Day 16: The $h!tty First Draft

When I first heard about NaNoWriMo, I thought it was crazy, ridiculous even. How can someone be expected to write a book in one month? And even if you could get the writing done, what kind of product would you have at the end?

Then, as I started to check out Nano, I learned that many people focus on creating a Shitty First Draft. Pure lunacy, I thought. What’s the point of that? But since my initial resistance, I drank the Kool-Aid on the philosophy of setting out to write a stinker. Let me tell you why.

Writers are fundamentally of two natures. Often when we think of writers the creative genius stereotype comes to mind: temperamental, free-flowing, imaginative, original, maybe even raving. But there is another side to the writer.

She must also edit her work and to do that she needs to be discerning, deliberate, and decisive. The successful writer must balance the two brain hemispheres, integrating the expansiveness and creativity of the right brain with the calculated precision of the left brain.

Dorothea Brande, in an insightful little book on the craft of writing, Becoming a Writer (published in 1934), writes: “genius… put[s] his unconscious completely at the service of his reasonable intention.” The wild horses of the right brain must be harnessed by the left brain. But Brande counsels that to become a genius writer, these dueling qualities must first be cultivated separately. Enter the Shitty First Draft.

Think of your first draft as being the province of the right brain. Unleash your playful, emotional artist on the task of laying out the bones of your creation. Write your first draft with the liberating conviction that in the second draft you will marshal the resources of your left brain to focus on bringing order and clarity to your work.

Embrace your right brain. With its emphasis on quantity over quality, Nano is designed to be a right brain activity. Embrace the spirit of the challenge. Let the sheer difficulty of producing your daily word count beat the voice of your inner critic into wordless submission. If you can achieve that you have a chance at entering a flow state. As Julia Cameron describes it, “As artists, we make ourselves available for thoughts to come through us. To the degree that we can set the ego aside, we can create freely. We tune in to a stream of inspiration. We allow it to flow through us.”

Just tell yourself the story. That’s an idea that comes from Terry Pratchett. Of the initial writing process, he said: “I call this draft zero, telling myself how the story is supposed to go.” It is a wonderful perspective to take on your Nano project. Don’t write for anyone but yourself. In keeping with that…

Be secretive. Don’t share your first draft with anyone because, well, it’s shitty. Make a contract with yourself. If you know that others will be reading the draft, then the voice of the censor comes in and restricts the flow of your creativity.

Now, to be fair, I ignored this advice in my first Nano. I read my daily writings to my mom. The benefit of doing so was that I had someone expecting something of me each day. She would have been disappointed if I didn’t have anything to read to her, so it helped push my productivity. And, being that it was my mom, it was an easy audience. But, still, knowing that my mom was going to be privy to my writing invited in my internal critic, so there is a tradeoff to be aware of.

Turn off your editor. Literally. If you’re like me, you tend to edit as you compose. To succeed at Nano, you need to turn off that editing impulse. Resist the urge to tweak what you have just written. A great way to do this is to make it hard to edit. Some people write in a light grey font to discourage on-the-fly revising. Others take it further and write in white. I haven’t personally tried this, but let me know how it goes if you give it a try.

Nano is a challenge that revolves around expectations. When you set too high of a quality standard for yourself, you can inhibit your writing. You slow to a turtle’s lumbering pace as you search for the right word. The philosophy of the SFD releases you from this tyranny. Liberate yourself from the bane of expectation.

Visit the Countdown to Nano Program Site for a listing of all the articles in the series.

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