It’s good advice if you’re the kind of writer who gets stuck agonizing over sentences and scenes until they’re perfect. If that’s you, you can benefit by postponing a lot of that self-critique until you have a first draft. Because otherwise you won’t have one.
And first drafts are always bad. Reaching the end of a first draft and re-reading it for the first time is like waking up in bed with a stranger who seemed dazzling and irresistable last night, when you were drunk, but now it’s daylight and oh my God what were you thinking. But that’s okay, because now you can take care of all the other stuff that got overlooked when you were trying to invent an entire populated world with a compelling narrative through-line in your head.
So if you tend to endlessly re-read what you wrote last week and mentally compare it to the greatest novels of all time, you’re asking for trouble. It might be a red flag that your story isn’t working in some fundamental way—in which case you need to strip it down to the part you like best and start over—but you might also simply be operating under the mistaken belief that your first draft has to be excellent.
On the other hand: Your first draft does have to be excellent. I mean this in the sense that I don’t think it’s possible to write a good book you don’t like. Those stories of authors who found every sentence excruciating but their pain and toil created something magnificent—those didn’t happen. I don’t believe those at all. It’s the other way around: You think you’re creating something magnificent and only when you re-read the first draft do you realize, boy, I still have a lot of work to do.
It is possible to crank out a novel that no-one really likes, including you. I know this because I did it, right after I started writing full-time and mistakenly believed that the job was all about discipline. Since then, I’ve written four or five novels that will never be published, but none has been a bigger waste of time than that one, which was bad in every way, and I knew it at the time, while I was working on it. Each day, I was happy to finish writing, and I didn’t think about it again until I had to the next day. That is no way to write a novel.
Delusion is key here. You don’t have to write a great first draft. But you have to believe it will be a great book. You must know in your soul that it’s going to be great when you’re done. Not because you’ve re-read your first chapter a hundred times and every line is perfect, but because the story is in your head and it thrills you to think about. Write that book.
I apologize for asking Mr. Barry, but what would you consider yourself to be on the political spectrum? I’ve seen people call you a right-libertarian, a neo-liberal, and other times fiscal conservative. An answer would be much appreciated.
Well those are terrible guesses. I can rule out those three. Here, I took the Political Compass test for you:
I call myself a militant centrist because I’m a writer, and you can’t write unless you constantly put yourself in other people’s shoes, even shoes that are kind of gross. For example, if I’m writing a character who’s going to assault someone, I need to understand how he sees the world in order for that behavior to make sense. He wouldn’t do it for no reason, or if he thought it was fundamentally wrong or would make him a bad person. So he must have a view of the world in which it’s the right thing to do.
I might disagree with this character, but it’s my job to make his behavior rational. So I climb into that brainspace as far as I can, until it starts to seem totally reasonable to me, too, that he has to assault someone, and, in fact, maybe it’s the assaulters who are the real heroes, and the world needs more of them.
(I went back and re-read Machine Man a few years ago, and was really surprised by how strange that character is. When I was writing him, I had wriggled far enough into his head that it seemed quite logical. But with a little distance: No. He is messed up.)
Anyway, out of reflex, I do this in real life, too, so when I encounter an opinion that I find bizarre, I try to contort my mind until I can imagine the context in which it makes perfect sense. And once you can do this for people who want to amputate their own limbs, you can definitely do it for people who oppose gun control.
So although I have a lot of political opinions that are very left-leaning, I usually find something to sympathize with in right-wing arguments, too. I mean, I usually think they’re wrong. I really do think most right-wing talking points are, on the evidence, objectively incorrect nowadays. But I can imagine circumstances or contexts in which they would make sense.
This may make me the kind of person who would be appeasing Nazis in the 1930s, by the way, so it’s not an objectively good thing. It’s just good for a writer.
y u no post
Well let me ask you, Anonymous: y U no post? I mean, I don’t know you. But I’m guessing you haven’t blogged in a while. Why is that? Is it because you decided the world doesn’t actually need your random thoughts inserted into it on a semi-weekly basis? I’m just spit-balling. But that sounds right to me. I mean, there are a lot of human beings out there, Anonymous. A lot. And they can’t all be the chosen one sent to save humanity with the power of their opinions.
I know, I know; you used to feel that way. You used to be young, Anonymous. You were filled up with the righteous clarity and passionate delusion of youth that other people need to hear what you have to say. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a good thing for young people. But you’re not 23 any more, are you?
And opinions have become so digestible. You were raised in an age of op-ed pieces, I bet, where people thought about what they wanted to say, spent some time composing it into robust form, and delivered it in meal-sized portions. Today you wouldn’t be halfway through that process before the social media maelstrom had eaten, judged, and moved on, all in punctuation-free one-liners. That’s okay; that’s an evolution of sorts; but it’s not exactly your sweet spot, is it? If you’re delivering 500-word blogs (blogs!) a day after the fact, you’re kind of constantly late to the party, right?
But I do think you should start posting, Anonymous. Like for me, I had a really terrific year creatively in 2018; one of my most enjoyable. I didn’t post about it, though, for a few reasons, a big one being that the moment I say out loud something about the writing going well, I can already feel the thousand demons of writers’ Hell winging their way toward me. But then a few people started to think I had been killed in that fake balcony fall where Wikipedia says I broke my arm,* or abducted by winged writers’ demons, so I felt a little guilty about that.
And when you do post, Anonymous, you often get reminded that there are people out there who do like to know that you are still alive, and not consumed by demons, and some of those people you’ve been connected to for a really long time. And that’s nice. That’s really nice. So I do want you to give it a shot, Anonymous. Get back out there. Share your irrelevant thoughts, because that’s what people do. The second you have a book deal.