the harsh truth about first drafts

Your first draft is going to suck.

A lot.

Shut up and listen.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a screenplay, a theatre script, a short story, a poem, a recipe, a shopping list, a to-do list or the passive-aggressive note about the dirty dishes you leave on the fridge for your housemate, the first version of it will be utterly irredeemable rubbish. I would use it as kindling in winter when the icicles make the windows go foggy, but I’m worried the smoke will be purple and I’ll wake up two days later in a bathtub with a dry mouth and a missing kidney.

You can’t prevent it. You can’t make it slightly less true by writing a first draft so uncharacteristically stellar that the second draft will essentially write itself. Neil Gaiman said the truth is a cave in the black mountains, and I say it is a freight train winding through them (it could also be a cave. I will not argue with Mr. Gaiman). You can’t stop it. You can’t.

Oh, but try. Please, go right ahead. Do all the things you know you have to, from reading unqualified advice in blog posts just like this one.

Read books, both fiction and non-fiction. Learn the craft. Practice makes perfect. Buy Stephen King’s On Writing and read it twice, armed with a highlighter and Post-Its. Read all the books you hate because you hate them, armed with the same, because you learn as much from what you don’t like as you do from what you do, and all the books you hate because you’re jealous, armed with starry eyes and if-wishing-made-it-so and what could become bitterness, one day, if you aren’t very careful. Go to workshops. Act like you are the only person in those workshops. Sign up to online courses. Get top marks.

But you’ll fail. You can’t do it. You just can’t. That’s the bad news.

The good news is, nobody else can either. Because writing is not writing. Writing is – you know this one, or you bloody should, if you’ve read all those books on the craft in your efforts to write the Holy Grail of first drafts – rewriting.

So, you have heard that, right? Right. But you’d also heard that no first draft is perfect before now, because I am not a genius and I did not come up with it, and you’ve made it into this paragraph, and you’re still foolishly railing against that basketball-sized nugget of wisdom like you’re a two-year-old on a sugar high in the lolly aisle. I know because I was once you. I still am, by and large, because change takes time and people are stubborn, no more so than writers and artists, who can feel inextricably linked to the work they create.

Sit down.

Look at these words very carefully:

Writing is rewriting.

Writing.

Is.

Rewriting.

God, I love it. Look at the way the R and the E and the W and the R and the I and the T and the other I and the N and the G all line up like that:

REWRITING

 

oprah rewriting

rewriting depp

rewriting toy story

(it works on every. single. meme.)

This is the singularly most important, horrible, unavoidable, fucked-up, tawdry, bitch-slapping, unfair, gleefully underrated, wonderfully godawful piece of writing advice you’ll ever ignore.

Yes, ignore.

Because you’re a two-year-old in a lolly aisle, remember?

You think you get it now – OKAY, LIZ, YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO MAKE A HILARIOUS OPRAH MEME TO GET YOUR POINT ACROSS – but er, yeah, I did, because you still don’t understand. Not because you’re thick, can’t read, television’s distracting you, etc. etc. It’s because you’re a human, and the truth is harsh. The idea that you can spend weeks, months, years on something – anything, but in this case, a first draft of a creative pursuit that has until this point lived only in your mind – and have someone tell you it’s anything less than mind-blowingly orgasmic is a massive kick in the teeth.

Here’s the thing, though. The sooner you understand it, embrace it, give it big ol’ kiss and a cuddle on the couch while you watch your programs, the sooner you can move the hell on and do better, be better. Because here’s the thing I’ve learned about the writing process, something that’s really hit home for me in recent months, something that sounds really bloody obvious, when you say it out loud, but something I wish I’d had drilled into my skull years ago:

Your first draft? Tip of the iceberg.

I’m not saying this because I don’t want you to write a phenomenal first draft, or at least try very hard to. Some people actually can. A select few very, very rare rainbow-coloured unicorns with blue pelts and horns made of platinum. This is not for them. This is for the yous and mes of the world. The people who don’t know what they don’t know with such unknowingness that it’s almost evangelical. The rainbow unicorns only have knowingness because they’ve gone through the drafting process a billion times and cottoned on to the tricks and shortcuts and avoid potholes wherever possible, in the same way a clever 17-year-old can ace a History exam with only a night’s study and a working knowledge of the curriculum.

Don’t worry, though. Rainbow unicorns aren’t born. They’re made.

You will write your first draft and you will put it away and forget it exists for at least a week or two, because all the good books tell you to do that, too, and they’re right. After your trial separation is over, you’ve caught up on House Of Cards and you can spot the difference between forest and trees, your work as a writer begins.

You’ll start off by un-splitting your infinitives and killing your adverbs. You’ll replace commas with semicolons and delete a few superfluous lines of dialogue. That sentence on page 47 now makes sense. You’ve thought of a title for Chapter Ten.

And then you’ll read it again, with the feedback your Inner Circle – the lucky friends who get to read your work long before anybody else will, who get the first chance to provide high praise and thoughtful analyses and warm dotings – have finally given you you. This is the best part. This is the worst part. This is the fun part.

Characters you spent months breathing life into, pages and pages of unused dialogue and writing exercises just so you could get to really know them and their voice, will be deleted, leaving not even a blank space in their absence, as if they were never there at all. Only the people who read your first draft will get to meet them, or the people you tell, sobbing over your dinner at a family gathering weeks later, still knee-deep in the mourning period for a fictional entity you fucking loved but had to erase. Because ultimately – in your heartest of hearts – you know that deleting them makes your work better. Your story stronger. Your still-existing character arcs can arc their guts out because of it. So, yes, you deleted a character. You’ll do this more than once. It won’t hurt less the tenth time.

Story arcs you fleshed out within an inch of their lives are replaced by that throwaway line in scene three that some keen-eyed fucker has picked up on, and they’ve planted the seed and you can’t get the thought out of your head now. Hey, I know that was just a joke and all, but what if his sister really did know something about his girlfriend’s death? they say. Maybe that’s why she’s so keen for him to move on, you know? Because she’s worried about getting found out?

These people are the devil. They will ask you questions and make you think. You will delete pages and pages and pages and write so many more because of these people, and they’ll turn your story into something it wasn’t when you originally started stumbling around in First Draft Land: good. Surround yourself with these people and know they want your work to be as amazing as you do and be grateful.

Do not develop thick skin; develop low-grade adhesive skin.

Let some things stick and others clatter to the floor where you can jump up and down on them with reckless abandon.

Some won’t like your Working Title and some will and some won’t understand it and some will have suggestions. You will write a list. You will narrow that list down, then think of enough alternatives to populate a new list. You will pick one, and repeat it to yourself in the quiet emptiness of your home, when nobody else is around, and it will be yours and yours only. You will watch TV to celebrate and forget about it. It will crawl back into your mind to be hated and discarded the next day. Rinse and repeat, you poor bastard. You’ll settle on something eventually.

Because like your first draft, your first title will probably suck, too. Nobody will hardly ever know or care what it once was. You can’t go to Dymocks and buy the first draft of Animal Farm and you don’t want to. You want it to be done. You want it to be the best possible version of itself before it ends up in the hands of a reader, reviewer, publisher, ex-lover, whoever. You owe your work that. You owe yourself that. And you will not get that without writing the shittiest first draft you possibly can, and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until you’re so close to the horizon you can’t see the shore anymore.

I haven’t even told you the best bit. The best bit is, if your first draft is set to be inescapably awful, then guess what? The pressure’s off. The world knows it’ll suck. Let it. Just get it all out. Write and write and write and don’t think, not too much, not yet. The thinking comes later, in draft five or ten. The first draft is for you, and your Inner Circle. Let them hate it. Let them see its promise. Let them tell you to get rid of everything between pages five and fifty and delight in highlighting the whole goddamn section and slamming your finger into the delete key like an unmerciful God. You’re on the path to making it better. To make it great. To make it loved. There is nothing more exciting than that.

It takes courage to create something and more courage to share that something. But to willingly invite criticism of that something, for the sake of its betterment, takes a certain amount of insanity, it’s true.

Welcome to the asylum. It’s a lot more fun that it sounds.