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!)