the best thing that will ever happen to you.
Some awful things about the SFD:
- It will be truly, truly awful. Even if you’re a good writer, it will be utter garbage.
- It might not make much sense, and when it comes time to move on to Draft 2, you WILL hate yourself a little.
Some wonderful things about the SFD:
- No one but you will ever see it, so it doesn’t matter that it’s so bad.
- In a weird way, it’s freeing to be terrible. The SFD focuses on IDEAS, not SENTENCES, so you can explore every plot point, sub plot, character arc, etc. to your heart’s content, without getting stuck or trapped by perfectionism. Give yourself up to the inevitable awfulness of the writing and just lay down every possible idea you have.
- At the end of the SFD, you will have the bare bones of a book. A really shitty book, yes, but a BOOK. And that’s the best part of this method. Because as we all know…
YOU CAN’T FIX WHAT ISN’T THERE.
Editing and revising both require that you have something to edit or revise. The purpose of the Shitty First Draft is to GET you something to edit and revise. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that writing is like 2% writing and like 88% editing (the other 10% is crying). So it’s silly to spend an immense amount of time writing when what you REALLY need to be doing is moving on to editing. For me, it’s easier to revise/edit a novel as a WHOLE than each individual piece as I go. I call it big-picture editing and it ensures that the book makes logical sense and has as few plot holes as possible. To do this, I need a whole novel. A whole, really shitty novel.
Now that we know what drafting is and why it’s awesome, let’s learn how to do it. Or, at least, how I do it.
- Before I begin, I choose a notebook (or two). I write my SFD by hand because the lure of the backspace button is too strong for me. I can’t resit editing as I go when it’s so easy to do on the computer, and editing as you go (even a little) muddies the necessary shittiness of the first draft with the possibility of “perfection.” Writing by hand means that I have to stare my shit in the face, even if I end up scribbling something out.
- I give my basic outline a glance to remind myself more or less where I’m going.
- Then I set a goal. I find that 10 pages a writing session is best for the SFD. It’s enough to move forward at a pretty steady pace but it isn’t an exhausting amount of writing to do in one sitting. Obviously there are going to be days when I want to write more, because I’m flowing or in the zone or whatever you cool kids call it. But I always force myself to do at LEAST 10 pages. I count the pages in my notebook and mark the 10th with a little X in the corner. That way I don’t have to think about pages or how far I have to go while I’m writing. I’ll know when I’ve hit 10 when I see the X. If I want to keep going, I do. Otherwise, I stop there.
- After that, I just start writing! Personally, I always begin a session with an idea of what scene or chapter I’m going to tackle that day. I check my road map (aka outline) every now and then to remind myself of the path I want to take, but if I get ideas for new paths along the way, I follow them. Always remember: this is called a SHITTY first draft for a reason. It doesn’t have to be good. In fact, it SHOULDN’T be good. You aren’t worrying about sentences yet. You aren’t really even worrying about worldbuilding yet (I always add in details like that later). I focus on the main plot point scenes, get as close to how I imagined them as possible, and then move on.
- If I have ideas for changes or new scenes that I’ve already passed up chronologically, I write them down on post-it notes and stick them in the appropriate spots in the book. I end up with something like this:
This way I’ll remember the new ideas when I’m typing up the SFD, but I’m not worrying about any of it yet. If I like a change enough and am pretty damn sure I want to go with it from now on, I’ll continue writing as though I had written it that way in the first place.
The main goal with the SFD is to FINISH it. The fun really starts with Draft 2, but you have to get there first by having a completed Draft 1.
Eventually you will get to the end of your major plot points, and your Shitty First Draft will, therefore, be done. YAY! YOU DID IT! Have a cookie and a high-five! You put some hot garbage on paper, all without writer’s block!
What you’ll end up with is a) very short, and b) a mess.
But that’s okay. That’s why we don’t show our SFDs to anyone. Got that?! The first rule of Shitty First Drafts is YOU DON’T SHARE YOUR SHITTY FIRST DRAFTS.
The very last step in this stage is to type up your SFD. I type what I wrote pretty much verbatim (minus spelling mistakes), as well as the notes on any post its stuck to the pages. I put these in parentheses so that I know they’re notes when I read the draft. This means I end up with something like this:
“Suzie shaved the cat (or maybe dog?) (maybe earlier scene of her catching cat/dog?) X wasn’t happy about it.” Oh yeah. I forgot to mention: if I don’t have a character name for someone, they are X, Y, or Z until I come up with names. SFD rules, man. You just gotta move. Don’t spend too much time worrying about details yet.
Anyway, I type up the entire SFD this way, and then I print it out and put it away for a week. Yeah, you heard me. You gotta live with that shit in the back of your brain for a week without being allowed to work on it. You’ll thank me later.
Are you still with me? It may seem like a crazy way to start a book. I know someone people would rather scoop out both eyes with a shaved-down spork than write “shit,” but what did we learn earlier? YOU CAN’T FIX WHAT ISN’T THERE. My first drafts are as shitty as they come, but by the time I’m finished with the final one, the book is pretty fucking good. It just takes time and patience. Just go with it. It’ll all start to make sense soon.
Next week: Editing Your Shitty First Draft!