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?
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.↩
This doesn’t mean what I wanted it to mean. It’s okay—I’ll go back and change it durinDAMMIT.↩
Jeez, I’d love to go back and change that metaphor. Or at least clear it up.↩
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.↩
This should have been “you”, or “my”. Catch that in the redraft, will you fictional future me?↩
Ooh, so not how I would have ended up wording this in the end.↩
I straight up cheated on this one.
I don’t care.
You can’t stop me.↩
This line would not have made it into the final draft.↩
Consciously, I didn’t notice consciously…↩
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?↩
FUCK. That should have been an emdash.↩