Sh*tty First Drafts

To borrow a famous phrase from Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird, I’ve just finished a shitty first draft. As her later use of the phrase implies, that is something to be proud of and excited about. I’ve been chipping away at this manuscript for almost a year, averaging about 600 words a day in that amount of time. That might not sound terribly impressive, but because it’s happened in tandem with full-time doctoral study, I’m honestly relieved it didn’t take me ten years instead of one. (This is, of course, excluding the process of research and outlining that went before the actual writing of this first draft, which started almost a year before.) Since posting an update on various social media platforms, I’ve gotten a number of questions which are all, in the end, variations of the same question: what now?

Every writer’s process is different. For me, the actual writing of the first draft of any given book is just the tip of the iceberg (if this metaphor sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve used it before). What goes on the page in the first draft is a tiny fraction of the work that actually goes into making a book, as is the final draft which a reader ultimately holds in their hands. So. What happens between one and the other?

Again, every writer’s process is different. But what’s true for every writer is that no first draft is ready for readers. Every first draft is a shitty first draft, and expecting it to be anything else is a great way to set yourself up for a big disappointment. As V. E. Schwab once put it, “A first draft is the farthest your story will ever be from the idea in your head. Revision is the process of closing the gap, but the two will never truly touch.” This couldn’t be more true, and one of the smartest things writers can do is disabuse themselves of the notion that a first draft is ever going to be anything other than an unholy mess. Case in point: that first draft I just finished? It is fully 210,000 words and there are entire scenes and paragraphs still missing throughout. To give you an idea how much of a trash fire that really is, most books aimed at an adult audience are somewhere between 90- and 110,00 words. Upshot is, I have a staggering amount of work ahead of me. I don’t mind admitting I have no freakin’ idea how I’m going to cut this manuscript literally in half. I’m already kicking myself for being (as usual) overly ambitious. I don’t know why I can’t fight the impulse to cram way too much into one story. All I know is I’m looking at this 400-page monstrosity and asking myself the same question everyone else has been asking me: what the hell do I do now?

The good news is that unlike a lot of writers, I actually love revision. I have no illusions about just how shitty my first drafts are and truly relish the process of improving them. This is not to say that revision is easy. On the contrary, revision is a whole lot harder (in my opinion) than the writing itself. Inconveniently, it’s also (a) the most important work you’ll do on any given MS and (b) the work would-be writers are most reluctant to do. It’s no mystery why; after finally writing that ending and feeling like you’ve just finished a thousand-mile obstacle course, who on earth wants to admit that the thing they’ve just made is a steaming pile of garbage which needs ten times more work than the work they already did? It’s a daunting prospect–especially if this ain’t your first rodeo and you’ve already learned exactly how much work revision really entails (and how indispensable it really is). I know I have many long nights ahead of me, many hours to be spent struggling to wrestle difficult passages into submission, and not a few bouts of despair over how on earth I can cut this frankly obscene wordcount down.

But, bitching and moaning aside: how on earth do you actually approach something this unwieldy? How do you bridge that gap between a shitty first draft and the unattainable ideal that exists only in your (overly ambitious) imagination? To frame it in the abstract, I think the answer is to embrace the fact that every good writer is their own biggest fan and their own worst critic at the very same time. A good writer can look at their work and see just how much improvement it needs and be willing to put that effort in because they can also see its worth, its potential. You have to love it as much as you hate it. You have to believe it can be something wonderful just as firmly as you know that right now, it’s a pile of shit.

There’s a strange sort of freedom in accepting that any first attempt to tell a story will be a disaster. You can give yourself permission to fail, and fail spectacularly, with one caveat: you have to accept that you will also have to clean up the mess you’ve made. It’s a bit like flipping a house. In order to rebuild it and make it beautiful, first you have to pick up that sledgehammer and knock the whole thing down. Unlike remodeling a house, however, you can’t hire anybody to do the work for you. You can’t bribe your friends with beer and pizza to come over and help with the heavy lifting. (If you’re lucky enough to have an agent or an editor you can get some professional input when the time comes, but if all you have is a shitty first draft… that’s not the time.) You have to take your hideous house and give it a makeover so extreme the execs at ABC would weep to see it.

So. Where do you start?

Again, I can only speak for me. But I try to start standing right in that chasm between what the manuscript is and what I want it to be. I read through the whole thing being my own worst critic and my own biggest fan, asking myself over and over again, “Why do I hate this, and what do I have to do to turn it into something I love again?” Questions and answers may vary in size and scope, all the way from the raison d’être of the whole darn thing down to the order of words in a sentence. Personally I like to start with the big stuff and work my way down to the minutiae (no sense agonizing over word choice when you might yet end up cutting that whole chapter), but throughout the process one thing never changes: if you want to see improvement, you gotta do the work, and you can’t half-ass it. You have to put not just as much effort into every subsequent draft as you put into the first, but probably more. You have to accept that the first draft was just the first step.

But in deference to the work-life balance I’m still trying to cultivate (and because temporal distance is important, too), I think I’ve earned a night off. My shitty first draft will be here in the morning.

M

Tyranny of the Mind

I’ve always been a sucker for a melodramatic title. You’ll have to forgive me for this one, which jumped to the tip of my tongue this morning as I reviewed the work I did yesterday and considered my half-formed plan for today. I stuck it in the title bar of this post as a placeholder, but the more I thought about it the less I wanted to change it, because it’s a prime example of exactly what I wanted to talk about. Why was this phrase bouncing around my brain in the first place? Because I’ve spent a lot of time with mid-century reflections on the failings of the democratic system lately, because that’s what the characters in my current WIP are doing. “Tyranny of the masses” is something they’ve talked about in the context of political protest and opposition to the Vietnam War. Certainly relevant to the current political climate, but the more mundane truth is it’s on my mind because it’s on their minds, and writing a first draft is like the full immersion approach to a foreign language. If you want to be able to speak it, you’ve got to live in it.

This “full immersion” approach isn’t unique to writing (other artists and professionals can certainly attest to a similar sort of monomania) but rather characteristic of it–at least for me. It’s a bit like method acting. You have to climb inside a character’s head and crawl back out through their mouth and that’s about as intimate as you can get with another person, fictional or not, so it isn’t surprising that the writer rarely emerges unaltered. At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I’ll admit that when I’m working on a manuscript (which is always) my entire life revolves around it in a way which might be undetectable–not to mention uninteresting–to friends and family, who probably interpret it as just another peculiarity of my personality. In a way, it is that, but the ubiquity of it is hard to explain. What book or even what chapter of it I’m working on dictates not only what I’m reading, but what music I listen to, what drink I make when five o’clock rolls around, even how I get dressed in the morning. As obsessions go it’s a bit embarrassing–kind of like the unpleasant recollection of that awful band you were in love with in your middle school emo phase–so I don’t talk about it much, but neither can I turn it off.

Two weeks ago I explained how and why I’m making it a priority in 2019 to find a better work-life balance. I have made some small progress in that regard; I have checked my own impulses to get back to work when I’ve been “idle” for longer than fifteen minutes and made a pact with myself that I won’t do academic work on Saturdays. But the fact remains that work is my default setting. Yesterday I obeyed the ban on academic work, but instead I sat down and wrote for ten hours. I got 4,000 words down on paper, re-configured the end of my outline, took a break to eat dinner, and finally turned my computer off in an attempt to mark the end of work for the day. Then I scribbled out four more pages by hand. When I went to bed it took me three hours to fall asleep because I was rolling over every ten minutes to jot down notes and ideas and phrases too good to forget. (In the morning some of it doesn’t even make sense–for instance, the note which simply says “blanket”–but in the moment it all felt terribly urgent.) Today is another snow day, and I would be lying if I said I won’t spend it doing more or less the same thing.

This sort of obsessive-compulsive service to a story can sometimes engender an uncanny feeling that your life is not entirely your own. It’s a strange limbo to live in, but I’m often hesitant to talk about it because of how melodramatic, how ironically self-important it sounds. (Indeed, how many of you have had that thought while reading this post? Probably more than a few. I know and I’m sorry.) In my defense, this hyperfixation on my own work has nothing to do with delusions of grandeur and skewed expectations of how important to the larger world it actually is. If anything it’s the opposite; I’m fully aware that nothing I’m writing will ever matter as much to anyone else as it does to me; I’ve spent entire years of my life (not to mention money) working on manuscripts that will never be published and never earn me a dime, so I have no illusions on that score. That’s precisely why it’s so hard to come to grips with this particular obsession. In the greater scheme of things, I know exactly how little it matters. The worst thing that happens if this book doesn’t get written is that the book doesn’t get written. Even if it does, it’s quite possible nothing will come of it and I will have nothing to show for it except a few more lost years and spent money and a weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of a cultural moment nobody else is particularly interested in. And yet, at the same time that it feels vaguely depressing and pointless, it also feels tyrannically important and impossible to refuse.

At the risk of sounding, once again, melodramatic, I truly don’t remember what I thought about in otherwise unoccupied moments before I started writing. That could be because I started writing rather young and the gray matter which stores my story ideas has simply sloughed off everything inessential from those awkward early years in a psychological self-defense maneuver. But the question remains: what the hell do people who aren’t living with one foot in a fictional world think about when they’re walking the dog, taking a shower, folding laundry, doing all those normal human things which require little enough attention that the mind is free to wander? This is what I mean by work being my default setting; it’s my brain’s automatic screen saver. When there’s nothing else to occupy it, that’s where it goes; it chews on plot problems and tricky bits of dialogue and wonders which darlings to murder to drive the wordcount down. Perhaps more alarming, without the several dozen novel projects which have obsessed me at different intervals over the last fifteen years, I have absolutely no idea who I would be.

Yesterday, besides chipping away at a first draft for the better part of ten hours, I also found some time to finish the book I was reading, Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. (Why that? Because it’s on that list of books the characters in my WIP would probably be reading. All roads lead to Rome.) Like the rest of Hesse’s books, it’s abstract and baffling and disquieting precisely because you never know quite what he’s getting at but you’re not sure you’d like it if you did. However, Hesse does have a helpful tendency to repeat the important ideas, and one of them struck particularly close to home: “We had talked about the creations of poetry being more vivid and real than the poets themselves” (123).* I flipped back to the earlier conversation this morning and felt a flutter of déjà vu, because the suspicion that “however animated and lovable the personalities of these artists were, yet without exception their imaginary characters were more animated, more beautiful, happier and certainly finer and more real than the poets and creators themselves” was uncomfortably familiar (32-3). It’s a strange experience to pick up a book and find an unflattering portrait of yourself inside.

So, what’s the point of this post? I don’t know. What do you do with the realization that your creative workaholism is the sum total of your personality?

You get back to work, I guess. But maybe that isn’t as depressing as it sounds (or maybe I just want it not to be, and what follows will be a transparent justification of my own neuroses). Maybe it’s simply proof of the human hunger for a better version of the world–something more exciting, more colorful, more important than what we encounter in our daily lives. That’s one of the reasons we read and it’s certainly one of the reasons I write. Believe me, I see the irony: in order to satisfy that craving for something exciting and profound I sat on my couch and typed for ten hours? Yes, laughably ironic. But I suppose one of the things I’ve never grown disillusioned about is the magic of what words can do, what a skilled writer who’s spent ten years at the desk can make them do, how they can cut you to the quick if you read them when the time is right. I don’t pretend to be one of those writers, but it’s not a bad ideal to chase.

I’m still working on the work-life balance thing. It’s hard to do when you’ve realized your life and your work are more or less interchangeable. But so long as writing remains a labor of love, I won’t worry too much. I don’t mind who writing has made me, even if it confuses the hell out of every MBTI test and Google algorithm trying to figure out how to categorize me. Joke’s on you. I contain multitudes.

M


* Herman Hesse, The Journey to the East, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Bantam, 1972).

Signing 12/1

Good news if you’re in the MD/DC area–my signing with Howard County Library has been rescheduled, and I’ll be at the Miller Branch on December 1. Hope to see you there! More info here.

P. S. Signed books make great Christmas gifts.

–M

Guest Post

This week I had the opportunity to share some thoughts with Superstition Review about politics, writing, what I’m working on, and making art in the age of Trump.

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The full post is here, and I hope you take a few minutes to read it.

–M

Waterstones Book of the Month

So excited to share that Villains has been chosen as Waterstones’ Thriller of the Month for May! It’s on sale for UK readers, so now’s the time to grab it.

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From the Waterstones website:

If We Were Villains teases out a story of a close-knit coterie poisoned by a seed of passionate rivalry. As play spills over into something much more sinister, the scene is set for unspeakable acts. As darkly compelling and tautly plotted as any Shakespearian tragedy, M. L. Rio delivers a haunting debut of blood-sworn friendship, dangerous obsession and murderous intent.

Happy reading across the pond!

–M

Shakespeare’s Birth/Deathday

If you’re looking for the perfect gift to celebrate the Bard’s birth/deathday, here are a few ideas. All three of these are now on sale, and you can find them here!

Happy reading.