You know what I’m talking about. A Shitty First Draft. It’s when you sit down to put your first version of your book on paper and everything feels like it sucks.
I didn’t coin the term. Shitty First Draft belongs to Anne Lamott. She wrote about it in Bird By Bird. Bird By Bird is my top book on writing to re-read (with Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir a close second.)
There are many touchstones within for writers, new and experienced. Have patience with your work. Keep going. It’s the only way to be a writer. Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts, your impressions, your opinions. They’re all important. Your published book probably won’t arrive with angels and trumpets blowing. It’s a step in the life of a writer. There are many steps.
But the number one message I take from Bird By Bird? The importance of a Shitty First Draft.
You know when you sit down to write and everything that ends up on paper is just crap. You don’t like it. You feel lost. Whatever vision you had in your head for the wonderful thing you were about to write crumbles to mud and ends up a big messy muck on the page.
It’s embarrassing. It’s painful. You doubt yourself.
You’ll be tempted to edit.
You’ll be dying to go back and fix things.
This is your Shitty First Draft, and it’s the most likely reason you’ll stop writing.
But your Shitty First Draft is a necessary step in translating the electric impulses of your nervous system as they stream from your brain through your hand and onto the paper in front of you.
You have to write your entire first draft, with its ragged sentences, sections that repeat and parts that make no damn sense at all so you can see the big picture. It won’t be complete.
It’ll be a puzzle, with corners and perhaps most of the edges. It’ll have sections here and there where you can see an image forming, still unclear. You’ll have large spaces filled with unformed pieces that don’t fit together.
But once you have it down, in all it’s shitty glory, you have your first step. You need that first step before you can take the next one.
What happens when you change and edit along the way?
Complete chaos. I don’t mean that as a metaphor. I’m talking chaos theory. The Butterfly effect. You know in the Simpsons when Homer goes back in time and crushes a butterfly thereby creating a world without donuts?
The butterfly effect is a concept that states that “small causes can have larger effects.” In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
Applied to writing, this means when you change details along the way, you change parts of your writing that don’t yet exist. The more changes you make, the more possibilities you create for later. Too many possibilities. Because instead of opening you up for an amazing story, you’ve created endless paths leading to endless situations and ideas and people and plots and you find you are totally, utterly lost.
William Faulkner said of writing:
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
That’s what you do in a Shitty First Draft.
It requires patience. It means you have to make a commitment to one path (for the time being). It means you cannot, will not be perfect. You will instead let go of perfection and embrace yourself in your full shitty glory. And it will often feel counterintuitive. You’ll have to go against much of what you’ve been taught in order to trust your instincts.
It requires you to trust yourself.
To quote Anne Lamott:
“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 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. Poopypants?” you let her.”
And THAT is where the magic begins.