Liars Club

Bad As I Wanna Be

by Dennis Tafoya on May 22, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life

I think the best advice I ever heard for the new writer was from Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, and it was to finish your ‘shitty first draft.’ Lamott takes it as a given that any writer’s first run at a manuscript is going to be awful, and in fact seems that she sees it as a necessary starting point. While I don’t think a first draft is necessarily terrible, I do very much believe in doing what you have to do to get to “The End,” including allowing yourself to write crap when the occasion demands.

For years, I started writing projects and didn’t finish anything. I’d write the beginning and hit what my Liars Club pal Greg Frost calls ‘the hundred page wall.’ Or I’d skip around in the story, writing the little bits I could easily see or that I had good ideas for, and then I’d stall. I’d lose confidence, or I’d just run out of ideas that seemed compelling, and before I started getting paid to do this, it was easy to convince myself it was all just for fun anyway, and what difference did it make whether I completed the story or novel when no one was going to see it?

But sometime in my forties, I began to think that if I could complete a draft, I might just have something that somebody wanted to read. I decided the only way I was ever going to finish a book was by forcing myself to write the entire novel, in sequence. I’d write whatever was next, whether or not I had an idea I was in love with. Of course, inevitably, the day came when I was staring at a piece of paper with no idea what to write. I knew I needed to cover a particular bit of ground, but I couldn’t think of anything that seemed worth writing.

And so I had my most important breakthrough as a writer. I let myself be boring.

I was temporarily out of ideas. I needed to move my characters from point A to point B, but I couldn’t think of a way to make the action interesting, or spice up the dialogue. I was flat, but the scene needed to be in place to get me down the road to the cool stuff I knew was coming. So I wrote what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘placeholder scene.’ This is exactly what it sounds like – a scene that has to be there, but is the literary equivalent of a couple of saw horses and a piece of plywood standing in for a dining room table.

I’ve been doing this long enough now that I have confidence that one of the following will happen: One, I’ll find the scene as I’m writing it. A bit of business or a line of dialogue will come up that allows me to suddenly find a way in, and the scene will fix itself in the writing. Two, I’ll let it stand for a while, then go back and gussy it up when an interesting idea finally presents itself, or three, I’ll cut the scene. I’m surprised how frequently a particular scene that I think is crucial is actually completely unnecessary. As Elmore Leonard says, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

But that determination will come later. For today, though, get the ‘shitty first draft’ done. And when you’re wallowing in the doldrums, do what the pros do: write something terrible.

Dennis Tafoya is author of Dope Thief, and of  The Wolves of Fairmount Park, coming June 2010, from Minotaur Books

Dennis’ post is part of an ongoing series, where Liars each chime in on a burning question about publishing.  Check out prior posts, and look back daily for more comments from members of the Liars Club.  Better yet, subscribe to this site.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Glenn May 23, 2010 at 4:46 am

Great advice, which I sorely needed to read. As a future first time novelist with more than two dozen ‘started’ novels, I have surrendered good story lines when my prose has fallen below my personal standards, usually during lull in character activity. I hate to think about the places these stories could have taken me if I’d persevered. Now, I think I’ll give them another go. Thanks again.

Jon Gibbs May 24, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I love that Elmore Leonard quote 🙂

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