Mining drafts

I was sifting through the office closet again this morning, and I found an abandoned first draft of a manuscript1.  And it’s fucking awful.  Oh dear Zeus it pained me to just skim through it.  Truly a dreadful, dreadful embarassment.

It’s an old piece, and was probably my first real stab at serious novel-length prose after having written mostly short comedic fiction and spec scripts up to that point.  But it’s dreadful in a good way.  Which is to say, it’s a lot of fun to see all the mistakes and awkwardness of a first draft, especially one in which I was just “getting my legs” in a new format.

We like to dismiss them, but as bad as they always are (and must be), first drafts are awesome.  They’re hastily written and chock full of mismatched tenses and missing punctuation and godawful syntax, but they have the fire and mojo of a fresh concept trying to get out.  They still contain bits of genius and unexplored characters and honest if clumsy dialogue.  Even when we abandon them, we shouldn’t ever get rid of them for good.  They’re learning tools, mines for reusable raw materials, and object lessons in the craft.

Whenever writing something, I try to follow Heinlein’s edict of “you must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order,” and get everything down on paper/screen that I can before so much as auto-correcting a single typo.  If I don’t get it all out of my brain first, I’ll start nitpicking and changing and trying to make things letter-perfect before the story is even told, which results in a boring, suck-ass story with good structure and grammar.  I’d rather have it the other way around to begin with.

So it’s with that in mind that I’m re-reading the old shitty manuscript, and finding that for as rotten as it is, it was a great story that never saw the light of day.  It has a character that I really, really like.  There are a couple of sub-plots in it that I enjoyed, and want to graft onto another story.  And I’m thinking of posting it to the blog in a new section, as well as a ton of other first drafts and bits of incomplete stories.  Why shouldn’t my first draft mine be open to anyone else with a pickaxe?  Personally I like seeing other people’s rough work, and maybe going through my dreck will be interesting and/or helpful to someone.


  1. Which is nothing unusual, really – my office is littered with them. Isn’t yours?
posted 7/23/08 at 11:10am to First Draft Theatre, Writing · 5 replies · »

5 replies to “Mining drafts”

  1. Emily said:

    I wish I’d saved my old stuff. I am more of a burner, and I regret it now. Good advice, though, to just get it out and edit later. I’m just afraid that I’ll die, and some well-meaning friend will try to publish that short story about hot air balloons I wrote when I was fifteen. Noooo.

    Jul 23, 2008 at 11:22am
  2. SeoulBrother said:

    Wish I could say I had an old COMPLETED old manuscript. No, In my attic are 2-3 boxes full of incomplete crap. The squirrel seems to enjoy them though.

    Jul 23, 2008 at 1:20pm
  3. Shuff said:

    I like the idea of an Internet place for crappy first drafts. Some of them would make excellent prompts for other writers who might take the piece in an entirely different direction than what the original work turned out to be. I hope you follow through with that.

    Emily: In the BBC show Coupling, two of the main guy friends declare themselves “Porn Buddies.” This title essentially means that, should one of them die, the other will go into the apartment and collect all of his porn before his parents get there. My best friend is also a writer, and we have a similar agreement for our bad writing. We clearly label which stuff could stay and which stuff gets burned. It sounds ridiculous, but I feel a lot better keeping my elementary school journals lounging around.

    Jul 23, 2008 at 1:25pm
  4. Emily said:

    Two great ideas — the writing buddy and the draft purgatory. I’m unfortunately too privacy-minded to have ANY friends I’d want to show old writing to. I suppose I’ll just have to hope that whoever goes through my stuff some day has good taste.

    Jul 23, 2008 at 3:01pm
  5. Holden Helena said:

    What’s painful for me is to come across work that’s been PUBLISHED and is shitty. Yikes. Then there’s nothing you can do.

    I love your point about writing first without editing and I needed that reminder. Makes me think about a post of yours where you gave some tough love to a friend, telling him he needs to just WRITE instead of spending so much time at conferences, workshops, etc.

    My work goes through several stages before I let anyone see it, but I’ve been thinking about showing the process recently as well. Like Lyn Heginian’s My Life, where the book is republished with her additions and edits.

    Thanks for leaving me with a few things to think about.


    Jul 23, 2008 at 4:34pm

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