Drunk Monkeys Wrote My First Draft: The Art of Finishing a Book

monkey-typewriterWe’ve all been there.

You sit down at your computer. You’ve got your favorite mug full of your favorite beverage. Your favorite writing music is melodically humming through the speakers. There are no distractions. No kids. No texts. No barking dogs. It’s just you and the story.

You place your fingers on the keys. This is going to be good, you think. Today is going to beepic. You’re sure of it. You take a deep breath and start typing, waiting for angels to sing. For that mystical creative force to flow through you and transport you to a magical place where every word that comes out of you is gold and every sentence is award-winning. You type a paragraph, maybe two. Then, with a hopeful smile you read back through and discover that it’s…it’s…

Absolutely horrendous.

Verified word vomit. The most dreadful thing you’ve ever read. Drunk monkeys could have written something more inspired.

In the old, frustrated-writer cliché, this would be the moment you pull the paper from the typewriter, crumple it defiantly in your hands, and toss it across the room in protest (missing the trash can by miles, of course).

But I’m going to stop you right there. And I’m going to tell you to do something that might seem shocking. Maybe even downright ludicrous.

I’m going to tell you to keep it.

Those who know me know that I give out a lot of advice to writers. I post regular writing tips on my blog. I tweet about writing. I vlog about writing. I even teach writing workshops.  But if there’s one piece of advice I tout above all others it’s this:

Don’t be afraid to write badly.

Almost every published author I’ve ever spoken to about the craft of writing has said something along the lines of:

“My rough drafts are total crap.”

And yes, that goes for me as well. In fact, my rough drafts are the king of crap. They make crap look like a white-linen tea party with fancy hats.

Because guess what? They’re supposed to be. That’s why they’re called rough drafts. It’s so easy for aspiring authors to fall into the trap of comparing themselves and their writing to the polished, finished, edited books you see on the shelves of your local bookstore. But what you need to remember is that every book in that bookstore has gone through countlessrevisions, with countless people working really hard to make it as perfect as it can be. But I assure you, all of those books (yes, even your very squishy favorite one) once started out as a craptastic first draft.

Don’t be afraid to write crap. Crap makes great fertilizer.

I have a quote on my wall from Nora Roberts. It reads,

“You can’t fix a blank page.”

I look at this quote every time I sit down at my computer and nothing comes out but trash. I look at this quote every time I moan, “I’m just not inspired to write today.” I look at this quote every time I think to myself, “Well, I’m sure Future Jessica will be more than happy to write twice as much tomorrow.”

(Side note: Future Jessica is never happy to write twice as much.)

I know there are people who will read this post and argue, “But writing is art! I can’t allow anything less than art to grace the pages of my manuscript!”

Writing is an art form. Yes, this is true. But writing a book is a “process.” This, I believe, is the key distinction. And what I’ve learned about this “process” (after completing more than seven full-length novels) is that it ain’t always pretty.

But here’s the good news. Shhh. It’s a secret. Come close and I’ll whisper it in your ear.

Writing can be fixed! Books can be revised! Words can be changed! Entire scenes can bedeleted and never heard from again!

I know the concept of “revisions” isn’t breaking news but sometimes we authors just need to be reminded. Because we get so lost in the desire to make it good, we lose sight of the big picture: That it will be good…eventually. But first it might have to suck.

Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean anyone’s going to see it. Just because you typed it on the page, doesn’t mean it has to stay on the page.

Whether you’re a debut author or a seasoned author, one of the hardest things to do when writing book is finishing a book. I swear, at times it seems damn near impossible. It’s like climbing the highest mountain there ever was and never really knowing how far you are from the top.

But I’ll tell you this: One of the most important steps to writing a book is finishing a book.

So how do you do it? How do you finish something that is impossible to finish?

You write badly. You vomit ugly words onto the page until you’re done. You sit down every day and you turn off your inner critic as best you can.

You get the story down on paper.

Believe me, you will come across things you know you want change. Write these ideas down in a separate document or notebook and keep going.

You will want to edit a scene over and over and over again until it’s perfect. Fight this urge and keep going.

You will get stuck on scenes that you just can’t write, no matter how hard you try. Skip them and keep going.

I often leave myself place holders within my manuscript that look like this:

[insert totally awesome James Bond-worthy fight scene here.]

And when I finish a first draft, I always have a long list of changes I want to make, stored in a separate document, of course. (I personally like to use Evernote for this.) But here’s the funny part: By the time I finish that rough draft and have a better idea of what the story is and where it’s supposed to go, half of those changes I was so desperate to make don’t even apply anymore. Aren’t I glad I didn’t waste days writing those into the story?

In some ways, making a story pretty and workable is the easy part. Because you have something to work with. You have a unblank page to fix.

You have to build the house before you can decorate it.

Or remodel the bathroom. Or put in new windows and fancy hard wood floors. Until you know what the house looks like, how are you going to know how to fix it up and make it livable?

So here is my official invitation to you. Come join the crappy writers club. I’ve been a proud card-carrying member since 2006. All are welcome. There are no membership fees. No applications to fill out. No credit score required.

All you have to do is refuse to be afraid to write badly. Accept it as part of the creative process. Know that “bad” is only a temporary state. A necessary stopover on the way to epicness. So, go ahead, open up that Word doc, let the ugliness flow. I can’t wait to read the beauty that becomes of it.

Originally published on SwoonReads.com


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