“The first draft of everything is shit.”
Earnest Hemmingway is said to have told Arnold Samuelson in his yacht while Samuelson was working as a deckhand on then Nobel Prize winner’s yacht in 1934. Whether authentic or not, the quote is absolutely true. The fact of the matter is, anybody can write a first draft. If you’re a writer, emerging or otherwise, then no doubt one of your great pet peeves is the way people talk about your discipline as though… well, you have none.
‘Everyone has a great book in them,’ one idiot said to me.
‘I wish I could write a book. I just don’t have time.’ Yeah, neither did I. But I did. Several, in fact. Neither did Hemmingway. He won the Nobel Prize. Neither did Tolkien, as he was slightly busy, with the German Army trying to kill him.
‘When I retire I’ll write a book.’
It goes on. From a certain perspective, none of this garbage is actually false. It’s true anyone can write a great book, but time to do so is not the issue. The second draft is. There is no skill in finding a great story. There are literally millions out there that are true and have not yet been told or reported on in any significant way. Add some imagination to them like George RR Martin did to the War of the Roses and you might even have the beginnings of the next A Game of Thrones. There’s just one problem.
It will be awful.
Because the other thing that requires little to no skill is nutting out that first draft. It does require discipline. Not everyone has the self-motivation and drive to sit down for two to three hours every night after work and put down two-thousand words. Or before work. Although I’ve always found that easier. But you’re vomiting on a page. You’re getting your ideas and your story out while it’s hot inside you and bursting at the seams; aching to be told.
You don’t stop right before having an orgasm and say, ‘Wait, I can do this better… let’s go back to here and start again…’ – so why do it with your idea? No way! You’re going now. It’s squirting out all over that page!
The sad thing is, the above metaphor is not that far from not being a metaphor. I know this intimately because I used to read a lot of movie scripts. Like, a lot. Quite often I’d find some passionately written drivel that the author absolutely believed one hundred per cent was ready upon my desk and lo and behold, never was; it advanced beyond the first draft. They’d argue to the death if I told them. But my policy was to ignore them. The late, great writing teacher Billy Marshall Stoneking taught me this trick. Ignore them, wait until the writer realize what garbage they’ve given you, and they’ll soon submit a second draft all by themselves. Same result as telling them, but you avoid unnecessary conflict.
Of course, this isn’t all writers. Some will die upon the hill of their first draft, waving its flag high and mighty as the mournful headshakes and mass desertion of any readers thunder down all around them.
Even still, ninety percent of these second drafts are defeated by another mistake; discipline and talent are not techniques. They have no structure, no form, no nuance; the numbers are all over the place. If you don’t know what I mean there, then you’ve got to find out. What must happen 25% of the way through your book? And 50%? What do I mean when I say, “Archetypal Hero”?
Now before you scoff, at no point have I said any of the rules which you of course know have to be followed. But they must be known. A lot of people like to throw the name Quentin Tarantino at the purists, but I tell you now hand on heart, Tarantino knows the rules. He knows them so well; he knows exactly how far he can bend them before his project breaks.
Neil Gaiman said the trick to a second draft is to write as though you knew what was going to happen all along. That doesn’t mean to pre-empt everything. Although mastering foreshadow is a marvelous technique and takes a demigod’s level of discipline to do well. That means, take your brilliantly inspired pulp and weave it through a well-formed structure until it is solid as a brick lavatory.
Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned buildings that were unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. But they still had to stand up and be strong. Led Zeppelin did more with the blues scale than master musicians thought possible, but they stayed within the framework of the blues scale. An actor might be original and honest in ways that touch you more than any performer, but they’re still following directions and saying lines from a script.
It’s not about following the technique. It’s about making it yours. What you can do with it. That’s what makes you an author.
Yeah, anyone can write a first draft. But you’ve got to earn the second. Get to work!