clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

ISWG: Cold Drafts

Ah, it is insecure Wednesday. You can see the list of wonderfully insecure writers all writing about insecurity : here.

It seems like nearly everyday is insecure Wednesday when you're in the middle of a draft - which brings us to the bullshit.

Bullshit is a very special writing term. It comes to us from none other than Ernest Hemingway. He wrote in several letters about a facility required of writers to detect the bad decisions in their writing and correct them without impinging on the judgement of the writer's own talent. He called this facility a Bullshit Detector.

As writers, we often attribute this bullshit detector to the little critic on our shoulder who moans and bitches and winces and whines whenever we're actually writing. The following is the part of this post that remedies this insecure portion of your writing life:

Turn your Bullshit Detector to the "off" position when you write your rough draft.

That's right. The full upright and locked position. When you are first crafting your story, your bullshit detector is your worst enemy. It lights up and shines onto your page with the intensity of July sun. What you do not recognize when this happens is that the calibration dial is screwed-up. Your detector is out of alignment because you do not know where your story is taking you.

When you write your first draft, I want you to write to your very lowest of expectations. I want you to put the words on the page with only as much proper grammar and punctuation and legibility as it takes to show your train of thought. Wrong verb tense? Passive voice? Adverbs on the page like coupon day at a Chinese buffet? You are writing only for you and only for understanding when you pick this draft back up a month or two from now.  

Discipline will come for you with comfort. When you write your 100th first draft, you will naturally write closer to the form of your demonstrated mastery of the English language. It won't matter though because you will still show no one but yourself your first draft.

Go whole hog. Have your protagonist say "fuck" a lot. Lots of characters do it off the page. Lots of writers, too.

You are afraid when you write that first draft if your stuff is any good at all. When you are writing your way through fear, shame, embarrassment and pain, you do not have the luxury of contemplating a shifting POV or the inclusion of a gerund.

You are afraid of what you might say about yourself and your family and your oldest friends (not those whiny bitches you know on facebook who are so disappointed in the President, or the Bachelor, or Idol, or whatever the fuck your associates are out doing at recess while you remain in the laundry room writing. Alone.).

You are pouring the emotion of the story into the characters and their reactions. The prose is stilted and awkward. The dialogue is inexact and muddled. You are finding the story and under these circumstances you are just trying to survive getting it down on paper. Your bullshit detector is not calibrated to work under these conditions.

Fear and questioning makes you doubt and hesitate and seize and ... stop writing.  

Oh, that last one is the death of the story. You stop writing and you stop feeling and you stop getting those things onto the page that the story is really about but which you, Miss Precise, didn't include in your outline. 

You didn't even admit to yourself that the story was about the embarrassment of unrequited love. It's there though. It's on the page unless you stop. 

The story isn't about going shopping for a prom dress with your aunt. The story is about being in the first glances of love with Jimmy Mangrum and knowing he was taking your best friend Pam Watson to prom and wanting to tell her and wanting to tell Jimmy and not. doing. either. 

You leave the bullshit detector on when you write the first draft and the story becomes about an ugly taffeta dress. Who cares about an ugly dress?  Not Quite Right For Us. Tell the other story. Please.

The theory of successful writing? Make a mess. Clean it up. You are not saving any work at all by picking your way through that first draft with a weather eye on language and point of view and the active voice and in media res and ... Tell the story. It is a first draft. It has bullshit all over it. At least 30% of it will be completely unusable and maybe as much as 90%. 

What do you care how much is waste at this point? You are a writer. You work for weeks on things you never show anyone.

If I offered you right now a positive lock on the 2014 Pulitzer in fiction for one gallon of your sweat, you'd be at the gym on the treadmill in a rubber sweatsuit in five minutes. Effort is nothing. Ink is cheap. Heartbeats spent creating wonderful fiction that illustrate the human condition in your words do not count against your lifetime limit.

Write that first draft. Write it by dipping the quill itself in excrement if you have to, but write the story and write it all the way through. Put down six pages on a scene that will ultimately last two paragraphs. It's a rough draft. Show yourself how you feel about the events of the story when you put it down here. You have at least two full drafts to go before you show it to anyone, anyway. 

Need more? I got you. 

"Shitty First Drafts" from Bird by Bird from Anne Lamott. It's required reading in the text used by nearly every MFA program in the country. It's in the first chapter of the book Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft  by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.

If you chase this topic through about a hundred memoirs of the writers you love, you'll see they all say something about "quieting the voices" in order to come to the germ of their story. That's pretty Jane Austin language for "turning off the bullshit detector." I'm a Hemingway type of guy. 

You have got to get that story out.  You have got to get it on the paper and I have a $20 bill in my pocket right now which says that after you write - really write - that first draft you'll agree you had no idea what the story was really about until you got that draft finished. 

You are making a diamond. It takes pressure and the heat of concentration and no one - not even you - has any idea what it will look like when you finally knock all the dirt off and reveal that tiny little stone of so much incredible beauty forged from pure emotion. 

You're going to turn that bullshit detector back on for your next drafts. You're going to cut and polish and present your new beauty in the best possible light so you can sell it for the most possible money and prestige. 

You'll need the intense light of the detector in those subsequent efforts. In the first draft, it is not your friend.

Oh, and for your really new writers, please for Dog's sake do not package that first draft through the spell-checker and send it off for someone to read. Please, I beg you. You will be so ashamed in a couple of years. Write the draft, put it on ice, turn the bullshit detector back on and in a month wave that baby over the page and watch it light up. 

Make a mess. Clean it up. Do that for the rest of your writing life. 

Now, you're right there with the best of them. Who needs a pipe and leather elbows on a sweater? I got the concession right over here...Visa and Amex accepted.


Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Dynamite post, dude. Yep, I'm an optimist, but you're right about the "hundred first drafts". Damn it.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Yes, we have to ignore the internal editor on that first draft. Ignoring it is *crucial* to getting finished with the story. You'll do fine--just tell the story and fix it later!

Sanderella said...

Wow what a stellar post! Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Hey, Snappy Jack!

Yes, you are a Hemingway kind of guy, lol.

This is a great post--one I needed to read. I'm the worst about trying to get my 1st draft perfect. And really, I think my writing would improve greatly if I'd just relax and do exactly what you're saying to do.

From this moment on, I'll try my best to turn off the B.S. detector, during my rough draft. Who knows what kind of magic will occur? :)

jack welling said...

Great to see you all! Nothing like Insecure Wednesday to bring out the writers!

Susan - I'm feeling infectiously optimistic that I'll finish something tonight. Of course, because of :

Elizabeth, I'll see it needs heavy revision (which your post about major revision is just a relief. I feel so defeated when I am hacking away half a story).

Good to meet you Sandy. Love the bird motif on your site.

Celeste - glad it might help. Congrats again on your great news and I hope you get on wonderfully with your editor. Such an exciting time!

Julie said...

I completely agree and most of the time I am successful at this, but was challenged in my last first draft and had to continually remind myself that I do rewrites. I just had to get out of the way and let my characters tell their stories. Looking forward to the rewrite as soon as I finish the edits on the previous book in the series. Great post!