Tuesday, 26 February 2019

First Drafts Suck, and That's Okay

First drafts suck, and that's okay.

In 2007, scholar Robert Winter gave a talk where he played some of Beethoven's early drafts for the "Ode to Joy" movement in his ninth symphony. And, well... they're not good. At all. You can watch the whole talk here, but this is the relevant part:

It's equalizing, isn't it? Even for a super genius like Beethoven, a piece doesn't just come in a single flash of inspiration. You have to work at it to make it good.

A more recent example: When Pixar was writing their first feature film in the 1990s, they knew they wanted to do something about living toys, as in their Oscar-winning short film Tin Toy. But the story went through major changes.

Here's a quote from Pixar's Andrew Stanton, as interviewed on the podcast now called "The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith":
The original idea of Toy Story was a Rip Van Winkle story, where Tinny [from Tin Toy] was in an old shop, and then boxed up in the attic, and it became this huge chain like Toys R Us. And you cut to twenty, thirty years later, the box is found and he's opened up and suddenly he finds himself in this "city" of different aisles, and trying to find his original owner. And that eventually morphed into a road picture with him and a ventriloquist's dummy. Which then turned into a spaceman toy and a ventriloquist's dummy. And then we thought it should be the opposite of a spaceman, so it became a cowboy.

If someone asked you to describe the plot of Toy Story, you'd probably start with "Well, a spaceman toy and a cowboy doll..." And yet neither of those characters were in the first draft! What did survive through all of these rewrites was the idea of a lost toy trying to get back to his owner, which is really the essence of the story.

One more example. This one has less to do with actual rewriting, and more to do with cutting out unnecessary elements. A few years ago, Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl fame) wrote a blog reviewing the novelization of Back to the Future. The blog is hilarious, mostly because the novel's writer made some very strange choices. But it's also really interesting, because the writer was working from an earlier draft of the script than the one that was actually shot.

I specifically want to draw your attention to this post, about the scene where Doc tests out the time machine by sending his dog, Einstein, one minute into the future. North reprints for us the following dialogue, noting that "what made it to the movie is in bold and the rest is BONUS novelization words:"
DOC: What did I tell you: eighty-eight miles per hour! Just as I figured. The temporal displacement occurred at exactly 1:20 a.m. and zero seconds.

MARTY: Jesus Christ! [Actually in the book he says “Christ Almighty!” but whatever] You disintegrated Einstein!

DOC: No.

MARTY: But the license plate’s all that remains of the car and dog and everything!

DOC: Calm down, Marty. I didn’t disintegrate anything. The molecular structure of both Einstein and the car are completely intact.

MARTY: Then where the hell are they?

DOC: Not where, when.

MARTY: I don’t understand.
North goes on to say: "Notice how nothing was lost when we cut out all the non-bold stuff? THIS IS YOUR CHALLENGE AS WRITERS: to be able to see and cut the non-bold stuff in your writing even when nothing on the page is actually in bold."

Which brings me to my own work -- specifically, my in-progress puppetry skit, "Channels", in which Mumford clicks between various TV shows (with a soundtrack constructed from real TV recordings) and things fly out of the screen and attack him. I completed a first draft of "Channels" back in June, but I know it needs serious work.

I'm not good enough yet to spot what Ryan North calls "the words in bold" all by myself, so I've been performing the skit for some creative friends. I've already performed it for filmmaker Pixie Cram, and I plan to also show it to burlesque dancer and producer Saffron St. James, as well as Gloria Guns from Scary Bear Soundtrack. I've been noting down which parts people laugh at, and also listening to their suggestions about what to keep, what to cut, what to add, and what to reorder. The skit is going to be much, much better for having gone through this process.

So if your first draft is bad, don't despair. This is the natural order of things.