When I was a freshman in college, I discovered Nanowrimo. Excited, I emailed my creative writing professor about mentioning it in class, thinking it might be a fun extracurricular activity for the other students. Although I didn’t save her exact response, it went something like this: “Nanowrimo is silly, because there’s no way a person can write anything but complete garbage if they only give themselves a month to do it.”
At the time, I felt ashamed and embarrassed for even suggesting something that foolish; but I’ve grown up a little since then, and now I know she was wrong. If you never write garbage, you never write at all.
Here’s the deal: ALL first drafts are shitty. Just ask Anne Lamott! She dedicated a whole chapter of Bird by Bird to “shitty first drafts.”
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her.Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
To prove it, I’m going to share four different versions of the exact same moment as it developed in my upcoming novel, Pieces of Pink. And just so you know, I did end up finishing that first draft during a round of Nanowrimo, because a shitty first draft is better than no draft at all.
Exhibit A: The shittiest first draft, circa 2015
There are so many things wrong with this, it literally makes me feel ill to read. I decided to write it in the 1st person, present tense (even though I’m not a huge fan) because it was the only way I could get the characters to speak to me.
Obviously, they didn’t so much speak as vomit words through my fingertips, but at least it was written down. (Also, at the time, I was using Scrivener, and I was clearly too lazy to change the automatic heading when I converted it to print.)
Exhibit B: The Rewrite, circa 2019
When I decided I wanted to self publish, I chose this book because it’s one of the only things I’ve written that is simply unfit for the commercial market. No matter how many times I send it in, no sane agent will ever pick up this story. It’s a minefield of socially sensitive topics, and there are some seriously graphic scenes.
Of course, I was well aware that my first draft was a pile of hot garbage, so I didn’t even bother reading through it. I just skimmed it for major plot points (many of which would never have developed if I hadn’t written that first copy) and rewrote the entire novel from scratch.
One major change you probably noticed: I ditched 1st person, present for 3rd person (limited) and switched to the past tense.
Exhibit C: The Revision, circa 2020
Of course, as I was revising, my betas and I realized that the main characters spent way too much time hanging out in the dining room. So, I rewrote the scene a third time. (What can I say? I like to hang out near food.)
Granted, because I didn’t rewrite the entire novel a third time, I technically classify this as a major revision. If you look carefully you’ll notice that some of the dialogue and ideas have remained the same, so it’s still kind-of-sort-of-more-or-less going in the same direction as the draft before it.
Fun fact: The notes in this draft were written by my adorable husband, who coincidently shares his name with my protagonist. (But my first draft was written in 2015, and I didn’t meet my husband until 2016. So, it was definitely not on purpose. But yes, his name is literally the only reason I gave him my phone number.)
Exhibit D: The Edits, circa 2020
Without a doubt, one of the scariest things about self-publishing is knowing that the buck stops with you. No matter how many beta readers you have, if there’s a typo in your manuscript, you have no one to blame but yourself. So naturally, the final round of revision is line editing. In this example, you’ll see the very last round of modification before the chapter was added into the book.
A cool thing to note about this phase of revision is that it includes formatting edits. For example, in the dialogue, “He’ll be home soon,” the word “soon” is hanging out all by itself on the next line! Little things like that can be distracting to readers, so it’s important to make sure that the words don’t just sound nice but also look pretty on the page.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you write your first draft — and it certainly doesn’t matter if it sucks — because trust me, it will suck. The only thing that matters is that you write it. And I hope that if you’re stuck on your own shitty first draft, seeing someone else’s revision process might help encourage you to keep pushing forward.
So, go forth, be brave! And if you have a revision process that works well for you, feel free to share it in the comments below!