Flavorwire Exclusive: Writing Advice From George R.R. Martin, Karen Lord, and Other Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors


Lev Grossman

I can think of only one time in twenty years of writing fiction when I wrote a passage of any significant length that I didn’t subsequently have to rewrite. The passage involved a character turning into a goose and flying to Antarctica. It was about a thousand words long, it’s still one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever done, and I’ll never know how I did it. It was an ordinary writing day. I wrote in a coffee shop. I sat on a couch. It was hot out. The one thing I know for sure about that day is that unless I start writing novels that are entirely about sentient geese, it’s almost certainly never coming back. When I write a first draft, it is, almost invariably, crap.

One of the first tasks of the writer, I have found, and not the easiest, is forgiveness: You must forgive yourself for writing crap first drafts. Perform whatever ritual of absolution you have to, pray to whatever cruel god or gods you have to, but do that for yourself. Only once you’ve forgiven yourself can you begin the serious work of writing, which isn’t writing at all. It’s revising.

In fact, not only do I forgive myself for writing bad first drafts, I expect myself to write bad first drafts. That’s my baseline assumption. I write my first drafts with the absolute certainty that I’ll either throw them away or that future-me, bless his long-suffering heart, will correct their many egregious faults later. Either way, it’s not something for present-me to worry about. Filling a blank page is hard enough as it is. I find it helps if you set the expectations very low.

And it helps even more if you keep them low, at least for a while. Part of learning to revise is knowing when not to revise. When you’re writing fresh copy, it’s tempting to stop and go back over your pages right away, while they’re still all glittery and new and you’re still under the spell of your initial inspiration. I won’t tell you not to do it, but just be aware that (a) it’s a time suck, and (b) its usefulness is limited. Your job in the first round of composition is completing a draft. It’s all about maintaining forward momentum and not bogging down. It’s about writing the way people read, fast and fluid. Think of it this way: You’re on a Jet Ski, and if you slow down you’ll sink into the icy, shark-infested waters you’re trying to skim over. The only thing worse than a crap first draft is the first draft you never finished in the first place.