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Stop Editing Your Book and Start Writing Rubbish

Atlin Merrick Natalie Conyer She Said/She Said

Stop editing your book and start writing rubbish…garbage…anything!

Atlin Merrick and Natalie Conyer share thoughts on writing, in their She Said/She Said series, entries alternating between Improbable Press and Clan Destine Press.

NATALIE: For nearly four months now – yes, that’s right, four months – I’ve wrestled with the start of a new book. Every day I write something, agonise over it, pronounce it unworthy and delete it. It’s agony, and I’m getting nowhere.

Then I realised I’m ignoring one of writing’s cardinal rules. I’ve been trying to produce the perfect draft straight up, instead of doing what all writers need to do; that is, to start off by writing rubbish.

Ann Lamott, in Bird by Bird, devotes a whole chapter to writing rubbish. It’s titled Shitty First Drafts and in it she tells us to start a writing project by getting something – anything – down on paper. We should trust the process and write without reining ourselves in. Editing and correcting, she says, can come later.

Lamott says that at this stage we should quiet the voices in our head, the inner critics who tell us our writing is boring, or won’t sell, or is inarticulate and clumsy. This idea – that writing involves holding back the critical voice so the creative one can flourish, is also taken up by Dorothea Brande in her excellent book Becoming a Writer. When we write, says Dorothea, we need to suppress our rational, critical side until the flow of the story is well under way.

So that’s what I’ve started to do. I’m putting words down without overthinking or judgment. I’ve already found new ideas and pathways and things to explore, and for the moment I’ll go with that. Later, I’ll get out my red pen. I’ll do draft after draft until the critical me is satisfied. For now, however, I’m happy writing ‘rubbish.’

Natalie Conyer grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and now lives in Sydney. Her debut crime novel, Present Tense, is set in Cape Town.

More from Improbable Press:
So You Want Some Writing Advice?
Manuscript Wrestling 101: Words for Aspiring Writers

ATLIN: Yes, I believe in this with every fiber! If it weren't for writing garbage I'd write nothing. And if it weren't for writing so, so, so much bad, I'd never find the scattered seeds of good amidst the mess of words.

I just wrote a short story for an anthology that'll come out with Clan Destine Press, and the story I started with was nothing like the one with which I ended. It was so much stronger, and the only reason I got there is I kept putting every idea down on the page. It was a thicket of things that didn't belong together…and didn't…and didn't…and still didn't…and then there it was, the thread tying the new story together. I was so excited to know where I was going at last but I'd never have found that new direction without wandering my forest of ideas and words and garbage.

So much with the garbage.

The amazing/frustrating thing about knowing the garbage will do and that you must write without editing until, like you say Natalie, "the story is well under way," is I seem to have to learn it every single story. I've been writing for over twenty years and I still must remind myself that writing bad is always part of writing good. Maybe not for some genius out there, but for me and every other writer I personally know.

I think the gift we can take from this is knowing we're not alone, that if we keep going we get there. So we have to keep going.

And we'll get there.

Atlin Merrick is the publisher of Improbable Press, an imprint of Clan Destine Press. She's the author of The Night They Met. Natalie Conyer grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and now lives in Sydney. Her award-winning debut crime novel, Present Tense, is set in Cape Town.

Natalie Conyer's award-winning crime novel: Present Tense      The Night They Met by Atlin Merrick

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  • Kameo on

    Is this too long for a comment?

    You have to be willing to be bad at something if you ever want to get better at it. This is true of almost everything for everybody. Even the most talented of prodigies have to work their butts off to get really good. Only Athena sprang forth fully formed, beautiful and wise and victorious but that was from the head of a god! I am not a god, or a goddess and nothing springs fully formed and beautiful from my head. If I think it is fully formed and beautiful, I’ve learned it is probably a very bad idea and I should let it sit a while.

    Writing is getting words out of your head and onto paper, so unless you’re willing for them to start out bad, you’re not ever going to get to make them any better. It’s another place in life where you have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’ve learned to accept that most of the time my words will start out terrible, just like my first hundred attempts to juggle failed utterly. It’s why we take driving lessons.

    A fundamental principle in teaching is the shaping of behavior, known as successive approximation. You can’t reinforce a behavior until it appears. Once the behavior appears you can begin to refine it, reinforcing every step that brings the behavior closer to the target.

    This is how you have to treat your words. You can’t refine them until they appear. Your job as a writer is to get the words to appear. Only after they appear you can refine them. You can’t refine nothing.

    You can’t prune a tree before it grows. If you try to prune it too soon, you’re going to kill it. You have to let it grow first.

    If you live in a city, you know to open the tap and let the water run before you drink. You have to clear the pipes of sediment before the fresh cold water starts to flow.

    To quote our favorite detective, you can’t make bricks without clay.

  • Carman on

    100% agree. Getting over that hump, accepting that I just have to get something on the page and trust that the rest will come is the hardest part. Every. Single. Time.

    PS—luv the blog!

  • Joan Morrison-Swan on

    Nat and Atkins, you have given me a great insight into the mindfulness required to produce the wonderful entertainment that, I have till now, taken for granted (or perhaps never even considered) when reading a published book.
    Thank you for this article. I gained a great deal from reading it.

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