“The first draft of anything is shit.”
--- Ernest Hemingway
A lecturer at St. Andrews has this quote hanging on her office door, as if challenging all the complacent undergraduates waiting in the hallway. I always found it vaguely encouraging, as much as anything by Hemingway could be encouraging. Maybe the chapter draft I just sent to my supervisor wasn’t all that great, but that’s fine. It’s a draft. It’ll get better.
I’ve never minded the idea of writing a bad first draft. I love things like NaNo, where you just write without worrying if it’s any good. I’m not a perfectionist, and the process of actually getting words down on paper has always been relatively easy for me.
But I’ve never been good at actually doing anything with those words. I’ve written five novels, and none of them have ever made it past a first draft. I’ve never actually polished anything until it was as good as I could make it.
With four of these novels, I know I made the right choice to move on. The first one was essentially a Tolkien fan-fic. The second was a mystery with plot holes as wide as the Northumberland Strait. The third was an international thriller with even larger plot holes and a rather dubious treatment of terrorism. The fourth was a YA dystopian, written just before Divergent was published and unfortunately left unfinished before the dystopian bubble burst. I learned so much from writing each of these novels, but none of them were worth polishing.
And then, after a six-year hiatus, NaNo 2016 produced my fifth novel, a futuristic retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I wrote 119,053 words in 68 days, and then returned to real life (or, y’know, writing a PhD.)
The difficulty with this novel is that, nearly a year later, I still think it’s good. I still love the characters. I love the story. I even love the writing (some of the time…). For the first time, there are no major flaws.
But that’s the problem. For the first time, I have no choice but to actual return to my novel and edit it. I can’t just stick it in a drawer and write a new novel. I’ve got to actually edit this one.
That’s certainly not going to be easy. As much as I love it, I know the story has significant issues. The world needs to be more developed. The themes need to be more subtle. The emotional arc needs to be polished. Relationships between characters need to be clarified. Certain scenes should be added, others cut.
I’ve written five novels. I know how to hammer out a story in a few weeks. But I have no clue how to polish it. On a practical level, I literally don’t know how to begin.
But also, on an emotional level, I’m scared to start editing. Because once I start to polish my novel, then I’ll really know if it’s any good. Then I’ll know if I’m actually any good.
If Hemingway was right, if the first draft of anything is shit, then that means that the real work of writing isn’t in getting words down on paper. It’s not writing 119,053 words in 68 days. If Hemingway was right, then the real work of writing comes in taking those rubbish words and making them shine. And that’s something I’ve never done.
There’s a strange sort of comfort in not trying. The world is full of people who think they could write a novel, and they’ll keep saying that until they try and fail. I think I can edit a book, and get an agent, and a publisher… and I’ll be able to keep thinking that until I try and fail.
I don’t really think I’ll fail, not ultimately. I believe that with enough hard work, I’ll eventually produce something good enough to be published. But I can’t say that I’m not scared of all the rejection that’s undoubtedly going to come. The books I’ll try to edit only to find they’re really not good enough. The agents who’ll send form rejection emails. The publishers who pass. The readers who write bad reviews.
Right now I can call myself a writer and not have to face any of that failure. Except, to keep calling myself a writer, I need to keep moving forward. I need to move beyond what I’m comfortable with and start doing what scares me.
I need to start turning my gargantuan first draft into something worth reading.
Let’s see how this goes.