Writers have spilled a lot of ink over how to slog through your rough draft when you're ready to throw your computer or notebook out the window in despair. Anne Lamott famously exhorted writers to embrace their "shitty first drafts;" another writer whose name  unfortunately escapes me suggested that writers think of their first draft  as a simulation of a novel, not a real novel, to take pressure off themselves.  My favorite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, recently had an episode reminding listeners to stop comparing their rough drafts to the polished final drafts that they see in bookstores--or, heck, to their own polished  final drafts, if their current project isn't their first.

I can certainly appreciate the truth behind Lamott and the Writing Excuses crew--I'm sure that even writers I adore wrote some absolutely godawful rough drafts--and I can see how the "simulation of a novel" advice might be helpful to some people, but none of that was terribly helpful to me when I hit a wall. (Well, to be fair to the Writing Excuses crew, my rough draft was done by the time they aired that episode.) For me, the single most helpful line for enduring a rough draft was from Stephen King. It didn't come from On Writing (although that book is a gold mine). It didn't come from one of his writer protagonists gushing about the joys of writing, either. It came from Adrian Mellon, a character in It who got eaten offscreen by Pennywise before the novel even started. Because it's a Stephen King novel, though, we get a good 10 pages about Adrian's back story, including the fact that he's been idly plugging away at a novel for the past twelve years. Shortly before his death, he pulls the novel out of his trunk and starts working on it again, telling his boyfriend that "it might be a terrible novel, but it was no longer  going to be a terrible unfinished novel."

I cannot possibly tell you how many times I repeated that line to myself when in the depths of "oh my goodness I am never going to finish this thing and even if I do it will be total crap" despair. (We've all had that, right? It's not just me?) "Shitty first drafts" and  "don't compare your rough drafts to other people's final drafts" ultimately paint your rough draft as something horrible to be endured before you get on to the fun  part . . . which is certainly true in certain sections of the draft, but not exactly inspiring. When you've been hammering  away at something for a year, it doesn't do much to cheerfully remind yourself that it's shitty.

But "it might be a terrible novel, but [it's] no longer going to be a terrible unfinished  novel"? That made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something. A shitty first draft is better than . . . no shitty first draft, I guess? Again, not terribly inspiring. But being the author of a finished novel, even a terrible one, rather than being that guy who's been idly puttering at the same project for twelve years? That's an objective improvement. Whenever I would hit a wall in my rough draft, I'd close my eyes and repeat,  "This might be a terrible novel, but it isn't going to be a terrible unfinished  novel." And then "Eye of the Tiger" would play in my head, and I could keep going.

Technically, my novel is still unfinished--I finished the first two drafts, but there's still more revision to go. When it's completely done, I don't know whether or not any publishers will nibble or if it has enough first novel problems to truly be a terrible novel. But dangit, the first draft is the hardest, and it's done. I am going to finish this thing. It's not going to be a terrible unfinished novel.

Do you have the first fifty pages of a terrible novel languishing in your desk or on your hard drive? Go finish it. It might be a terrible novel, but it is no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel. Then revise it and make it terrific.
 


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