Your First Draft Does Not Suck

There’s this maxim prominent in writer circles. If you’re a writer, or if you have much to do with writers, you’ve seen it or heard it. You may even have said it or posted it. It’s one of those catchy, four-word phrases meant to give pause, to get you thinking. To condense a whole world of meaning into an easy sound bite.

I gave it away in the post title, but in case you aren’t following me it’s this one: Your First Draft Sucks. Alternately, Your First Draft ALWAYS sucks.

This is my reaction when I hear or see those words:

Elrond's_armor_-_halfbody
DIE, ORC SCUM!

Look, I understand the intent. We all know people who are so enamored of the idea of themselves as writers and the process of putting words on a page as sacred that they refuse to apply any critical thinking to their work. It may be we’ve all been that person at one time or another. Maybe we churned out fifty to a hundred thousand words and were so proud of the achievement that we wanted to share it with the world. Maybe we were too close to the work to see the flaws. Maybe we didn’t have the education and experience to judge. Maybe we lived a life where we didn’t have access to a good critique partner or community of supportive writers. Or maybe we were scared of self-examination. Whatever; I can see how people might feel the need to remind folks that critical thinking and self-editing are part of the writing process. The problem is, saying “Your First Draft Sucks” does nothing to address the issues, and it can be downright harmful.

Writers are a vulnerable bunch. Whether by intent or predisposition, we, like most others who pursue an art form, feel things deeply. It takes a gigantic amount of courage to translate deeply felt realities into words and put them onto a page, and that’s not even considering the amount of courage it takes to share your work with others. I know there are those who–at least ostensibly–seem t0 take up writing because of the idea that it’s a glamorous life that will result in immediate fame and fortune, with little work involved. But 1. that’s a myth, and 2. for every writer I know who subscribes to the myth, I can count half a dozen who sweat blood over their work and are afraid to show it to anyone. Because, deep inside, there is always the question: Is this any good? Have I expressed my deeply held reality in a way that will convey it to other people? Or am I pretending to have skill at something I’m no good at? Is this thing I want out of my grasp? Unrealistic? Should I give up on my dream?

Yeah, telling these folks that they suck isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s kind of like this:

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And telling us to grow a thicker skin isn’t great, either.

When I see or hear “Your First Draft Sucks,” it tells me way more about the person saying it than it does about anyone to whom they’re talking. I ask, “Why do you need to repeat this? What’s so threatening to you about other people’s first drafts? Why do you need to perpetuate this idea that all writers–especially beginning writers–think of themselves as ‘special snowflakes’ (ODIOUS TERM) with the golden semen of angels pouring from their pens?”

I also think, “Here is a person who does not know how to give constructive criticism, or who can’t be bothered to.”

The first rule of constructive criticism is: Be Specific. Please explain to me, what is specific about telling a writer her first draft sucks? I read a lot of manuscripts, and though quite a few of them have problems (sometimes numerous problems), I can say with certainty that none of them categorically sucked, first draft or not. Even in manuscripts that I’ve found amateurish and cliche-ridden, there have been gems. Characters that leap off the page, scenes that make me laugh, or cry. Beautiful words and original ideas. Why in the world would I want to risk having a new writer scrap all that by telling her, “Your first draft sucks?”

Hey, you know, if you don’t want to deal with all that, fine. Don’t be an Alpha reader or a Critique Partner. Say, “I’m sorry, I don’t read manuscripts.” Don’t put your issue on the writer. Especially don’t use your status as an established writer to intimidate someone new to the craft, or spout bullshit aphorisms out of some weird intent to make yourself look knowledgeable. Because what it looks like is this:

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Listen to me or else!

One last thing: When you say something like “Your First Draft Sucks” as if it’s a universal truth, you are assuming that everyone’s process is alike and everyone’s first draft looks the same. They aren’t. Not everyone sits down and writes straight through a story to the end (oh yeah–that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. Another useless standard.). My writing process looks a lot like this: Write first chapter. Think about it for a couple weeks. Write a few more chapters. Decide that I don’t like what’s going on in Chapter Three and I didn’t touch on something important in Chapter Five. Go back and fix those. Continue through the first act. Think about it some more. Realize I need to do something in second act that I didn’t lead up to, so go back through act one and stick in foreshadowing. Write some more chapters. Discover a character vital to the outcome of the story doesn’t exist. Create character and if necessary go back and insert him into previous chapters so his appearance doesn’t come out of nowhere.

The thing is, by the time I have a First Draft folder containing an entire book from beginning to end, I’ve already done the work to make it hold together, with a consistent, comprehensible plot containing a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sure, there’s work yet to do. But my first draft does not suck. Some of this is because of the way I work, and some of this is because I’ve been writing forty years, and some is because I have a highly organized mind that doesn’t veer off on strange tangents. Whatever the reason, your sound bite doesn’t apply to me. And it doesn’t apply to most others.

So let’s stop perpetuating this one, okay? Writers have enough grief to cope with. We don’t need it from each other.

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A Problem of Ethics

I have a problem.

Next month, my husband is officiating at the wedding of a friend and co-worker. This friend is fond of the movie The Big Lebowski (which I have never seen), and asked my husband to be ordained as A Dude-ist Priest, which my husband happily did as we believe recently-created paths have just as much validity as any other. Yesterday, we met with the couple to discuss the shape of the ceremony. During our meeting, the subject of the vows came up.

“We’re going to do this cool thing with the vows,” said my husband’s friend, the groom.

“You were the one who decided we were going to do that. I think it’s a bad idea,” said the bride.

“No, it’s a great idea. It’ll be fine!” the groom insisted.

Uh-Oh.

Well. I asked what the idea was. The bride explained, the groom intermittently punctuating her answer with more declarations of, “It’ll be fine! It’s a great idea!” And it turned out what the groom had in mind was a REALLY BAD IDEA both ceremonially and magically. Everyone at the table thought so…except for the groom. We got him to see the light and change his mind eventually, but it took a while. It also took having my husband–the only other male present–explain to him exactly what was wrong with his original idea.

Now personally, I consider it a bad sign that the groom didn’t immediately give up on his “really great idea” the second the bride expressed her distaste for it. But we did talk him around in the end, so okay. The vow thing isn’t the problem. My problem doesn’t involve the wedding at all, except in an almost tangential way.

My problem is with a thing I’m going to call “The Spotted Salamander Tribe.”

See, my husband’s friend teaches social studies. I do not know all the details, but apparently a few years ago he did a unit on Native American culture and practice with his students, and as often happens, my husband’s friend became enamored with what he learned. To the point that he decided–or he and the bride decided together; they’ve been partners for years and I’m unclear about this–that it would be a really great idea to adopt some of the philosophy and tradition from First Nations Peoples and create their own tribe with its own hierarchy and ceremonies based on Native American culture. This is “The Spotted Salamander Tribe.” They have a big gathering every July where they pass a pipe and induct new members and such.

My husband and I have been invited to this year’s gathering, with the prospect of being inducted as members, and I have A REAL PROBLEM WITH THIS. I had a problem with it when I first heard about it at Christmas. And I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make a huge stink with my husband’s friends and co-workers. I had never met these people before they invited us for Christmas dinner. But my problem with it keeps getting bigger and bigger. It grows when my husband’s friend refers to himself as the “Chief” and talks about wearing the “Chief’s Headdress.” It grows when the bride mentions using a Navajo rug as part of their wedding ceremony. It grows when they casually toss around the word “squaw,” and say “It’s okay because it’s just a joke between us and we don’t mean it in a sexist way,” and don’t see that it isn’t just sexist. IT’S RACIST. It’s Cultural Imperialism. It’s a bunch of White People pretending to be Indians. They’ve built the “Spotted Salamander Tribe” on the practices of living traditions of which they are not a part, and passed it off as, “It’s no big deal; it’s just a fun thing we do.” Which is demeaning to the traditions involved. I’m not sure any actual First Peoples were ever consulted, even in the original school project. I’m certain none are involved now.

THIS IS NOT OKAY. I’m not looking for any pats on the back here for declaring it’s not okay on my blog, because I haven’t done JACK SHIT about it. I meant to bring it up yesterday, and I chickened out. I meant, after we had finished discussing the wedding, to ask, “So what’s the deal with this Spotted Salamander Tribe, anyway?” and to hear them out, and to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t participate because you’re using First Nations Culture for your fun thing and no First Nations People are part of it.” And I didn’t, because hearing them talk about it in this dismissive way was too hard for me to challenge. And because, to my complete and utter horror, when they said, “It’s no big deal, it’s this just this fun thing we do,” part of me thought, “Well, maybe it’s harmless. Maybe there’s something going on here I don’t understand. Maybe it could be okay.” And because I was asked to attend, and it felt good to be asked, to be included.

But when I got home, I knew it was not okay. Not okay at all.

I’ve already pretty much decided I can’t participate in this “tribal gathering,” but as long as I’m being completely open, I’m going to admit that I still go back and forth. Because I haven’t been included in much in my life, and being included is sweet. I honestly like my husband’s friend and his partner, and I like all the other people I met at the Christmas dinner, most of whom are part of the “tribe.” And, mea maxima culpa, I don’t want to be the one to rain on their parade. I don’t want to do it. I’m always the killjoy, the one who brings up uncomfortable truths and explodes treasured icons. Good Gods, I DO NOT want to be that person in this situation. And I keep hearing the groom declare that the issue with the vows was “No big deal,” and “Fine,” when it wasn’t, and I don’t want to have to fight that fight. Not by myself. Not alone.

But then I imagine sitting there at this gathering, and seeing my husband’s friend in his “Chief’s Headdress,” and watching them “pass the pipe,” and I know I can’t do that, either. I can’t condone it. I couldn’t be silent. Even imagining it makes me sick at my stomach.

Please, if there are any Native People reading this post, please tell me what’s enough for me to do? Is it enough for me not to participate? How much do I need to confront this? Should I go to the gathering and see it for myself before I confront it? I don’t want to cause a problem between my husband and his friend, and I don’t want it to carry over to my husband’s work. I honestly feel bad putting something about it on the Internet when I didn’t speak up yesterday, because it seems cowardly. On the other hand, I need to address it. I’m just not sure how, or how much.

So there’s my problem. I’d appreciate other viewpoints than my own.

ADDENDUM, 2014 June 25

In a rather unsettling turn of events, the couple involved stumbled across this post on Facebook. It’s a risk I took, although I hoped it wouldn’t happen. Anyway, I have been un-invited to the wedding because they “felt judged.” About what I expected, and probably just as well.

 

COVER REVEAL: THE UNQUIET GRAVE!

As you may or may not know, I’ve been contemplating new covers for all my Caitlin Ross books for some time. The covers I have are nice enough. Some of them I truly like. But, as still life, they lack the kind of pull I’d like to see for my books.

Well, events conspired to throw me together with a WONDERFUL artist, WolfenM. She’s a Pagan Geek who loves comics and everything Nerdy, and she “gets” the Caitlin Ross Universe. I am thrilled to reveal her first cover, The Unquiet Grave.

 

The Unquiet Grave Cover by WolfenM
The Unquiet Grave Cover by WolfenM

 

The new cover will be appearing on all versions within the next week or so. You can buy The Unquiet Grave on AMAZON, where purchase of a print edition includes a free Kindle download, or on SMASHWORDS, which has downloads in all e reader formats.

Stay connected with The Shadow Sanctuary for more of Wolfen’s covers, and visit her at deviantArt: http://wolfenm.deviantart.com/