Ouroboros Style First Drafts: Write. Edit. Repeat

anonymous medieval illuminator; uploader Carlos adanero. Public Domain

The Ouroboros often symbolizes self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself…in cycles that begin anew as soon as they end.

I know the first draft is supposed to be word vomit. The one thing that’s pushed during writing competitions is to just write. No self-editing because self-editing breeds stagnation. The point is just to have something on the page. A groundwork of ideas, characters, and one-liners to return to with a fresher perspective. I’ve tried the word vomit style and I’m quickly learning that it’s always more trouble than it’s worth.

My Problem with Word Vomit

I have two great sins in my writing:

  1. I’m too formal, which makes my prose distant, and
  2. I regularly resort to passive voice.

I’ve said it before that I’m a bit of a planner and I’m surprised it took me so long to realize that just spilling words onto a page wouldn’t work for me.

Word vomit is meant to just to put the words on the page. You’re supposed to worry about spelling mistakes and stylistic changes later. You’re meant to create a skeleton that you slowly add layers to in the editing phase. It’s an apt metaphor if you think about it. You start with the bones of the work (the first draft) and then you deal with the guts and all the gruesome elements (the revisions). Finally after several drafts, you add the skin (polishing up the grammar and fixing the format). You keep working until it’s no longer a macabre outline but something you can take out and show off. Maybe you’ve created a monster but at least it’s something you can show your friends.

I don’t like having my first draft be a piles of bones. I need something more substantial, more meat on those bones. I’m a competitive person so I invariably end up comparing my unfinished first draft to a best-selling published novel. Let’s just say, my writing just doesn’t compare when I do that.

As a result, I find it easiest to allow myself a 1-sentence rewrite. I write, I look at the sentence, and I quickly decide whether or not it works. It can be an addition or a deletion but something is done.  It becomes a cyclical process, like the ouroboros. I write and I revise at the same time. Write. Edit. Repeat. This way I have something that wards off the ‘everything sucks and this is terrible’ stage for a while longer.

Now this doesn’t mean complete sentence revision. What this means is that I target the obvious spelling and grammar problems. If I write something that I know is a continuity error earlier in the story then I will go back to where the problem originates.

Since I know what my writing problems are. I use this to eliminate passive words and adjectives as I write. By just slapping words onto a page you’re at least setting up the tone or the idea of the novel. If you take an extra moment and look at the sentence, you’ll know immediately if it feels off. Often in the process of eliminating 1 passive word, I’ll find myself adding several, stronger words. My changes aren’t perfect, it’s the first draft, nothing is perfect. But through this I am forced to constantly be reminded about passive words and tricky phrases.

For example:

Original sentence: “Penny had stilled, I saw her eyes widen as she latched onto the idea.”

Immediately, I noticed the sentence was no longer showing Penny’s actions outright, but rather focussed on the narrator’s interpretation of Penny’s actions. I didn’t want there to be any confusion, any hint of an unreliable narrator,

“Penny stilled, her eyes widened as she latched onto the idea”

Still not a great sentence, but it’s marginally better than what it was.

The 10K Slump

When I write a word vomit first draft I end up overwhelmed. With every novel I hit something I call the 10K slump. After about 10K of written words, you’ve set-up of the novel. The actual form of the novel now starts and you can adequately determine whether or not you have enough content to turn this scratching-post of ideas into a fully-fledged novel.

At 10K I always hit the wall. If I utilize the word-vomit, Jackson Pollack, style first draft all I see is the continuity errors, the half written scenes, and the spelling mistakes. This is the make or break point for me. This is where I decide if I toss out what I written as a failed venture or if I grit my teeth and keep on.  I’m currently participating Camp NaNoWriMo. I hit the 10K slump last week and spent three days reading what I had written and obsessing. I looked at the outline, I looked at the text, nothing was good.

It takes me a long time to figure out a character’s voice. For my current novel, I switched to a 3rd person POV, which meant I needed to remember how to write that style. I have two POV characters, I didn’t find their voices until last night, 18K into the novel.

This means that the 18K that came before is total crap.

If I stuck to the word vomit approach. I would have stopped writing. Given up immediately and starting working on something that didn’t plague me as much. But I was already past the 10K point. There were some parts that weren’t entirely terrible and parts I knew could be cleaned up in editing. Because I took that a few moments and did minor editing as I wrote, I knew the project wasn’t a complete waste.

I’m not a person that can off-the-cuff a brilliant sentence. I rewrite everything. It took 5 drafts and an added 15K before I deemed my hell-hound novel worth sharing. And it’s still being hacked to death.  I need that tiny continuous revision during the first draft to keep me on track. Without it I become mired in terrible writing. What it comes down to is not choking on your own vomit. Write. Edit. Repeat. You’ll still have the fun of editing and revising but at least you’ll be able to understand what you wrote 3 months ago.