The First Draft Blues

Ahem. Cue harmonica music. 

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WAH WAH, wah wah. 

I wrote myself a novel,

I made myself a book. 

Four months and seventeen days,

is how long it took. 

I slaved in the mornings, 

I beat my brow at night.

When the manuscript was finished,

I thought it turned out alright. 

But then I read the first chapter,

I don’t know what to do. 

It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read,

I’VE GOT THE FIRST DRAFT BLUES!!!!

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First drafts can really suck. When you finish the months long marathon you’ve been running, maintaining the same emotions and themes and thought process the whole time in order to write cohesively and concisely, you have this brief moment of accomplishment to enjoy. 

Emphasis on brief

Because the second you turn around and read the first chapter, you remember why it’s called a first draft. A rough draft. And let me tell you, they’re always rough. They get less rough as you complete more literary marathons, but each and every one requires a lot of editing. 

The draft I just finished? So much editing. All the editing. And what bums me out the most, what really hits me with the first draft blues, is that I take my time when penning everything down so that my first draft is already somewhat edited and reformed. I’ve already gone from timelines, notes, and rough drafts written by hand to finally typing it up. And it’s still a discombobulated mess. 

But…

Every few pages…

Every couple of paragraphs…

I read something that makes me know the editing is worth it. I read a sentence that is gold. I get to a scene that is played out perfectly. I find a description of something that’s clever and makes me laugh. Which is good! There are parts of the story that I like, hidden in the tangled mess of words that came from me vomiting up my ideas onto paper. That’s good! That gives me encouragement to work and edit the darn thing, because I know it’s worth it. Because if I can get the whole to match the quality of the best individual parts, then I’ve got a pretty damn good book. 

And yet…

WAH WAH, wah wah.

I made it past the first chapter,

and on to chapter two.

It’s so much worse than the first one,

I’VE GOT THE FIRST DRAFT BLUES, YEAH!!

 

Risky Writing

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Professionally writing is a risky business. 

Professionally writing novels is a risky business. Creating a massive, 70,000 word literary journey is a serious undertaking. It requires a lot of sacrifice and no small amount of risk. You first sacrifice time and energy, basically all of both, for a undetermined period. Some authors take a few months to complete their first draft, some take many months, and some even stray into years. While writing you must keep your work close to you, for losing momentum can be deadly to your manuscript and you need the fictional world and characters fresh in your mind. While writing you must hold onto the same emotions that are captured within your book, day in and day out. While writing you must actually work in order to finish the draft, showing up everyday, even when you’re sick or tired or randy, and writing.  

And after all of that–let’s be kind and say you finished in just three months–you’ve only finished the FIRST DRAFT! And the first draft always sucks! You have another four months ahead of you before just the first chapter is presentable. Maybe about four to six more months from there before you have an acceptable draft. Not a good draft, mind you, not a successful draft as far as publishers are concerned, but an acceptable one. And keep in mind, that’s if you’re putting in at least two hours of writing/editing each and every day. No off days for you. 

All that sacrifice. All that work. Is it worth it? Well, that’s where the risk comes in. What if, after all of that, you produce something that the market is already saturated with? What if no one buys it? What if you end up sitting on it for years? What if the few people who have read it don’t like it? What if you experience rejection unlike anything you’ve ever felt before? What if, after all of that, you really produced something poor and unwanted?

That risk, you see, is what separates professional writers from amateur ones. Professional writers make the sacrifice and take the risk, amateur ones don’t. It’s essentially that simple. Are you willing to sacrifice all your free time, months or maybe even years of your life? Are you willing to risk all of that time and energy with the possibility that it could all be for nothing? 

If you say yes, then you might be a writer. And if you are, God help you. God help us all. 

You see, I have been making choices in my writing career that were avoiding risk, that were looking to make the smallest sacrifice possible, and then I was wondering why I felt unfulfilled and stagnant. I was making choices out of fear, afraid of risking too much for too little. Afraid of making large scale sacrifices for an abstraction of the future. 

But no longer. 

Professionally writing is a risky business. When you understand that, you can prepare yourself for the long haul and fill up your tool box with all you’ll need to succeed. 

So take those chances with your writing. Make those big sacrifices. You won’t make it professionally any other way. 

The Craft/Skill/Art of Writing Well

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The craft of writing well is a fickle and elusive skill that can always be improved upon, which means even the most masterful writer stands to learn a thing a two. The craft or art or skill of writing well is such that, even after decades of honing it to a fine and deadly edge, it can still be honed further, made even more deadly. It is almost predictable how, just when you think you’ve finally earned some skill with words, you are brutally and humbly reminded of just how much more there is to learn. 

Imagine with me that you live in a small town, Wordville, USA, and you just discovered your new favorite restaurant. The Flavor Flinger is a hole in the wall restaurant you’ve absolutely fallen in love with. It’s open, bright, full of other locals, has a nice bar, and always provides great food. You spend every Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday there for the next two years, with little exception. Yes, it’s THAT good. And the people are wonderfully friendly there, staff included. 

Then, one odd Monday night, you take a seat at the bar next to an older gentleman.

The bartender greets you both. “Great to see a couple of locals in here. Warms me heart, it does. You two belong here. What can I get’cha?”

The old timer turns, looks at you, and says, “You’re a local, huh?”

Proudly, you say, “Yes, I am. Been coming here three times a week for two years now. I know the owner, I know the waiter, and I know the cooks. I know what’s fresh, what’s reheated, what’s expensive, what’s the best. I love it here. I know this place as well as anyone.”

“Wonderful, wonderful,” the old man says. Then he leans in and asks, “So, what do you think of the basement?”

“The… what?” 

“The basement? You must know about it. The door’s right over there.”

But you don’t need to look because in that moment everything makes perfect sense. The odd rumblings and shouts you hear occasionally from the floor make sense. The door that waiters disappear behind sometimes makes sense. The extra food being cooked in the kitchens makes sense. 

After feeling like a complete fool, you devote the next year of your life just to the basement of The Flavor Flinger. You learn their exclusive menu, you learn the tricks of each billiard table, you learn where the remotes are for all the TVs, you learn the best times to go and the worst times to go. 

When a year is up you decide to head upstairs for a change, and you find the old timer from before sitting at the bar by himself. Your eyes met and you head over to take the empty seat next to him.

“Thanks for telling me about it,” you say as you sit down. “I’ve learned the whole basement now; the dartboards, the billiards, the karaoke machine. I’ve got it all. This whole dang restaurant now.”

The old man nods. “Impressive. You’ve put your time in. But, I haven’t heard you mention the third floor cafe yet. What do you think about it?”

Your eyes sting as you blink rapidly. “The what?”

“The third floor cafe. It’s right above the second floor dining hall.”

“THE WHAT?!”

Two floors, two years of your life. You spend the next two years only visiting the upper floors of The Flavor Flinger, which you should’ve known existed the entire time. There are reflective windows, which you always assumed were merely for decoration, lining the walls above the restaurant’s first floor. The stairs in the back of the restaurant led up to more than just the attic, it seems. 

After two years you enter The Flavor Flinger’s main floor on a mission: where is the old man? You find him, as ever, sitting at the bar. His hair is quickly disappearing now and there’re more wrinkles, but it’s the same old timer. This time you don’t take the seat next to him, you grab him by the shoulders, spin him around, and look straight into his eyes. 

“Tell me,” you say with the wisdom of defeat and experience. “Tell me all the other places I don’t know about.”

“Well now, let’s see,” the old man says. He counts off on his fingers, “You know the main floor.”

“Obviously.”

“You know the basement.”

“Yep.”

“You know the second floor dining hall.”

“Sure do.”

“And the third floor cafe.”

“Indeed.”

“And the deck out back.”

“And the… the what?”

“And the patios.”

“Patios? Plural?”

“And the rooftop tiki bar.”

“Excuse me?”

“And the kid’s playground.”

“Where?!”

Ten years. You spend the next ten years learning all about the places you never knew of, which were right under your nose the whole time. You learn everything this time, not a single corner or suspicious looking locker goes beneath your attention.

You are now much older and much wiser than when you first entered The Flavor Flinger. After ten years, you decide it’s time to finally enjoy the main floor again. You find a familiar face behind the bar. The bartender looks older as well, but he’s still smiling. You take a seat and he pours you a drink. 

“Where’s the old timer?” you ask. 

“Oh, he passed away. In his sleep I heard. A few years ago now.”

“That’s too bad,” you say, and you mean it. “It would’ve been nice to discuss this place properly.”

Before you can raise your glass to your lips, the diner door bangs open. A bright-eyed, young woman enters the restaurant like she owns it, sauntering past the tables towards the bar, nodding and high-fiving people as she goes. She sidles up to the bar and takes the empty seat next to you. 

“Ah,” the barkeep says with his patented smile, “it always warms me heart to see a pair of locals sitting at the bar. What can I get’cha?”

You turn to the young woman and give her a critical eye. “You’re a local?”

“Damn straight,” she says. You can tell she’s proud. “Been coming here four times a week for a little over a year now. I know the cooks, the waiters, the owner and his wife. I know this place like the back of my hand.”

Slowly a smile grows across your face. “Is that so?” You lean in a little closer. “Well, you must tell me, what your thoughts about the basement?”

“The… what?”

 

The Flavor Flinger may not be the best analogy for writing well out there, but it works for me. Just when you think you’ve put your time in and you’ve got some knowledge, you’re embarrassed and shown otherwise. Of course, this doesn’t apply to poor writing. You don’t need much to pull that off. 

Endeavor to write well now and always and you will find limitless uses for the skill/art/craft. 

It. Is. Over.

I had an epiphany the other night about my writing efforts as of late. I’ve been pouring my time into my favorite short stories, editing them ruthlessly, while outlining others here and there and taking my time bringing them to life. This entire year I’ve almost exclusively focused on cranking out short stories, with only a few weeks of work put towards my novel. I’ve wanted to build up my portfolio and have more short stories to show agents and publishers, since when this year began I’d sold all of my work and had nothing to show potential editors.  Continue reading “It. Is. Over.”