Just Shit It Out. A Guide to First Drafts.


I recently gave some writing lectures around town so I thought I'd post them here too. These are not eloquently presented tips the likes of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Joss Whedon have laid down before, they're in-the-trenches techniques that work for me. And I hope work for you too. Each rule can be summed up in a short sentence because I have a terrible memory. What was I talking about? Oh yeah.

Zack's Writing Rule #1

You can’t work on something until you have something to work with.

That sentence sounds pretty dumb, but lemme back it up. Perhaps it comes from my days as a film editor, but sometimes I need to get the whole story into a rough "assembly"—all the characters, lines, and scenes put together—before I can start making it work. This isn't always how I, or many other writers, work but it's a tactic that has proven successful in the past, especially when I'm stuck. I know a few writers who think and plan and anguish over every detail, then lay down nut-kickingly perfect gems in word form. Like composing "Hey Jude" note by note on the first try or something. Boy, do I hate those folks.


And I don't think most writers are.

My first drafts are shit. And usually the next few are too. Whenever I get to the end of a script/book/comic that I've written, I often—perhaps sadistically—glance back at the first version I wrote...and laugh maniacally. The writing is TERRIBLE. Seriously laugh out loud funny. And here's the proof! *shudder*

"Peter ate the cookie and it was the most chewy and delicious thing he'd ever tasted."



Wow. Just...wow.

It's strangely reassuring to see how far I've come since those first foolish days. Writing a shotgun-quick draft helps get the whole thing down before your subconscious kicks in to say, "Man, this is a terrible idea. Shouldn't you stop now and play videogames?" Instead, I choose to just blow past those negative thoughts as fast as humanly possible. The left hemisphere of my brain is allowed to write quicker than the right can stop it. Sometimes I don't even finish scenes and just move on*. (*more on this in the next post)

Character A: "Something plot related!" Character B: "Witty remark!" Character A: "ANGRY EXPRESSION!"

So that I don't sound entirely unprofessional (see: insane), I DO know where I'm going when I start (kinda). I always prepare an elaborate Scrivener project with synopsis, treatment, rough outline, character backgrounds, and the basic idea for the ending. But instead of sticking 100% to what I've planned, I grant myself the freedom to follow the characters anywhere they lead so long as it keeps me interested. Surprises me. Or makes me go "Huh, didn't think that would happen."

Let's say you've listened to my advice and banged out a first draft...GOOD WORK! Now's where the magic happens. You can craft that chunk of marble into a timeless Michelangelo statue. Revising dialogue (because you now know what the whole story is about!). Shaping character arcs (because you now know what the whole story is about!). Refining the structure (because you now know what the whole thing is about!). It's a forest for the trees situation, and once you can step back and see the mighty, beautiful forest, prepare to step in axe-swinging and hack away at the details.

As they say:

"Writing is rewriting"...so how are you going to do that until you have something to work with?