7335883554_1550623118I’ve been sitting here for hours, staring at the cursor relentlessly blinking in an empty white screen. My head is pounding, my stomach is queasy and I’m deep into the territory every writer dreads: wondering what the hell I have to say that anyone else would be even marginally interested in (except to gleefully mock), and what I’d need to do to get hired for a real job, anywhere, doing anything.  Dental school, maybe?

Let’s face it, the second most terrifying thing a writer faces is the blank page.

Which often leads to the most terrifying thing writers face: a shitty first draft so utterly, irredeemably discombobulated that in retrospect that empty white screen seems soothing, inviting almost.

And yet, as Hemingway said with such blunt eloquence, “All first drafts are shit.” Very true.  All first drafts have plot holes, places where character motivation goes missing, dull scenes, clunky transgressions and unearned epiphanies.

But there’s a huge difference between writing a shitty draft of an actual story and simply “letting it all pour out and romping all over the place,” as Anne Lamott advises writers to do in Bird by Bird. I know, Lamott’s book is fabulous and she makes a gazillion great points, but this one has been universally misinterpreted, undermining thousands of writers, many of whom may have given up as a result and actually gone to dental school. Not that there’s anything wrong with dental school, mind you. But sheesh, the thought of a potential F. Scott Fitzgerald scaling teeth is kind of sad.

So let’s talk about the “let it pour out” definition of a “shitty first draft” — why it’s  so dangerous and so  tempting, and what you can do to steer clear of it.

Why are we tempted to “let it all pour out?” Because we’re hardwired to do what’s easy. It’s not a negative, nor does it make us weak. It’s a survival mechanism, the better to conserve energy for handling the decidedly unexpected. For that reason, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “. . . smart brains are also extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously.”

Let’s face it, it’s much easier – seemingly liberating — to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go. Plus, since staring at that blank page can be exceedingly stressful, the relief of letting it all pour out not only feels good, it feels right. Thus it’s easy to believe that this is the natural path to storytelling.  Which in turn means that if at the end of the day that flood can’t be shaped into an actual story? Well, you must not be a real writer after all.

Don’t you believe it for a minute. Letting loose, regardless how good it feels, doesn’t produce the kind of first draft that Hemingway was referring to.  That is, a draft that begins to capture – in rudimentary, unpolished form — the story itself.

So rather than flying blind, here are nine tips that can help you create that sort of shitty first draft, as opposed to a bunch of pages with words randomly romping across them.

  1. Don’t worry about the language or “writing well,” even for a moment. Don’t strain after metaphors, don’t worry about symbolism, forget your love of language. Concentrate on what the language is meant to convey: the story itself.  One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to begin polishing their first draft even before it’s even finished. The more you polish at this stage, the deeper you’ll fall in love with your words, and the harder it will be to kill your darlings. I recently spoke with a writer who was celebrating having finished the first draft of his novel. He told me proudly that it came in at a little over 100,000 words, and that he loved every single one of them. Uh oh.
  2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.  All stories make a point, and everything in a story – in one way or another – builds toward it.  If you know what you’re trying to say, chances are much better your story will actually communicate it. Plus, it will give you a yardstick by which you can gauge what’s relevant, and what might be a darling you’ll only have to steel yourself to whack later. Might your point change as you write? Absolutely. It’s a first draft, nothing is written in stone. But even knowing what your point might be allows you to focus in on a story that makes it, rather than romping aimlessly. A story making a point moves, a story that romps tends to run in place.
  3. Don’t expect “the force” to write through you. You are not a channel for some otherworldly energy, you’re a writer, and everything you write comes from you. You have the power to harness your prose to a story, and you have the power to then shape it, polish it, and change your reader’s worldview by allowing them to experience the hard won change your protagonist goes through. Take responsibility. Is it harder to write this way? You bet. As Dorothy Parker noted, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Sometimes that’s the way it goes.
  4. Know the overarching problem your protagonist will face. A story is about how someone solves a problem they can’t avoid, and what he or she has to overcome, internally, in order to do it. It’s this overarching problem that gives a story context. From the first page of Gone Girl we’re wondering, “What’s up with Amy and did Nick have anything to do with her disappearance?” The problem is there front and center, and it’s what hooks readers from the get-go. What’s yours?
  5. Know your ending first. If you don’t know where your story is going, how will you have the slightest idea whether it’s moving at all? How will you know what turns to take? How will you know what needs to happen next? Or at all? You won’t. Without a target to aim for, chances are high your story will idle in neutral.
  6. Know how your protagonist sees the world. If the overarching problem is what gives your story context, what gives it meaning is how your protagonist navigates that problem. In other words, how does your protagonist react to what happens? One of the most stubborn brain myths is that our brain is like a camera, recording an exact, objective account of everything we see. Not so. Rather, we record events in bits and pieces, subjectively, depending on what matters most to us. We then evaluate what we’ve “seen” based on what life has taught us thus far. If you don’t know what has shaped your protagonist’s worldview, how will you know how she’ll react to anything that happens? Or why?  Your reader will be getting to know your protagonist on the first page, but you need to know her inside and out long before you commit her to paper.
  7. Find your story’s third rail, and make sure everything touches it. Here is the essence of a story: the protagonist is forced, by circumstances outside her control, to deal with a problem she’d really rather avoid. This forces her to dig deep and overcome the inner issue, wound or  misconception that’s holding her back. Everything in the story impacts this quest. Think of it as your story’s third rail – everything must touch it, giving it juice and causing sparks to fly. That means if what happens doesn’t affect it in some way, no matter how well written it is, the story stalls. Find the live rail, it won’t let you down. Once you zero in on it, it becomes a live sensor that beeps madly when the connection is broken.
  8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.” This is a simple, incredibly useful one, even if you ignore the others. Whenever something is about to happen, ask yourself, “why?” Why is this happening now? Why is my protagonist reacting the way she does? Why does the reader need to know this? Stories aren’t about “what” happens, they’re about “why.” Just like life. Watch as your day unfolds. People do things – that’s the what – but aren’t you always wondering why they did it, what they really mean by it, so you can figure out what the heck you should do in response? In a story the most important initial “why” is why the protagonist wants what she wants, and why she can’t seem to get it. Figure it out first, and it will be your true north.
  9. Know your basic theme. This is much easier than it sounds. Think of theme as what your story is saying about human nature, which is reflected in how people treat each other in the world you’re creating.  Characters’ actions – and therefore what’s humanly possible – are going to be very different in the world of a lighthearted romance from that of a dystopian drama. What world will your story unfold in? And are you sure all your characters got the memo?

The beauty of approaching your first draft as a story, rather than as romping words, is that it allows you to really, truly quiet the voice that says you’ll never be a good writer. Because it’s not about the writing. It’s about zeroing in the story that you want to tell.

What’s more, when you’ve nailed down the specifics we’ve been discussing, very often the story does pour out. Because you know where it’s going, you can feel the intoxicating rush of your own creative momentum. It’s thrilling.

Even so, you’ll end up producing a shitty first draft. But the beauty of this kind of shitty first draft is that when it’s finished, you won’t have to sift through endless words, hoping  to discover the fragments of a story – it will be there. In fact, this is the one and only thing that can cut down on time spent rewriting.

If you think you hear an underlying drum beat here, a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of being a pantser, you’re absolutely right. Yes, some writers can sit down and nail a story blindfolded. They have that innate skill, and tend to be successful out of the starting gate. Most of us – and that includes most successful writers – don’t have that innate sense of story.

But we can develop it by mastering story and committing it to muscle memory — that muscle being the brain. Of course, that still doesn’t make it easy. It just makes us less likely to be up weighing the pros and cons of dental school at two a.m.

Image via Flickr by ~db~


About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.