Common Twitter author wisdom holds that your first draft, no matter your skill level, will always be shitty. There was one guy once who posted that it doesn’t have to be shitty, but he was wrong. First drafts are generally terrible, but the advice bandied about in 140-character chunks is just as terrible. Just write something. Just write shit. Ugh.
Disclaimer: I am not a New York Times Best-selling Author. I have won no awards. Stephen King has not said a single nice word about my books. I’m just a guy who likes to write and who likes to talk about writing. This is just a post on some random guy’s blog. Treat it as such.
I’ve never really liked the word shitty when describing a first draft. Somehow, we’ve gotten away from the more refined rough draft, and that change, I believe, has given people the wrong idea.
Shitty implies random, pointless… an almost scampering type of writing where anything can and does happen.
Rough implies unpolished, but also purposeful and deliberate, like an artist breaking down a piece of wood to get to the figure inside.
When I hear someone suggest you write in a shitty manner, I think of something like this:
Diana sat by the window and watched the lightning illuminate the wet streets outside. There was a man out there, naked and covered in peanut butter. He was juggling pickle jars full of spiders, and every time he caught a jar out of the air, an elephant farted.
Whereas, rough would be more like this:
Diana sat by the window and watched the lightning illuminate the wet streets outside. Puddles shone and went dark again, and she imagined herself running through them in yellow boots like the pair she’d had as a child. How many wet nights has she spent stomping through the streets of that little neighborhood in La Jolla? And why in God’s name had she ever stopped?
In both examples, everything after the first sentence would likely be cut in the next revision, but the reasons are quite different. In the shitty version, all of that is garbage and did nothing to help the story. All I was doing was padding my word count so I could get a little pat on the back from Scrivener.
In the rough version, the garbage is more purposeful. There’s some imagery there with puddles in the streets. Describing the environment is an easy go-to, as you can usually cut that down to one good, striking line.
I wonder, as I look up at this softly enameled sky, so faintly tinted, which does not bulge today with heavy rain clouds but smiles like a piece of old china…Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
Then we go back to Diana’s childhood, to La Jolla, to a pair of yellow boots. These kinds of lines can make the reader wonder why Diana is thinking about her childhood. What is she longing for?
The final line, about questioning why she’d ever stopped, is one of those capper sentences that takes us from the backstory back to the present. It adds a sliver of definition to Diana, and while I, the author, may find it interesting (this yearning for childhood, for simpler times), it may not serve the final story.
And that’s the crux.
Your first draft may be shitty, but all of that shit needs to be in service of the story. You can’t just add farting elephants in wherever you please. That’s just wasting time. You’re better off taking a break and coming back when you’re in a better mindset.
I don’t think anyone on Twitter truly means to suggest you write shit. I believe the actual message is more along the lines of give yourself the freedom to work it out. Create loose ends, introduce plot holes, bring in characters for one scene and then never reference them again.
Rough everything out, take the story any direction you want. Later, we’ll come back and give it a proper structure. We’ll downplay those characters who don’t add anything. We’ll cut off those loose ends before they begin.
None of this advice is new to you; I understand that. I just worry sometimes about the posts I see on social media. Should I get rid of my prologue? Which is the better POV? How long should my story be? Should I just give up?
I worry questions like those are stopping people from writing their stories. And that makes me sad.
To sum up:
- Don’t be rigid.
- Write purposeful shit.
- Give yourself the freedom to work it out.
- Stop making me sad.