First Drafts

New Story Building


In an interview by Leslie Karst, Sue Grafton, author of the popular “alphabet” mystery series starring Kinsey Millhone, was asked about her concept of “the shadow.”


“Your shadow is the pieces of yourself that you repress and deny,” Grafton explained. “It’s your pettiness, your sense of humor. And once you shut it off, you’ve denied your true self with regard to your writing. For example, you meet someone and your shadow thinks ‘yuck!’ But your ego will tell you, ‘well, that’s not very nice.’ But your shadow is right: that woman’s gonna run off with your husband.

“You’ve got to listen to your shadow; she’ll always tell you if you’re off course in your writing, even when your ego tells you it’s fine. I call this ‘eating a death cookie.’ I once threw away the first eight chapters of a book. It’s very scary to have to start over; you feel stark naked. But once you have the courage to dump a book, you have the courage to trust the process.”

Far be it for me to compare myself to someone as talented and accomplished as Sue Grafton, but I will admit to eating the occasional “death cookie.” Such was definitely the case with my most recent work-in-progress, a first-person mystery novel tentatively titled Skeletons in the Attic.

It all started off so well. I had a plan to write 1,000 words a day, which meant the first draft would be finished in three months or less. I even created an Excel spreadsheet that included: Target Daily Word Count; Word Count Progress; Average Word Count Per Day; and Projected Completion Date.

That spreadsheet should have been my first head’s up. When you are investing hours creating a spreadsheet, or color-coding characters and scenes in Scrivener, instead of putting words on the page, something in your head—your shadow—is telling you that you’re writing pure crap.

Sometimes, at least when it comes to first drafts, that’s okay. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying “The first draft of anything is shit.” Shannon Hale says, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” And Terry Pratchett says, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

All true, and yet, when you’re telling yourself the story and your shadow is falling asleep, it’s probably time for the death cookie. It’s not that Skeletons in the Attic doesn’t have a good premise. In fact, I quite like the first couple of first chapters. It’s in Chapter 3 that things begin to unravel, and writing another twelve chapters, and 20,000 words—which I did—doesn’t change that.

So this morning, I made myself a cup of vanilla rooibos tea, and forced myself to eat a death cookie, scrapping everything after Chapter 2 in Skeletons in the Attic. I won’t lie to you and say it went down easily, but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. Because, as Grafton said, writers have to have the courage to trust the process. After all, that’s all we’ve really got. Our ideas and our imagination, and our own unique process that allows us to get those stories onto the page, one hard fought word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.

And now it’s time to get back to Skeletons in the Attic. The protagonist is calling, and she’s telling me it’s time to stop writing blogs and developing spreadsheets. It’s time to start writing her story the way it’s meant to be told. One hard fought word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.

4 responses to “First Drafts


    Thanks J.J. for the comment. In the interest of full disclosure, I did SAVE a copy of the scrapped document! But honestly, I had come to dread working on it because I knew that it just wasn’t working. It’s a bit like ripping off a bandaid.

  2. Hopefully, you made the right decision to scrap. I hate to disagree with Ernest, but shit is an end product that can’t be improved on. I like to think of the first draft as a pencil sketch that with each edit improves in clarity until you have a finished painting. (masterpiece?) If it still sucks after that then I guess the story was bad in the first place.

  3. Thanks DA, it was tough BUT felt good once I did it. When you start dreading looking at your manuscript, that’s a major sign! As for Scrivener, I had to give it up. Way too many things to distract me from writing, including the colour-coding. Don’t know how people use it and love it, and yet, they do.

  4. Good for you! Sometimes the courage to toss is the hardest one…I’m sure your protagonist is steering you right and the next version will let her speak. Am fighting the urge to ask you about colour-coding scrivener…;-)

We love comments!