My Writing Process, Or: How I Write A Terrible Book and Then Make It Good
Parts of this post were actually in a guest post I did for Y(A)? Cuz We Write!, but since a lot of what I said there applies to NaNoWriMo in droves, I thought I’d update the post and share.
Because the thing is, every time I draft a new book, it’s like NaNoWriMo. Initially, I spew out complete and utter drivel, my fingers flying over the keyboard faster than my brain can even process. And then, after about 3-4 weeks of this, I crash. I’m usually halfway or three quarters of the way finished with the first draft when I hit this metldown-point, and I’ve usually just reached the notorious MY-BOOK-IS-TOTAL-CRAP emotional stage. And it’s also right when I’ve written about 50-60,000 words (so, NaNoWriMo amounts!).
I kid you not, guys: It is like this Every. Time.
Yes, every book may come out differently (non-chronological, chronological, according to a rough outline, with no outline at all, with a clear voice, with no voice, etc.), but the general process seems to always be the same.
And this is it: Messy.
First drafts for me–and for a lot of people–are really freakin’ messy. But messy drafts are also the only way I can enjoy what I’m writing. I have to let go of all my worries and fears and JUST WRITE.
As writer Anne Lamott so eloquently put it in Bird by Bird (which you can win a copy of here, btw):
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
So what happens after the shitty first draft? Despair. Cue Bridget Jones singing “All By Myself”.
Yep. Sounds silly, but it’s true. I spend the next few days alternating between absolute sadness (This book is so, so, so bad it needs a complete rewrite. WAAAAAH!) and determination (A rewrite never killed anyone, right? You can do it! SUSAN, FIGHTING!). I think a lot of people feel this at the end of NaNoWriMo…or the end of any first draft.
So when you hit that stage of despair, don’t despair. 😉 You’re not alone, and you CAN fix this mess before you. Let go of sadness and stick with determination.
Because, let’s be honest, in the end there’s only one thing that keeps someone from ever reaching their dream: lack of determination. If you have enough determination, then you NEVER GIVE UP…and that means, one day you really WILL get where you’re trying to be–be that on a bookshelf at B&N or with a polished draft in hand.
For me, determination always beats out sadness (only I can choose when I fail; not this terrible first draft taunting me), and once I’ve given myself a day or two to recover from the flurry of word vomit that produced the first draft, I print out the whole book. This is a VERY exciting step! Even if it’s all crap, I have an actual book with a beginning, a middle (albeit a muddled middle), and an end. I just wrote all this stuff I’m printing out!
Cue Matthew Wider’s 80s fabulousness that is “Break My Stride”. (Which, btw, happens to be my Official Revise Theme Song.)
So, with my printed draft in hand, I get out my writing tools, and then read the ENTIRE thing in one sitting. Actually, if you want a detailed look at how I revise, you can head here. I don’t always follow this method exactly, but I definitely follow most of it most of the time. I think it’s the scientist in me because I am very left-brained about revisions.
First, I sort out the Book I Actually Wrote. Then, I try to figure out the Perfect Book (a.k.a. the Story I Actually Want To Tell). Then, I dig into rewriting. It’s actually very much like this quote, from writer Bernard Malamud:
“I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.
Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one’s fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
I wholeheartedly agree that revision is one of the greatest pleasures of this whole writing profession. As I talk about here, I don’t always know the whole story. I know the main plot, but I uncover all those delicious subplots and side threads while I’m writing the first draft (or second…or third…). I know the ending (roughly), but I have NO CLUE how all the subplots and side threads will weave together into a SMASH-BANG ending packed full of resonance. It’s only during the revision and rewriting process that I can transform the mess I wrote into the story I wanted!
And keep in mind there maybe many, MANY rewrites and rounds of revising. That’s totally normal! As one of my favorite authors, Libba Bray, said:
“I am hard at work on the second draft … Second draft is really a misnomer as there are a gazillion revisions, large and small, that go into the writing of a book.”
No matter who you are or what you write, first drafts rarely come out clean. And they NEVER come out perfect.
So PLEASE: Don’t despair when your own NaNoWriMo novel (or any other first draft you write) seems bad. You can always, ALWAYS revise it to perfection–and you will revise if you ever want to get it published. That’s just part of being a writer!
And, like I always tell people: I’m not a particularly good writer…but boy am I one helluva a good REwriter. 😉
You tell me: Do you despair after first drafts? Are you despairing NOW? Do you like revisions as much as I do?
(Note: Don’t miss our #NaNoWriMoBattle today! We’ll be starting at 3:00 PM ET!)
November 19, 2012 @ 3:27 pm
Thanks so much for this post! I was worrying about this exact thing last night as I was literally falling asleep (laptop on my lap in bed) while writing my Nano story-trying to get an extra scene down to be ahead for the week. There were so many things going on in my story which are part of the whole and I was afraid that I’d too many parallel stories, a single bullet point was becoming 5-10 pages, that my story was getting wings and tails and arms. The despair was beginning! I was losing control of the story. But then I realised that I’m going to get the whole story down on paper and sort out the plot threads and cut scenes in the rewrites. I think it’s impossible to get the story perfect in the first go, so many ideas come while I’m writing that I never included in the outline. I hope I’ll be a good rewriter when I finish the first draft.
Thanks so much for the tips and advice. I always love reading your posts!
November 23, 2012 @ 3:30 am
I love this: “my story was getting wings and tails and arms”–oh GOODNESS do I know how that feels! It is so, so impossible to get the story perfect (at least for most writers!) on the first go, so definitely don’t despair. You will ROCK the rewrite! <3
November 19, 2012 @ 5:42 pm
Yes, I was/am despairing (its going back and forth between despairing and feeling pumped for the next draft lol)
Perfect timing really to have a post on crappy first drafts 😉 Haha… I was going through my WIP and thinking to myself ‘what a mess’. Then I would feel fierce and think noooo this is the beginning, you’ll get better, the second, third, fourth draft – whatever it takes – will be the story you envisioned.
Once December break comes along after uni exams, I’ll be printing my WIP out and making a list of what scenes need to be re-written, what need to be cut, and what needs to be made clear. I do like re-writing, because I find that’s when you can really make it shine.
And I agree – when you’re not worrying about making it perfect – then you can relax and let your fingers fly across the keyboard. It’s an enjoyable experience as is revising later on.
November 23, 2012 @ 3:32 am
I agree–rewriting and revising are when you can make the story shine. You can really sort out what you WANT the story to be and then take what you have and make it work! That’s a great attitude to have (about second, third, fourth drafts or more) because it oftentimes DOES take more. I must of redone SS&D at least 10 times. Probably more. That’s just…how I operate, I guess. I wish I could be more efficient but I never seem to know the story until I’m done drafting. 😛
November 19, 2012 @ 9:01 pm
Ok, thank you a thousand times for this post. My ms is a pile of slush…and also…50k so won’t be the end of it…but it’s really cool to know you (being published) go through this, too. Can’t wait to start revising. This weekend I was really blocked and had to take some time to figure out where to take that mess in the middle. I can’t wait to be done with this rough rough rough draft. It’s so rough. Ugh. While triple rough anything would give me street cred as a rapper, I’m pretty sure as a writer it does nothing for me…except of course to give me something I can rewrite, reshape and twist around until it’s just so. 🙂 Have I mentioned I can’t wait to start revising?
Unlike you, I don’t know that I am a great rewriter yet…but I hope to find out come December or January…or however long it will take to make it great. 🙂
Also…love that you use Fighting! Ha! I use that, too, sometimes with fist pump…don’t judge. It’s the kdrama. You know. 😉
November 23, 2012 @ 3:33 am
YES! SUSAN FIGHTING! I do the fist pumps too! It’s the only way to get the full, motivational effect. 😉
Also: a draft so rough you have rapper street cred. I LOVE THIS. HAHAHAHAHA.
November 20, 2012 @ 12:15 pm
You are just overwhelmingly wonderful. I’m in the middle of my second rewrite – I’m very much a “scrap the whole chapter and do it again” type of writer. Comes from being a hardcore pantser who has to discovery draft like 2 times before I end up with something resembling a novel.
November 23, 2012 @ 3:34 am
You’re just like me, then. I usually scrap whole scenes and start completely over. I might pull a few dialogue lines or setting descriptions from an earlier draft, but I definitely like clean slates–especially if the first draft feels *particularly* rough.
November 20, 2012 @ 8:32 pm
Thank you, I totally needed this reminder today. I was working on a list of what I still need to write for my NaNo novel and my brain went into an explodey mess thinking about what I need to change and whether something should change or stay the same and why.
#NaNoWriMoBattle is ON. I haven’t done any serious words in like five days. Which is fine cause I was so far ahead, but I’m donning a ninja turtle (writer) headband and getting my butt in that chair!
November 23, 2012 @ 3:35 am
Oh gosh, I know the explodey mess well. Whenever I start thinking about EVERYTHING I NEED TO DO, I stagger beneath the weight of it. Then I force myself to remember Anne Lamott’s book–BIRD BY BIRD–in which she preaches the invaluable philosophy of only looking at a little bit at a time. Take the story word by word. Then it’s not so overwhelming and insurmountable…
November 20, 2012 @ 8:54 pm
I am going to be hitting 40,000 today and I’ve gotten to the point where I just think everything so awful about my story. But I definitely feel this post rings true for what is my favorite part of writing–rewriting. It always amazes me that you can turn something so chaotic and messy into the most polished set of prose if you work at it. Thanks for this post!
November 23, 2012 @ 3:35 am
Woohoo! 40K!!! That’s gotta feel amazing! And yes, I always feel SO proud after a good rewrite/revise when I can finally see my story come together. 😀
November 21, 2012 @ 4:54 am
“If you have enough determination, then you NEVER GIVE UP…and that means, one day you really WILL get where you’re trying to be–be that on a bookshelf at B&N or with a polished draft in hand.”
Love. This entire post was just what I needed. Thanks Susan!
November 23, 2012 @ 3:36 am
Aw, thanks Melody. <3 It's true, though–way before I was ever published or had an agent or even a finished draft, that was my daily mantra: "Just keep pushing. You'll get there one day as long as you never give up." 😉
Alexa (Alexa Loves Books)
November 28, 2012 @ 5:31 am
I love this post SO MUCH. I think it’s very important for aspiring writers like myself to realize this. As a NaNo participant, I’ve spent the past 27 or so days spewing out words and scenes and plotlines – but I have come to realize as the end draws near that what I’ve written is nowhere near complete! I know that there’s a lot of work ahead of me, especially as I have yet to even write the ending of this book… But I’m going to make it happen. Somehow.