On Writing that (Really) Shitty First Draft


From Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled…. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do — you can either type, or kill yourself."


Back in February, I sat down to face the long dark of finishing a first draft of a novel that’s both historical and complex in terms of its multiplicity of characters and ethnicities, and I was terrified. Terrified of failure, terrified of being exposed for the fraud I am. Terrified of making a culturally insensitive blunder. (Which makes me wonder how many of us, as writers, live in a constant state of terror when it comes to our work?) How, I thought, can I push through this? Keep my head down, as one Bluth might say to another, and power through? The short answer is that I got it done, and I’m still terrified of all those things. The long answer is…well, longer.

After all, the first book, we assume, is always a fluke, you’ll never manage to do that again. The second book you don’t even remember how you summoned the strength to start, much less finish, unless it had something to do with the desperate desire to prove you could do it again, and do it a little better maybe. The third book, now, that’s a new ball of wax entirely. Now, you have a publisher willing to contract a book before it’s even written! How cool is that? Not half as cool, you figure, as the no-longer-private nature of your failure if you can’t pull this hat trick off for a third time.

So, in the hopes of learning something about my process, of establishing some efficient design workflow to make it all feel smooth and professional, I decided to conduct a little research on myself.

The goal was simple: to complete a shitty first draft in about 2 months. I had roughly 20,000 words on the page already, thanks to steady writing last fall before edits/revisions came down from my editor on book 2, which is out next February. So we’re talking 60,000 more words through March and April et voila: 1 complete draft. Fears of never finishing that second contracted novel and being forever shamed allayed. Whew.

As brief as I can be, here’s what I learned about How I Write by examining how I wrote the terrible, no-good, very-bad rough draft of my third novel.

  • First, I kept a chapter-by-chapter journal of my word count to track my daily productivity. It turns out, I’m best when I can lay down about 1,000 to 1,500 words a day. Anything more than that, I start writing stage directions. People start nodding their heads and looking left and right. Anything less, I’m not really trying, my heart’s not in it, the cat’s trying to play fetch with me, the day at work sucked, etc.

  • In order to be productive and steadily progressing toward the end (which means daily seat time), I must work from an outline. I must know the final destination of my characters, even if I don’t know all the whys and wherefores of how they get there, emotionally. Maybe it’ll all change later, but I have to end up somewhere in order to really finish. This means index cards, three acts, sequences and scenes, and positive and negative turns in each scene to create an emotional connection with the reader (which sounds kind of cyborgy, but it’s not).

  • Things I neglect in a first draft: deep character work; nuance of characters’ speech; period details; names of animals, in this case horses; what people wear, if the year is 1875, which it is; set-ups and payoffs; was it a knife or a cudgel, who cares, make it whatever it needs to be in the moment and fix it later. Stuff like that.

  • I really like the anticipation of revision, even though I may not always like revision. I make notes to myself, here and there, to go add this or fix that later, in the hope that I’ll actually salvage something good or even great from this mess.

  • I read about one book before I begin that’s situated in my time and place and use it to set the mood and tone. In this case, it was Robert Olmstead’s great novel Savage Country.

  • I really dig finishing. It’s a hell of a sweet feeling.

So, while I know all of this may not be terribly interesting news to anyone but me, I do think it’s insightful for all of us to take a look at what we do from time to time and try to figure out how we do it best, and when we do it worst. One of the things Anne Lamott suggests is that shitty first drafts have great value, that they’re the equivalent of imagining, of playing, of dreaming, before the hard work of analysis begins.

Do I believe I can do this again? Of course. Do I expect to fail when I try? Absolutely. But I’ll keep at it. Because, you know, it’s either type or…well, it’s just type.