Permission to Suck at Writing, Captain?

Think for a moment about the last book you loved. The experience of reading it was likely something not unlike this:

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Here’s the thing. I can almost guarantee that the book you read isn’t the same book the author started writing. For the non-writers in the room, this is because no matter who you are, if you’re writing something, the first draft is going to suck. It is going to suck hard. It is going to make Transformers 2 look like a work of art. It’ll make The Room look like it has a coherent plot, dialogue and characters. It’ll make [insert widely-regarded bad thing] look like [widely-regarded awesome something]. (You can fill in your own pop culture references. This blog is interactive!)

Every book. Every short story. Every script for every movie, play, radio show. No exceptions. That’s what a first draft is, it’s what they’re for. Anyone who says otherwise is a pretentious hack. Writing a crappy draft is not the hard part.

The hard part is allowing it to suck.

A couple of months ago, I picked up and read through one of Chuck Wendig’s writing advice books. From it, the tip that stuck out most was giving yourself permission for the first draft to suck. There was also something about hacking your way through the narrative swamp with a machete? (His advice is a lot of fun).

It stuck with me because it’s not something I really know how to do. I’m hardly a perfectionist; there are many, many areas in my life in which mediocrity is acceptable. But when I set out to write a story, I want instant gratification or nothing. I want this story to be an exact carbon copy of the idea that’s in my head, and I want it to be perfect.

See where the problem starts?

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I recently finished the first draft of a story. It’s an idea that’s percolated in my head for a few weeks now. I’ve mentioned it to a few people who are excited about it. I’m not going to say more, as I don’t want to over-hype it, in case it turns out to actually suck. Which is a possibility for these reasons:

  • Characters have little to no personality.
  • There are only two named characters.
  • Their names are so dull.
  • They’re also both good guys.
  • All of the bad guys are outside of the narrative.
  • There’s no conflict.
  • There’s a giant plot hole at the end (because I changed my mind about something halfway through).
  • The ending is mostly exposition and a little rushed (because once I saw the end in sight, I galloped toward it)
  • Oh my god, what was I thinking with the names?
  • I’m not 100% the physics work.

The idea that’s in my head is a lot more bad-ass than the one that wound up on paper. The temptation is going to be to can it. Leave it there, like the half-dozen other stories sitting unfinished in a folder in the Cloud–or as I like to imagine it, Idea Purgatory. That’s what it gets for being unsatisfying.

Those of you who are writers are likely to tell me exactly what I’m about to say I should do, so I’ll beat you to the punchline: Let it sit for a while, then suck it up, and jump back in the saddle; that’s the only way to fix it.

I think this is an idea worth finishing, so I’m going to. I’m going to let the crappy story marinate in my head for a few days more. The intent is two-fold: One, new ideas are going to come to the fore that’ll make this story more interesting; two, I will get so annoyed at how bad the draft is that I’ll have to start the second in order to get it out of my system.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s okay for this one to suck. Because this is the version only I have to see.

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