Freedom To Be Wrong

A seagull, alone on a beam overlooking the water, stares into the camera and says, "It's wrong."

I’m going to try a little experiment here—just a small one, because I’m not sure how it’ll turn out (poor scientific method again already!) but that’s kind of the point. But I’ll get to that in a bit. Just know that this article isn’t going to be exactly like my previous ones. It’s going to be a bit rougher, for The Reasons, but if you’re keeping up with all of Adventures In Storytelling it’s not the first time you’ll have read something of mine that’s “rough”. For example, CC.004-5.L.2 – The Charismatic Augusto—Love Him Before He’s Gone! Any of them, really. See, the experiment I’m attempting on this article shall be aptly named (read: stolen): A Shitty First Draft.

First off, I don’t like to steal, so let me give credit where it’s due: Anne Lamott, in her book Bird By Bird, coined this phrase, if not the idea. The basic concept is that your first draft, of whatever you’re writing, will suck. And that’s okay; even necessary. By writing a “shitty first draft”—by acknowledging it will be shitty—you’ve given yourself permission to do just about anything. In consecutive iterations of that draft, you will turn it from “shitty” to “so glorious even the thought of the piece burns out your retinas.”

And that’s really the point I want to get at and discuss in this article—permission to do anything—and as we love to do on AiS, I figured the best way to discuss a topic was by using it. So here I am, writing a shitty first draft. The catch being I’m going to post this draft without any editing*. What I write** is what you get.***

*Disclaimer: It’s impossible for me not to edit. I edit as I type—literally as I’m writing I’m making words, hitting backspace, making new words, quick-keying my way around a grouping of words1 before they’re even a sentence. Part of the “Shitty First Drafts” concept involves getting everything out, no matter how bad; but NaNoWriMo was my experiment in wordcount. This is not about word count, it’s about an idea I have yet to even get to. But you’ll see the correlation once I’m there (I hope), and why I’m writing it this way.

**And no typos, spelling mistakes, or just poor grammar. This is meant to be a “final” product, despite the experiment, and something I ask others to read that is impossible to read is not how I roll. So, if need be, I will be doing line edits; though no substantive ones.

***I will break all of my rules and you’ll never know (I’ve already gone back and added a sentence to a previous paragraph), or you will know and I won’t care (look at me here, so not caring). Just deal. This is science, after all!

On to the concept!

As you know, having read what I’ve produced for AiS over the past year, I am deep, deep in the process of writing. James and I are crafting a story chunk by chunk, and learning a lot about the process that I thought I knew so well but turns out I don’t really at all (that’s hyperbole. I know about writing. But we’re plumbing depths and reaching simple, obvious conclusions that I have never considered before). Needless to say, I’m a long way down this rabbit hole.

So, when I reached Phase 2 of my NaNoWriMo 2016 experiment—editing—I was unsurprisingly surprised2 that editing is, in fact, it’s own beast with just as much depth. And editing and writing share cross-over floors every third flight of stairs, meaning they’re never that far from each other, but they exist each as a tower unto themselves.3 I was actually really excited to learn that, and then deeply exhausted (fear not, ‘twas only momentarily) because that meant I had, at least, another year before my grasp of editing was at the same level as my current grasp of writing. We’ll get there, of course, once all the sections of C’s J are first-draft done and we step into rewriting/editing them into one cohesive whole (there’ll be another stage after that where we go through and ensure each scene is doing what we want it to do for the story, but I digress).

I bring all this context up to explain where my brain is at: deep in the writing process; skimming the surface,4 using radar to chart how deep it will go; and kind of straddling between the two, constantly flipping back and forth. It’s a great place to think about Shitty First Drafts and what they’re supposed to do, and it really drew my attention to a thought I’ve had bubbling in the background for awhile:

Are you allowed to be wrong during your SFD?5

It may not—probably—be obvious to our6 readers (yet?) but as I’ve been writing my C’s J chunks, I have been less concerned with the larger workings of the world,7 and focused more on what’s logical and necessary and cool and functional section by section. I have a cue card; James and I chat about the section; I make some notes. We talk about what has come before, what we need to happen, maybe a cool idea or two we’d like to see (if we have one). Then I get to work.

That’s when it all falls apart (kind of) and I make Blue “slightly Scott-/Durkon-ish”,8 Charlotte finds herself motivated by a feeling that is contrary to her actual arc, and three characters are on a road they never should have been on but I got them on a boat so what do you want from me!?!!

None of these elements are bad on their own, per se, but one day they will all live together as a whole greater than its parts. And it’ll all be gone. (In the case of the road, that’s a good thing; in the case of the dwarf-like speech patterns, a sad one.) When I talk to James I often say, “I need to go back and reread the section we wrote where: Blue was established; Raul talks about himself; Charlotte demonstrates her passion for words. But I never do. Then, when I write the section that longed for me to do that reread, variables get…dicey. They get, for lack of a better word (and perhaps the absolute best one regardless), wrong.

Is that okay? Am I allowed to just straight up be wrong?

I don’t mean I write an element that ends up not working and will gradually be edited out (though that does happen naturally). Nor do I mean I misremember the name of a Cottonwood clan, or how old Charlotte was when she first met Lucinda (though in that case I think I actually done fixed what was broken, but James and I can debate that in the comments for your amusement). I’m talking straight up wrong—I know that’s not how this works, or it’s contrary to what we’ve already established, or I didn’t bother to go back and read (a first draft) of Vilnius’ characterization and perhaps recreated the wheel.

Shitty F—SFDs are shitty because they have everything. You just open up your brain and scoop out all the ideas, whether they’re good or atrociously bad. Let that purple prose fly! My question is—does “shitty” save space for “wrong”?

I’m not going to lie to you, gentle reader (or not-so-gentle; you do you),9 I write a lot of “wrong” stuff. James calls me on almost all of it (though I’m not sure he’s recognized that I do it “on purpose” yet; frankly, I didn’t notice10 myself until recently). These wrong elements incite some pretty good conversation and riffing, I think, and are an important part of my pre-writing practice. If I were to stop myself and try to capture the “right” idea every time, my writing would slow to a crawl, making me frustrated and possibly disinterested in continuing. For that alone, I think “wrong”, in this case, is alright.

But beyond my personal process, I think there’s something to testing your ideas on the fly against a different one to see what comes out. James drilled me through several ideation exercises before we even got close to starting the form C’s J has taken, and the story is the better for it. Perhaps my use of wrong elements is just another form of that process; I’m exploring how each of our carefully discussed elements can manifest on the page, at times even pitting them against one another in different shapes to see who comes out on top.11

These are, after all, first drafts. No one of any writerly craft, knowledge, experience, or what not has ever said, “You have to get it right the first time;12 no exceptions!” Writing is a process. It is, itself, an experiment; in ideas, in character, in the world itself.

So that’s the question: do SFDs leave space for “wrong” elements on purpose—

You know what? No, that’s not how I want the final paragraph to go—it’s wrong. But I’ll leave it in for y’all to see, then we’re going to try this again:

So that’s the thought: Shitty First Drafts should include wrong elements because they are an ongoing attempt at ideation and temptation. What if your character acted differently… what if the world looked like this instead of that other way… what if the characters road a boat into the City… what if you totally forgot she’s carrying a giant ass sword…? In the end, it’s just a Shitty First Draft; there will be all the time in the world to “fix” these mistakes. But letting yourself make them just may make your story better.

Maybe. I guess. I could be wrong…

* * *

The previous article is rife with “wrong” stuff; it’s all part of the experiment. Was the experiment a success? I’d give it 34.6%. The final result is not what I intended, but I came up with one, unrefined idea along the way that I believe was worth it. But as that one, unrefined nugget presumes, it’s not whether the element is wrong or not, but whether it incites healthy discussion that ultimately improves the overall piece. So please! Discuss away—do you think Shitty First Drafts have space for being wrong?


  1. I almost edited this. Reading back the paragraph, I wanted to change “words” to something like “a conceptually agreed upon series of marks recognized by our society as a way to convey simple sounds and syllables that themselves represent an ever broadening depth of meaning of ideas”.

    Alas, it is not to be.

  2. This doesn’t mean what I wanted it to mean. It’s okay—I’ll go back and change it durinDAMMIT.

  3. Jeez, I’d love to go back and change that metaphor. Or at least clear it up.

  4. of editing

  5. Frak me, I don’t want to keep writing Shitty First Draft; I like the way SFD looks, sounds. I’d go back and change them all except I CAN’T! Brilliant idea, Past-Luke. Writing then sharing an article like a first draft.

  6. This should have been “you”, or “my”. Catch that in the redraft, will you fictional future me?

  7. Ooh, so not how I would have ended up wording this in the end.

  8. I straight up cheated on this one.
    I don’t care.
    You can’t stop me.

  9. This line would not have made it into the final draft.

  10. Consciously, I didn’t notice consciously…

  11. There have already been a couple times James has said, “That’s not how I pictured him” or “I thought we talked about blank being blank—but this works”; one of the most notable was the shape of Augusto’s body.

    Still, until we have a final form, we know not how these elements may turn out. We may change them yet again, or decide they don’t work.

    Did y’all know writing well is layered, tricky, and flippin’ hard?

  12. FUCK. That should have been an emdash.

5 thoughts on “Freedom To Be Wrong”

  1. The idea of the shitty first draft is something that I’ve been playing with for a while, and have equally struggled with. Compulsive editing as you go is definitely a part of the process, and could be another aspect of that “wrongness” you’re getting at here. But I think if it’s tiny edits, which are still different from the kind you would make after not looking at your article for a week, I think it’s ok. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself.

    As for wrong information? I do that all the time, along with I think many others. There’s a famous story where, in one of the books in A Song Of Ice and Fire, a horse changes gender from sentence to sentence. There have been other cases of a character’s eye changing color from chapter to chapter. Keeping track of a complex storyline, complete with many characters, plot points and a whole other universe is HARD. I used to get really frustrated when I would make those kinds of mistakes (which would sometimes even happen in my outlines!) But you’ve gotta move on. Ultimately, I think it’s only as “wrong” as a spelling mistake, and at other times might just be a different direction that your story can go in. I once completely changed the name of a fairly important side character half way through a short story. While this was completely embarrassing to realize later, I also had discovered that the second name? Kind of worked better. Maybe we can take a Bob Ross approach to it; There aren’t any mistakes, only happy little accidents.

    1. If little mistakes can be happy, then perhaps I can achieve pure bliss/joy with GIANT ones…

      That’s an interesting story about Song of Ice and Fire. Question: how do you feel knowing that it made it into the final form (i.e. the published book). I’m all down for wrong during Writing, but how important is it for consistency ones the story becomes shared with the world?

      For me, I’d say rather important (though it doesn’t seem to have affected GrrM much…) On a personal level, I too would be embarrassed; as well as frustrated with myself (“Come on, Luke, you’re better than that!”) Now I’m thinking about any time I’ve noticed a spelling mistake in a printed text. Not once has it been enough to make me stop reading, but since I’m a writer/editor I’m bound to notice these, and when I see them, I’m pulled out of the narrative, thus interrupting my flow of the story.

      Thank you for bringing up this story; it’s made me think about my “wrong” elements, and I do believe I will take this thought into my editing to ensure I line up all of the internal consistencies because of how I’ll feel if I fail.

  2. I really bounced off this idea on my first read of the post. I got stuck on why you’d allow yourself to be wrong — if you know it’s wrong, just don’t do it in the first place? There’s shitty first drafts (where you know that you want a better metaphor or that the pacing is off or that the dialogue isn’t working the way you want it to) and then there’s outright wrong first drafts (where your characters are in the wrong place or acting against their own motivations or the entire scene is in summer when the rest of the story has been set in winter because I’m cold and can’t think about snow for one more goddamned second without breaking down). I got stuck on WHY anyone would want to be wrong, when you know you have to fix it later? When, in a lot of cases, being wrong NOW is going to cause a need for way bigger fixes later?

    And then I read the post against and realized you’re not really talking about being wrong, as I see it — you’re talking about being RIGHT. If rowing a boat into the city works better than whatever you had planned before, then the boat is right and the early plan is wrong. If the scene set in summer works better than the wintery rest, the summer scene is right and the rest is wrong.

    That’s something I agree with 100% — allowing yourself to go off-outline to find the thing that really works. To find the thing that feels RIGHT.

  3. Luke didn’t link to it, but if you look at the article title “No, YOU’RE Analogue!” you’ll see something that relates to this idea of wrongness. A big part of the reason I write analogue first is about wrongness. Using a pen is all about (or partly about – or, damn, I’m not even sure what it is about anymore) giving myself permission to be wrong and not getting tempted by the backspace key and doing the editing as you go along.

    Tangentially, that temptation to edit as you go (which even I must give in to on paper now and again, with a crossed out line or a note/addition in a margin) makes a phrase that Luke throws around a lot sit kinda funny with me. He says pre-writing a lot, and although I’ve never bothered to tell him until right now (HI LUKE!), I’m still trying to figure out exactly why it needs its own special name. Ultimately, I expect that we’re going to have an article about how the ideation, iteration, planning, plotting, scrawling/typing, generating, thinking, talking, editing, re-typing, deleting, shuffling, molding, etc is all what we call writing. Its more than just the act of putting words on paper/screen, its all these things put together, so why split it up so much? They’re all part of being a writer… and Luke’s absolutely right – you’ve got to try being wrong now and again, because being wrong can go oh so right when you’re spotaneously generating ideas. As Skeletor says, “I don’t like to feel good, I like to feel evil.”

    1. Amanda, thank you for the interpretation. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but…yeah. You’re right. It’s not about what’s wrong, it’s about accepting something different that’s right. (And the process of exploration to get there.) I also really appreciated your initial reaction of—I’m going to call it frustration?—at the idea of choosing “wrong”. It’s the kind of passion I want at AiS. :-}

      (HI JAMES!)

      I think the different stages of Writing need their own names for two reasons [update! it’s actually 3]:

      2) People have a need to categorize. Whether it’s a survival trait, a fascination, or a crutch, we do it; we do it a lot. If pressed, right now I’d say it’s because we can’t comprehend the total Universe. The only way our tiny ape brains can process everything around us is through breaking things down into smaller bits, understanding them, then piecing them together with other smaller bits, taking more time to understand the connection between them. Which informs….

      1) I agree, what you’ve described is Writing. But through my own experience shifting from “just” writing to editing a short story, I can tell you that they feel different. They’re not alien to one another—just different. I can’t say, “I’m going to get up and edit 800 words today” because that doesn’t yield the same kind of success as, “I’m going to get up and put 800 new words into that document”. Pre-writing, 1st draft writing, editing, each of these have their own needs, their own requirements of me as the creator. I cannot come with a 1st draft mentality to an edit session (at least, not all the time. Maybe it’s possible, but I imagine it would be for a very specific purpose; a special hurdle I was trying to cross). But I digress.

      If someone asks me what I am, I won’t say, “Well, I’m a pre-writer, 1st draft writer, editor, re-writer”—I’ll say, “I’m a writer.” Because you’re right, together, all these elements = Writing.

      By breaking down the different stages, we create space to be able to understand each piece, on its own and how it works with the greater whole. Perhaps one day you’ll craft a story straight to the computer; maybe I won’t need pages and pages of notes. We’ll all be able to Write a great sentence by the time we get to the period, but I won’t feel like a failure if I still need to separate pre-writing, 1st drafts, and editing. I’ll still be a writer, after all.

      (BONUS (3): By giving pre-writing its own name, we’re also legitimizing it. No one here will likely do it, but I’m sure someone out there would question the value of 10 pages that will never be in the final product and we KNOW that it won’t be there. “Why waste your time?” “Pre-writing.” “Oh, pre-writing, eh…sounds legit.”)

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