First Drafts

When I wrote my first novel — not the published one, but the one that came before that — owing to the fact that this was literally my first time tackling such a thing, I adopted a rather brutal style of writing the first draft. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I understand how difficult I was making things for myself in writing in the way I did.

My style, if it could be called that, was edit-as-you-go. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? And, to be honest, there are many writers out there who take this approach. I say this because I would be wrong if I said that this was a “bad” way to go about things. However, what it did was front-load a lot of analysis during a part of the work that really (really) should’ve been purely creative, in the playing-in-the-sandbox sense of the word. Editing as you write requires a writer to switch between two hats within the same writing session, which is (among other things) strenuous.

That book, it should be known, no longer exists in any form except for some files I have backed up. It simply wasn’t worth the amount of work that I realized, as I began to take submitting it to publishers/agents seriously, it would need. Like, a lot of work. And I’d just spent a number of years already on it, and its imperfections (and various forms of writerly immaturity) became harder and harder to ignore. So, into the figurative fireplace it went. A few years back my sister-in-law sent me a photo of the manuscript I’d sent her to read, asking if I wanted it (they were moving house and had to ditch things). I told her to burn it.

From the point where I started what ended up being The Society of Experience (originally titled The Improv Class), I chose a much more practical style of getting the first draft down, and that was simply getting it down. Didn’t need to be perfect. Didn’t need to necessarily match whatever chapters came before or after stylistically. The rule of a first draft, as I saw it, and mostly continue to see it, is to get it on paper (or on a laptop) as quickly and painlessly as possible. Then, and really only then, though there are points in the process where this might have to come sooner, will I get the editor’s hat out.

Revising is drudgery. I was at a retreat a few years ago, and was asked by a couple of painters what I was up to process-wise. I attempted to describe what revising was, and inquired what a painter’s version of this might be. They looked at each other and back at me and said: “Backgrounds.” That said, the important thing is that revising is where the magic really happens. The first draft is really just a proof of concept. It could be solid. It could be 70% of the way “there” (wherever “there” is), but it’s just not done yet until you revise. And revise. And revise.

The only problem I encounter with this style of writing is that the prose in my first drafts can end up being very (very) compressed — in the process of getting everything down I will often elect to not elaborate or flesh things out unnecessarily, feeling that this can be done on the next pass. I sometimes describe my first draft style as being “dehydrated prose,” as in “add water and it will expand.” Sounds good, but sometimes I’ll read something I quickly jotted down, and I’ll end up sitting there and asking myself what exactly it was that I was thinking about when I wrote it — sometimes the subtext gets lost when you’re writing in a fast and compressed style, especially when I’m coming back to it weeks later.

I must regretfully admit I notice this a lot with this blog. I don’t have a lot of time to blog, so my style here tends to be of that compressed first draft style, which can lead to comprehension issues in retrospect. I’ve had several incidents where I’ll go back the next day and read something I’ve posted and freak out, namely because what’s there isn’t really clear. Or worse, it’s open to misinterpretation (especially if I’m getting more explicitly political, where I need to add lots of context for rather forward opinions), which can be embarrassing. I once submitted a short story to a publisher, and when I went back and looked at it I went pale it was in sooo much need of revision. Lesson learned.

Writing is work, which is fine because I like writing. I’m good at it. But, creativity aside, it’s also a skill which requires a necessary amount of tradecraft in the process of making your workflow, well, work for you.


Writing Adv*ce: Revising

Revising is one of the most important aspects of writing. It’s also the most unsexy, and the hardest to explain (and by explain I mean “gain sympathy”).

You have your first draft done. Could be your second. Could be your fifth. Every project is different, every format is different, every writer is different. No one’s judging here. The thing is, you know it’s missing stuff, or, the stuff that’s there that isn’t missing is maybe not as well communicated as could be. Or it’s out of order. Or confusing.

So, you hit ⌘-P and print that bastard out (preferably on recycled paper, if possible). You grab a pen and go through line by line and find all the guilty suspects — the lazy punctuation, the nebulous internalized dialogue, the parts that should sing but don’t — and you mark it up, complete with thoughts/notes/feelings for future reference.A stylistic photograph of a writing desk, with laptop, notebook, and print outs

The next step is sitting down and implementing those revision notes into the current draft on your computer. Some people might just use the marked up print out as their Bible. I go one step further and re-read from scratch, making changes on my laptop as I go *and then* check the printed copy to see if I’ve missed anything. It’s tedious as fuck (especially on on a novel FML) but it tends to balance, for lack of a better way of putting it, the zealotry that can come with revising on paper. It’s easy to sit with a print out and a pen and go revisit this and skip that. The truth is that sometimes our sentiment during that process can be impatient and ill-judged, which is why I like to re-read and see whether I decide to leave things in that have a way of justifying their existence on second glance.

When you’re revising you’re having a dialogue with yourself. It’s a little different than the dialogue you have when writing new stuff. New stuff is new. It’s sexy and glows and makes us feel good, and we’re happy when we’re able to empty it onto the page, so volume — even if it’s garbled — always feels like striking a gold mine. When we’re revising we step back and attempt to look at what we’ve written within the context of the whole project. The hardest part of revising, for me, is the trifocal quality of how we are reading the text — approaching it as the ideal reader, approaching it as the editor, approaching it as a total stranger. Does it hold our attention? Does the paragraph work within the chapter or am I just trying to shoehorn a smart-sounding insight that simply isn’t meant for this particular project.

Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes it’s something we’ve been working on for years and we feel like we’ve lost perspective. Does it rock? Does it suck? Does it read like I’ve shoved my head up my ass? It can be difficult to tell when we’re too close. Add some insecurity to that and revising can feel interminable. This is when you take a break (I’m talking days if not weeks).

But here’s the thing: revising is where your piece finds both its soul and its feet on the ground. Greatness is made in the revision process. First drafts are necessary evils. If you are starting out and feel that your first draft is perfect, you’re likely going to need to adjust your perspective. And it’s hard, right, because it’s so easy to construe the weaknesses that an editor or reader might find in our work with the insecurities we might have with ourselves.

If writing was just that — literally just writing new material — then things would be much different. They would be worse. We wouldn’t learn what our bad habits are, we wouldn’t have that opportunity, when we feel we’ve hit a wall during revisions on a particularly hard chapter, to realize how we might alter things so that it finally works the way we originally wanted it to.

Revising is learning. And again, it is a dialogue with yourself. Be supportive. Don’t forget to mark up the stuff you like! Don’t forget to tell yourself what’s funny, or what’s particularly poignant. In many ways, revising mirrors the relationship we have with ourselves, so watch the trash talk. Accept that you are fallible. Everyone’s first draft looks like dog food. Be patient.

Just some thoughts.

(And kindly note a couple of things: I’m speaking specifically about fiction and creative non-fiction; other formats might require other approaches or appreciate different philosophies. And a golden rule: what works best for you is what’s most important.)