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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Vomit Happens

Writing isn't pretty. The first draft of anything is garbage. I'm unwittingly paraphrasing somebody or other but mainly, I'm making my own point because it's true. Some call this the vomit draft. The draft that contains everything in your psyche before it is vomitted up on the shore of the world for all to stare at and say ewwwww!

Writing a vomit draft takes courage, yes it does. Because you have, good Rouge Wavers, already tested your premise, and outlined your story into three acts, yes? You have already done your character work and research, too. You've already thought about your theme, and the dna of your material. You've watched other movies with anything in common. Then you let loose and you wrote. And you finally get to "fade to black" and read that sucker and - surprise - it sucks. What happened? Nothing. This is perfectly normal.

But here is a mistake that many writers make: still high from contact with the letters "fade to black", you excitedly show your script to the first person unlucky enough to stumble across your path. And they usually don't like what they read all too much. Which is soul-crushing. Believe me, this vomit draft happens to all writers. Sure, when you get more experienced, that first draft is a bit less vomity than that of a novice, but no script is birthed whole and beautiful, like Venus rising from the sea. It doesn't happen.

Here's what I recommend: when you finish that first draft, put it in a drawer. Then get away from it for a few days, maybe a week. Go about your life. Read books, see movies, work, cook and exercise. Then sit down with the draft and read it again. With a highlighter and a pen. The few days distance will do you a world of good.

And for the love of all things holy, especially writing groups - don't bring your vomit draft or vomit pages to the group. It's just not productive. All you'll get is uncomfortable smiles and averted eyes. Proclaiming that what everyone is about to read IS your vomit draft does nothing to mitigate the terribly uncomfortable experience you're about to put your friends through.

In my time in various writing groups, the Wave-inatrix has been privy to the vomit-draft-overstatement-disclaimer, in which a writer smilingly declares the pages as vomit, while in fact, he or she has spent a great deal of time on these pages. Doing so only sets you up for failure - you've set the bar low right out of the gate, now watch some in your group agree that the pages ARE indeed terrible. OR earn the ire of members of the group who see right through this disingenuous ploy to far exceed vomit with pages that are actually fairly well realized.

I recommend not showing anybody your first couple of drafts. Set your script aside, take a breather, then come back to it yourself. Professional WGA writers don't get committee feedback on every draft of their script or outline. If this were the model, writing entertainment would take light years to do. As you grow and mature as a writer, you will learn to critique your own work. I only show a draft of what I'm working on when I have at least three or sometimes four drafts done. When I start to feel so close to the material that it's becoming a blur, and I'm not seeing it clearly at all anymore. That's the time to get a read or pay someone for notes.

Writing a horrible first draft is so par for the course, that a writer who turns out a good first draft is a freakish anomaly.

Being a mother who gave horribly painful birth, at home, without medication or medical intervention because the Wave-inatrix is hard core, I later became aware of mothers who would say that their labor went on for two, three and four days. There's labor and then there's active labor. Active labor is the one that hurts like a sumbitch. And it can't go on for that long. It just physically can't. What some moms are doing is exaggerating their labor. They were in pre-labor for three days - that's the kind of labor that is uncomfortable, but the kind of labor during which you can still make eye contact and eat a cheeseburger between contractions. Active labor is the excruciatingly, star-spangled, white-hot pain that makes you weep, beg, curse and injure anybody within a twenty-five foot radius.

Ew - childbirth and labor stories - what has that got to do with writing?! Some writers will swear that the draft you've just read - they wrote in a month! Or is only the second draft! Bull pucky. Show me a writer with a great early draft and I'll show you a flying toaster.

There simply isn't a glamorous, pain-free, easy way around writing that first draft. The experience is by turns horrible, energizing and nightmarish. No wonder most writers have all manner of nervous tics and socially inappropriate behaviors. And unlike childbirth, there are absolutely no pain free alternatives with mauve birthing rooms, pulsating showers and free massages. There is no alternative to the agony of writing. And no newborn is cute.

Neither by surprised by nor disingenuous about your vomit draft. Vomit happens to everybody.

ShowHype: hype it up!

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Spencer said...

Great article!

I have written one feature. The first time I wrote it I did in fact vomit it all over everyone. As I have grown as a writer, my insistence of showing work that just isn't ready smacks of low self-esteem. Every day is a journey to believe in myself and have confidence in my talent.

Recently, I have been kicking my own ass over my writing. I have been making excuses about having writers block. Just another excuse for not writing.

Thank you for this article. This was very timely for me.


Tavis said...

Vomit Pass is such an ugly term-- but I guess that's part of the appeal-- I prefer to call the first draft the "getting the clay on the table" phase. Once I have molded it into its basic shape, then the detailing can begin.

Julie Gray said...

I agree Tavis. It is an ugly term. It's one of those two-shots of tequila later terms. I just go with the traditional first draft as I don't view myself as vomiting up anything ever since that time with the tequila down on the docks. But whatever makes the point clear.

Anonymous said...

This vomit analogy is soooo discouraging that I want to lock myself in the bathroom and vomit some more. Are all first drafts vomit? Boy, I'm often afraid my vomit would generate even more vomit from the unfortunate readers? But how can I judge it for myself? How can I turn the green goo to rose petals? Or does it automatically become pearls once I die?

scottycw said...

I've always thought of the outline as the vomit stage. It can get messy... especially if you write it longhand.