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On Writing Badly

Writers have grand dreams. First, there’s the dream of staring at something and realising that it is finished, that somewhere in between going to work, playing spider solitaire and being pestered by animals and children and partners, you’ve created something in its entirety from nothing.

Then there’s the dream where you impress an agent, or several agents, where you don’t just have a hook, you have a hooky hook, something which has such high levels of intrigue that famous agents are falling over themselves to get back to you, and publishers are fighting each other with whatever it is that publishers fight each other with* in order to publish you.

Then there’s the other dream where you have a squillion dollar contract and are on the New York Times bestseller list and are gaining literary acclaim from all corners of the globe. All the people who didn’t like you in high school are completely ashamed of themselves over the whole thing and are apologising profusely for That Time In Drama Class and buying you drinks, and your absolute favourite author in the universe turns up on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and sleeps on your couch for a while, because they figure your house is a good place to hang out. And random people everywhere are utterly blown away by your characters and the luminous prose and the sharp turning plot. You win big prestigious prizes.

Ok. So for a start, no matter how successful you become as a writer, it will never make everyone like you. That’s unavoidable. And not many people win big prestigious prizes. And even more importantly, no matter how ambitiously you dream, there is always the fact that in order to get anywhere at all, you have to actually write something. And the process of actually writing something is not all that easy for most of us.

At the moment I’m embroiled in the stickiness that is writing a first draft. If writing novels is climbing mountains, writing first drafts is the bit where you’re trudging around in the slush at the bottom and wondering if you’re going in the right direction and even if you’re actually at the bottom of the right mountain in the first place, probably while it is raining. There are always a thousand more attractive things to do, such as looking up people who were mean to you in high school on facebook, and feeling pleased when it turns out they’re now a lot fatter than you and have somehow had five kids, all with weird names. And maybe making a start on the dishes, feeding the cats, and reorganising your paperclip collection. Or starting a paperclip collection if you don’t already have one to reorganise.

Anyway, you can remember how beautiful the mountain looked from a distance, before you actually went and tried to climb the damn thing, you remember how much your story glowed in a pale gold vague light while it was still inside your head, and wonder how on earth a vague angelic glowing thing could have suddenly turned into this.

And this is precisely why you should let go of all expectations and let your first draft be terrible. No, really. Perfectionism is brilliant from the second draft onwards, where you can swap things and tweak and polish to your heart’s content – a stage I’m really looking forward to with this project – but in a first draft, perfectionism needs to take its leave. There will be appalling sentences, holes in the plot, people saying things that sound like Days of Our Lives on acid. And all of that is ok. If the choice is between writing badly and not writing, then seriously, choose to write badly. If it’s wrong, you can go back and fix it later. No one even has to know about it.

This isn’t essential, but I write almost all my first drafts by hand in scruffy spiral bound notebooks, and one of the reasons I do this is because it means that any story I write always starts off messy. My handwriting is drunken looking at the best of times, the margins fill up with tiny half-readable notes to myself about ideas for scenes that will come later and small lists of things that I need to buy when I go to the supermarket. When my writing is semi legible scrawl and next to a small list of groceries, I am a lot less strict with myself. I don’t worry about how perfect the sentences are; I don’t go back too much to tinker with everything. If a bad sentence turns up, I just move on to the next one. I often make notes or query marks to myself about various things, like if I’m not sure whether a character would say what I’ve just let them say, or whether I need to add a scene earlier or later which links with this one, or anything that immediately seems very wrong, because my internal editor needs something to do. But I always make the note and move on without dwelling on it, because it’s never worth dwelling on.

I often set time limits on myself as well, so that I have even less chance to be fussy. When I write at work, I have fifteen minutes to half an hour of break time to write a few pages, and when I write at cafes I don’t give myself more than a couple of hours. (And I reward myself with cake, because writing for a couple of hours is hard work.) What’s odd is that in focussing on the positive stuff, on getting writing done whatever the writing happens to be like, I’ve found it a lot easier to write sentences which surprise me and twist and turn and carry the weight of the story with grace. The best things I’ve written are almost always by accident, and I like it that way.

Grand dreams are all very well, but in the end, writing fast and wild is fun, whether the writing turns out good or bad, and following characters as they struggle and find ways forward is better than any grand dream. It takes a long time for a first draft to get anywhere, but being able to enjoy the ride is the best thing of all. You never know what gems will be buried inside all the purplicious prose until you’ve written it. When it goes badly, you remember that it’s a first draft and first drafts aren’t meant to be perfect. When it goes right, there’s something breathless and exciting about the whole thing. You only get one first draft per novel. Enjoy it.

*For some reason I’m picturing those plastic inflatable hammers, the massive ones that relatives buy for your children so that they always have a means of hitting you in the head when you’re doing important things like boiling potatoes on the stove and sleeping.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. I LOVE the mountain metaphor! Especially about trudging around at the base, and remembering how beautiful it looked from a distance...that's exactly how it feels.

    Fantastic post!

  2. Great post, Leila! Paperclip collection hehe. This is perfect advice, too. I'll go back and edit or rearrange while writing. Maybe I'll like the edit/polish better if I just let myself go and write it out badly lol

  3. Nicely written!
    I do think people do get too full of themselves with their dream of being published and becoming famous that they let their writing suffer.

  4. You're wonderful! That's what I do as well. I roll my eyes when beginning writers post pieces of their rough draft they haven't even finished and ask for help. My first drafts are always terrible, and I let them be. I don't aim for perfectionism at all. I realize I can do that when I edit and re-write. That's the beauty of writing: you get second chances, or more.

  5. This is awesome! My favorite thing about rough drafts is how even if a sentence isn't absolutely perfectly worded, I can just leave it to itself.

    And writing should always always always be fun!

  6. My first draft/book will probably never see the light of day. Seven novels later/decade later, I finally landed my first contract. Highland Blessings will be released May 2010.

    Now I'm facing a whole new set of fears and goals. Reviews, sells, and landing the second contract. It's never-ending.

    Loved your post!

  7. Haha, great post, Leila! (I LOLed at the favorite author crashing on your couch.)

  8. My rough draft is always just that...ROUGH. But you can't edit something that's not there, so even if it sucks so bad you can barely stand to look at it, its the foundation you need to make it into something great. So just write until you finish, then go back and make it into a story!

    The mountain metaphor was so awesome!!

  9. I agree with Michelle -- love that metaphor.

    I am presently trying to ignore the gaping plot holes and oh-so-worn crutches in my WIP... it helps to remember no one will see this version but me.

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Item Reviewed: On Writing Badly Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin