The Purge! (or, Getting that first draft out of your system)

The (very cute) artist at work.

Ernest Hemingway famously said all first drafts are garbage, except he used a way more *effluent* term instead of garbage. This is something that I’ve, at various times, thought was completely true, completely false, and now believe is somewhere in the middle. First drafts are your best effort at the time, and I hate to say anyone’s best effort at the time is no good. I’ve also read lots of great first drafts, and really stinky final drafts. So, no offense to big Papa, but I think Hemingway’s statement is highly relative. Some first drafts are garbage and other first drafts are pretty good. And the only judge of which is which is the author.

Being able to tell what sings and what stinks is a skill any author has to develop over time. Reading widely, workshopping your work with other writers, practicing your craft, and being completely honest with yourself are the only ways to develop this editorial eye, and once you do, you’ll have a better sense of what’s working in your first draft, what needs reworking, and what needs to be cut. And this is where we get that trite but true phrase, “kill your darlings” — an author must be willing to part with any character, any scene, any beautiful, mellifluous sentence if it is not in service of the story.

Repeat after me: Just because I wrote it, doesn’t make it sacred.

Anything and I mean ANYTHING can go in the trash. If it makes you feel better, cut and paste your beloveds and save them in a file for another day. But don’t be afraid to cut. I promise you it’s the only way to make your writing better.

Yeah… first drafts are a lot of this.

But how do you even get to this point? How do you even get a first draft? What if you have an idea for an amazing novel, one with sex and intrigue and humor and justice and adventure and just a soupçon of murder…but you don’t know how to start it? Or how to end it? Or how to even open Word because that blank page just looks so freaking scary??

Allow me to introduce you to The Purge. 

Not the one night where everyone goes on a killing spree because they’ve been holding in all their bad inclinations for a year, although if that’s how you want to approach writing I guess, good luck to ya?

No, the purge I’m talking about is where you treat a rough draft like a place where you can dump all your ideas, thoughts, meanderings, musings, and half-baked plots, and just not worry that it doesn’t make sense.

Let. It. Go.

If you give yourself permission to write a bad first draft, if you tell yourself that it’s just a purge, a place to put all your thoughts, then you take the pressure off yourself and can actually just sit down and write for the sheer joy of writing. And that’s why we all got into this in the first place, isn’t it?

But here’s the one catch: You have to finish the draft. Have to. No matter what.

You have to give your characters some kind of ending, even if it’s a lame Scooby-Doo ending where it turns out the ghost was just Old Man Sanders in a frayed sheet. You have to finish the draft. Because the weird thing is, you can only find out what happens at the beginning when you’ve written the end. Don’t ask me why because I’m not a scientist, but there’s some kind of law of story physics that says the ending and beginning go hand in hand, and they don’t work without one another.

Okay, I can hear you saying, that’s cool and all Elizabeth, but do you actually practice what you preach? Or are you that rare writer whose fingers float over the keyboard and thousands of Pulitzer-worthy sentences pour out?

You said it Ray.

Um, no. For Mona at Sea I had to throw out the first hundred pages of the first SEVERAL drafts, because I’d begun the book with a hundred pages of backstory and, like, you shouldn’t do that. For my work-in-progress historical fiction, it took me two and a half years to even get a full rough draft because I would write a couple hundred pages, realize the story wasn’t working, and then chuck them and start over. That happened maybe 3 times?

So to sum up, embrace the purge. Let yourself be free enough to get it all out of your system, wrap it up with an ending no matter how mediocre, and only then go back and question everything. It’s awful, it’s wonderful, and there are no shortcuts. But you wouldn’t be writing if you were into those, would you?

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.