Once More, with Feeling

I never shut up about how important revision is, which is something you probably already know if you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time. This is partly because that’s a hill I’m willing to die on and partly because it’s a part of the process I don’t often see other writers talk about, which I think contributes to the myth that the first draft is 90% of the work–which has been, in my experience, pretty much the opposite of the reality.

In my last post here I talked about the daunting prospect of the first round of revision, and about how you have to find a way to live in that strange liminal place between the disaster your first draft is and the terrific thing it has the potential to become. So let’s say you’ve gotten through that second draft. How do you approach the third?

This is where I am right now. Over the last three weeks I’ve worked through my shitty first draft, working about three hours a night with the exception of my “spring break,” which I spent locked in an AirBnB in a very small town in Pennsylvania where there wasn’t much to distract me from the work. And despite all that time spent and work done, if someone besides me were to look at the two drafts I have now, they might have a hard time spotting the differences. The most obvious one is probably that the second draft is about 25,000 words shorter, but besides that it looks more or less the same. So what the hell was I doing for those 100-odd hours I spent turning Draft 1 into Draft 2?

Reading through the ugly first draft of any manuscript is the first chance you have to meet the story as a whole, to see the shape it takes when all the pieces are finally in place. It’s a bit of a mixed bag emotionally; there’s certainly a thrill at seeing the whole thing come together, but that enthusiasm is necessarily dampened by the realization of how much work still remains to be done–a realization it’s really not possible to arrive at until you have a complete draft of, well, something. Calling it a “book” might be generous at this juncture. Whatever you want to call it, it can be hard to know where to start. Figuring that out is what I was doing between Draft 1 and Draft 2.

I’ve you’ve been following me anywhere long enough to know how much I love revision, you’ve also probably heard me harp on about how much I love outlining. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I love nothing more than smashing those two things together. Yes, I’m that much of a creative control freak: I outline revision. This is actually a habit I picked up during a writing workshop at Iowa about five years ago. Our workshop leader, responding to a question about his own revision process, explained that in each draft he only focuses on one thing. One draft to fix plot and pacing. One draft to look only at character development. Another to look only at dialogue. And so on and so forth.

Revision, precisely because it is so important and so unwieldy and because most first drafts are a holy mess, can be really intimidating. So sometime in the intervening years I figured out my own way to make it manageable. While I don’t follow the same one-thing-per-draft approach described by that workshop leader, I do like to approach each draft with a finite list of tasks to keep it from feeling overwhelming. That, largely, is the task of Draft 2: to suss out what needs to be done in Draft 3. After the last three weeks of work, I’ve got a list with ten or twelve items on it, which range in intensity from “Write those two scenes you never actually put in there” to “Cut every word you don’t absolutely need.” (For me, cutting down on the clutter is always a high priority, but since this MS clocked in at 210,000 words I’m going to have to Marie Kondo the crap out of it.) Once I have a list, I tend to favor a top-down approach and do the heavy lifting first: fixing plot holes and character development and anything else that’s a macrocosmic problem. Then I move on to the smaller stuff that only affects one scene or one page or one paragraph. Once I get to the bottom of that list, I’ll call it a draft, then start the process over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No doubt about it, this is a lot of work. But what I like about working this way is that you can really see the progress from draft to draft and know exactly what you did to get there. And by the time you’re on draft ten or twelve the items on your list have shrunk from mountains to molehills and it’s starting to look like a book. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a bit like finding the statue inside a block of marble. You have to chip away at it, slowly and carefully, bit by bit, until you find the last graceful shape of the thing. Will it ever be perfect? Of course not. That’s art. Even Michelangelo’s David has some proportional irregularities. But if you can carve something like that from a dull mass of stone, you’ve accomplished something worth being proud of–and most people won’t even notice if his head’s just a little too big.

M

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