Tuesday, March 17, 2009

First Drafts: Surviving the Suck

[Note: if you feel like it, you might count the number of times I use the word "suck" in this post. I apologize in advance.]

I posted recently about a writing acquaintance who's very talented but plagued by self-doubt, and I posed the question: for those who find a way to finish their novels, how do they? What's the secret? I said then that it's not confidence you need so much as determination, and I stick by that. Now, as I slog through a quicksand section of a first draft, I want to add:

It's about surviving the suck.

[Incidentally, on Sunday night, Jim and I met a guy who'd been stuck in quicksand on Mt. St. Helens and lived to tell! Wouldn't that be a great party story to have? He was up to his waist and his dog was stuck too and they managed to squiggle their way out. We were highly entertained by this story, because what started the conversation was the observation that getting stuck in quicksand was something that happened in movies and TV all the time in the 1970s, but never happens now. Whatever happened to quicksand?]

So, "the suck" is like writing quicksand. There's no getting around the fact that first drafts suck much of the time. And writing suck is un-fun. Your spirits sorely dwindle. You can quite easily become convinced you've lost any iota of talent you may once have possessed. There are those writers out there who breeze through the suck, untroubled, supremely confident that they will rescue things by and by, but we ought never to compare ourselves to them because they are not normal. They may not even be human. It is quite likely that spilling a glass of water on them would put an end to them as surely as it would your keyboard (try it and see -- the robots, not the keyboard). So, factor robots OUT of the equation.

Humans hate to suck, and human writers must learn to suffer through suck. That is what enables us to finish first drafts. If you never learn to endure it, you may never finish a first draft. You might do what I used to do, which was write some awesome first chapters, revised to perfection, that lead nowhere. So far, working on my fourth book (if you don't count the thing I wrote in November, and I don't), the suck has not gotten easier to endure with time. It helps to know from three books of experience that good times lie ahead, but on a daily basis, the suffering does not diminish. The only way through is through. There are no shortcuts and no secrets. It's like losing weight, or like finding your way out of a jungle you've been dropped into from a helicopter. You can't FLY out. You're just a sad, wingless human so get used to it, heft your machete, and keep on thwacking!

Now, note: suffering through the suck doesn't mean you have to endure an entire draft of unmitigated suck. Personally, I can only put up with it for so long, which is why I revise as I go. I've tried to write a whole nasty awful first draft in one go and I HATED EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. It's not for me. It's okay to revise as you go, it's a totally legitimate process -- but you can't get stuck in over-revising to the exclusion of moving forward in the story. Me, I must alternate between the satisfaction of overcoming suck through revisions, and the misery of creating all new suck. That's just what works for me.

It might not be what works for you. Find what works for you. Just don't ever ever ever ever think that just because your first drafts suck or because you don't love every single second of writing them that there's something wrong with you. It's like that for EVERYONE. Almost. There are those terrible exceptions out there who exist sheerly to make the rest of us feel bad (you know who you are).

Anyway, go forth and suck. It's the only way. Endure. Then make it suck a little less, then a little less, until lo and behold, one day at long last it sucketh not. You can do it!

34 comments:

Saga of Writing said...

I really love your posts, allthough you don't yet know me. :-)

Kind of had to nominate you ... for an award:

http://sagaofwriting.blogspot.com/2009/03/wow-i-won-award.html

tanita s. davis said...

Ha! "Go Forth and Suck!" It's either a tattoo in the making, or a Twilight reference...

Seriously, though: Writing Through the Suck -- how awesome of a seminar title is that?

Happy sucking, L. See you on the other side...

Sara said...

Thanks for that benediction. I feel empowered to endure the suck today.

I also find that if the day gets too sucky, I insert things into the draft just to amuse myself. They may not stay, but that's fine. They're like suck-be-gone amulets.

Always Home and Uncool said...

What does it say when you suffer the suck whilst composing a Tweet? Is that a super suck or just a su-?

Nice read; know exactly what you mean.

persnickety_jen said...

Seriously. There's Writer's Block and then there's Writer's Suck, and they're both potentially crippling for a new manuscript. I think my problem is that I get stuck in the Revising Loop and, like you said, you end up with a couple awesome chapters but then never make real progress (the Curse of the Persnickety, perhaps?).

But... now that I realize that sometimes you have to suck for the sake of progress, maybe it's time me and my machete traveled through some uncharted pages. Thanks for the encouragement, Laini! :)

Q said...

"...until lo and behold, one day at long last it sucketh not."

This made me giggle. You are awesome.

Deb in NY said...

Inspiring and helpful. Thank you!

Laini Taylor said...

Persnickety Jen, I actually use "persnick" as a verb to describe that phenomenon! I totally do it too. It must be overcome. Suck for progress! :-)

Q, thanks :-)

Sara, that's a good idea. I think I need more details. What kind of amusing things?

Tanita, that IS a good workshop title!

Saga of Writing, THANK YOU!

Shelli said...

ooohhh - can we call St Paddys Day - Good "Sucks" Day or "The Suck of the Irish" (though I am not irish! hm :)

Jehsyka said...

Hmm, I agree with Shelli! There should certainly be a holiday didicated to sucky writers.
I'm looking forward to getting my novel to sucketh not! Though slowly easing my way into my third draft, this post inspired me to take a new approach. I'm with you...I can't stand making a quick sucky first draft! It has to be perfect as I go along! Oh...is there some sort of drug for this?

Christine Fletcher said...

Perfect post to read as I gear up for my leap back into suckage...um, I mean the first draft of the new book! You describe the suckiness so well. What saves it for me are the few moments of writing grace: the new insight, the compelling image.

And yeah, people who love writing first drafts...ever notice how their skin sparkles oddly in the sun? Hmm...

S R Wood said...

Just in time. JUST in time. Thank you!

Calandria said...

Very funny and, I hope, true! Thanks for giving me the courage to plunge back into the suckage.

Kiersten said...

See, I usually don't think I suck the first draft. Not because I don't--because really, I do--but because I'm on that storytelling high. It's right when I finish the first draft, and think back on the words...all of those words...pounds and pounds and pounds of words...words that need fixing...so much fixing...

Yeah, then I suck.

And then I suck it up and edit ; )

Laini Taylor said...

Oh Kiersten, so you're one of them, are you, one of those blithe, carefree first-draft writers? I know your kind. You look all sweet and pretty but in a certain light, your eyes glint red, and when you think nobody's watching, you wring your hands with fiendish glee and laugh a throaty, devilish laugh that sounds like, "Mwah-ha-ha!"

:-)

Laurie Thompson said...

Laini, I find it completely unbelievable that ANY of your drafts actually "suck", but thanks for the great post nonetheless! You are such an incredible force for good in the world, not only through your own amazing contributions, but also through the inspiration and tools you so generously give to so many others, allowing them to go forth and create even more goodness in the world. THANK YOU! =)

Katie said...

Thank you for my new motto: Go forth and Suck!

LOVE IT! and remembering this is so helpful. I will resist telling you to write a book about process and tips. And I won't tell you again how I would stand in line to buy it.

Lips Touch.... do you have a release date yet?

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Katie! I would love, some day, to write a book on process. I want to figure it out a little better first :-) Thank you for the encouragement!

And YES! Lips Touch has a pub date: Oct 1. It's up on Amazon at last, though not with the cover art yet. As soon as everything is in place, I'll blog about it and show the cover and everything. Can't wait!

And thank you, Laurie, you're very sweet!

Michele Thornton said...

Ah, the perfect post for me to read as I take a break from writing first draft suckiness. I love revising, because it's my chance to prune the suck!

Thanks, Laini.

storyqueen said...

But sometimes, surviving the suck is so hard! It's not just hard....it's sucktacular! It's sucktastic! It's a veritable suckstravaganza!!

Yeah....well, back to the suckitude known as the second revision (because the Gods of Suck are generous and provide enough suckiness for both the first and second draft.......)

Shelley

Stephanie Perkins said...

FIGHT THE SUCK!!!

EEE-YAAAHHHH! [Stephanie chops her laptop in half with her forehead.]

jckandy said...

I am currently drowning in the quicksand of suck.

Guess what? It SUCKS.

Amber said...

"sucketh not. "-- hehehe

Thanks.

:)

PS, you so kindly ask about him, so go check out my post. I am happy. ;)

Kiirsi said...

Wow, this post is beyond awesome, excellent, and inspired. Thank you!! Just what I needed. :)

lkmadigan said...

It feels so good when the sucking stops.

:-)

Kiersten said...

Well, I do tend to mwa ha ha a lot...

But I crash MAJOR after finishing a first draft. Trust me. Wallow in, oh my gosh, what was I thinking, why was I so excited about this crap, crap, crap manuscript?

And my eyes very rarely glow red.

Lisa Schroeder said...

Love this post. I linked to it today! :)

johanna said...

Yes, whatever happened to all of those fabulous quicksand scenes? People never stumble into quicksand in the movies anymore! It still remains on my top ten fears list. Right between getting stuck in the subway doors, and having to land a plane.

Lovely advice. Inspiring me to move through the crummy stages of my little book...and just keep going!

Janette Rallison said...

I don't have to worry about thinking my first draft sucks--that's why I have my editor--so he can point out all the way my work sucks. (Not that I'm bitter, or anything.)

Anyway it's cool I get to see you for project book babe! Yay!

Marianne said...

I'm currently sinking deep into the suck.

But my little legs are kick, kick, kicking and i reckon I can make some delicious butter out of this can of sour milk.

Thanks so much for sharing this brilliantly encouraging post Laini. I wish you were my real life, just around the corner, meet up for a cupcake and pep talk writing mentor!

Love to the wee parasite too. x

Kristi Stevens said...

Just what I needed to hear. Thanks for a great blog Laini.

Deva Fagan said...

Excellent post! Though it had the opposite effect on me. I've been soldiering on through the suck trying to push on through to the end, and now I am thinking that maybe a little break to subdue some of the suck before creating more might be in order to preserve my mind.

Thanks for posting! (Also, love the new Laini's Ladies!)

Rachael King said...

I had a good day yesterday. 1000 words in one hour. Of course, it took me all day to work up to that one hour, including a two hour nap in the middle, but hey, I can work fast, can't I?

Only about 20,000 sucky words to go and then I'm on to the next draft. Woo hoo!

tone almhjell said...

Oh, yes I do. Suck, I mean, and I must and shall. Just hope I can un-suck the whole thing in the end.