The First Draft Fallacy

Hollywood perpetuates a great lie about writing, The First Draft Fallacy. It goes like this: Novelist bangs his/her head unproductively against an expensive laptop—or a secondhand typewriter, or a quill-strewn writing desk—dramatically for ninety minutes or so until the muse finally strikes. Smash cut: The remnants of a sleepless, sunless weekend, (stained coffee cups, half-eaten takeout, balled up pieces of paper, unanswered messages on phone, empty bottles) are strewn across the Writing Area. The camera pans to find Novelist sprawled on an unkempt bed. On the desk is a neatly stacked inch-and-a-half tall pile of paper. The top page is a neatly typed cover page clearly reading, “Notable Novel by Novelist.”

The next scene: A finished book, printed, copies stacked to bookstore rafters, lauded, toasted at parties, and solving all the pent-up conflict of the first ninety minutes.

Let me repeat: This is a lie. Writing novels is not like pressing the popcorn button on the microwave. And as such, documenting the actual life of a writer makes for relatively dry stuff for a movie, let alone a blog.

Case in point:

I recently completed my sixth revision to Legitimacy, a detailed process that left almost no sentence of a 260,000-word manuscript untouched. Since it reached its semi-final form, it’s had an edit by me, and then one by my lovely editor, Julie. Minor revisions, trimming, and correcting errors, both in the writing and the continuity. (And plenty of wailing, gnashing of teeth, killing of darlings, and questioning of life choices, usually ending with the admission that my editor was right all along.) I also went through a checklist of thirty to forty common mistakes I make, words used in weak writing, and style problems. For example, I reviewed every single one of the 3,000 to 4,000 instances of the word “was” and made sure each was really necessary.

After that, I began to listen to the manuscript read by an automatic reader. This helps to weed out missing words, odd phrasings, and gives me an idea if the writing flows naturally. Julie is rereading each chapter when I’m finished to review those changes. The book is now down to approximately 195,000 words. But this is not the end, not by a long shot.

Next we will read the manuscript out loud together, both following along with the text. Here we’ll smooth out the writing and correct as many errors as possible. (I’m lucky enough to have an editor who can do this with me in person. I pity any writer who does not.) If required, I will polish anything that still doesn’t quite meet the standard.

Then, at last, the manuscript will undergo a meticulous line edit. But we’re still not done…
The final step is formatting. The book has to be carefully formatted both for print and as an e-book. This is an arcane process involving dark magicks. We will not speak of this again.
In the midst of all this, I must also write several versions of the “back cover” blurb, hire an artist/designer to create the perfect cover, and devise a strategy to launch the book once it’s ready.

So perhaps Hollywood can be forgiven its dramatic license. I’d smash cut if I could, too. But fear not: Legitimacy is “almost done.”