james@jameshanlonbooks.com patreon.com/jameshanlon

Shitty First Drafts: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slush

Making Word Slush

First, say it with me: shitty first drafts. It’s liberating.

I first learned of shitty first drafts from an essay by Anne Lamott called (you guessed it) “Shitty First Drafts.” Basically, the idea is that it’s really okay for a draft to be shitty at first. That’s not to say that what you’re going to write is shitty, it’s not to make any judgment at all of the writing itself–that’s the point. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine if it’s a bit shitty for now because we’re going to fix it all later anyway, so don’t worry about what you’re saying and just keep writing.

Somewhere I heard someone call this process “making word slush,” creating content that you can work with later–like making snow before building a snowman. Going back and editing is counterproductive to writing. Don’t edit until you’re ready to show it to someone besides yourself.

I’m telling myself as much as whoever you are, dear reader, that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts because we shouldn’t worry about the quality; editing comes later. Write first, and if you can avoid it, don’t edit while you write. You just want to focus on creating pure, unfiltered word slush to work with later.

BUT. As much as it’s important to accept the shitty first draft, to love the shitty first draft, we also have to prepare for it. With something as long as a novel, it’s so easy to get lost and drown in just how much there is to think about. For me, the prep work to getting my first book completed was absolutely essential. I have to have a road map, I can’t just wander through the story without knowing where it ends.

Some people like that, and if you’re a seat-of-the-pants type of writer, YOU DO YOU. The Star Pirate’s Folly started when I was just struck by an idea, I got up, and immediately started writing the story in my head. I built the outline after, and I didn’t even end up using that first draft in my final copy, but writing those first few pages was SO important for the story because it gave me something to work with.

Mind map –> Outline –> Write

This is my formula. Bottom line, if you have an idea, get it down on paper/in a document, ANYWHERE, or you might forget. Personally, I like writing my outlines and mind maps by hand first and transferring them to Scrivener, a writing program (which is awesome for outlines!!). If you’ve never heard of a mind map, it’s basically just writing down ideas in a web and connecting them to each other. It makes outlining so much simpler.

I like to use an 8.5 x 11 legal notepad and a pen, but some people like to get a huge piece of construction paper or something with more space. Mind mapping is something I wish I’d done for my first book, so that’s where I started with book two, The Star Pirate’s Return. Since it would give away the plot, I can’t show you that, or go into much detail, but I’ll talk about it in terms of the first book.

The basic idea of the plot arc came from a Kurt Vonnegut lecture called “The Shapes of Stories.” I won’t go into that, but google it! It’s really cool. He’s a funny guy. (Okay, I had to google it myself anyway to get this cool picture, so here you go!) The basic shape of Bee’s story in The Star Pirate’s Folly was the “Cinderella” variety:


plot cinderella

At the beginning of the story, Bee is pretty low on the “good fortune” axis of the graph–surviving day to day on whatever she can, unable to really pursue her goals. She catches her first real break with Hargrove, who gives her a place to collect herself and be safe. Then, she gets her ticket off planet by selling the map, Starhawk shows his face (but only as she’s leaving Surface), she makes new allies with the Wanderlust crew, and so on. In the end, she gets her shot but has to sacrifice everything she’s gained. It doesn’t match up perfectly, but that’s where I started.


The important thing for me was just getting a framework for my story. I had key events at places in the book that acted as landmarks for my outline and let me keep in my head a basic idea of where I was in the plot. Tools like the good/ill fortune graph really help with visualizing the story.

Mind map –> Outline –> Write

Start with mind mapping. Just get everything out. Write your title in the middle, circle it, and then start with your plot (at least, that’s what I did). Write down the first thing that happens in your story, circle it, and draw an arrow from the title to your first plot point. Next event, circle, arrow, you get the idea.

If you get stuck on the plot or don’t have it all figured out yet, make new blobs from your title for characters, for setting, for anything you can come up with. When you’re finished, it will probably look like the ramblings of an insane person and that’s okay (I hope).

Your Outline Is Your Road Map

Once you’ve got a handle on your plot and you feel like you’ve gotten your ideas out onto a mind map, start with outlining. Your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Try to break the plot points on your mind map into these general sections, then from there break each beginning/middle/end section into chapters.

If you’re more familiar with the three or five act structures, use that. I decided for my first book I’d write 40 chapters at roughly 2,000 words each, which works out to 80,000 words or 320 pages. But you can use whatever proportions you want–I just like short chapters.

Beginning/Act 1: Chapters 1-5, 10k words, 40 pages

Middle/Act 2A: Chapters 6-20, 30k words, 120 pages

Middle/Act 2B: Chapters 21-35, 30k words, 120 pages

End/Act 3: Chapters 36-40, 10k words, 40 pages

Don’t feel like you have to follow this ratio exactly, this is just what I ended up with because it felt right for the book. What you want to do next is make an outline for each chapter using the information you wrote in your mind map. Break each chapter into 3-5 scenes.

All you need is quick sentences that sum up an action or event which leads the characters through your chapter and ultimately through your whole story. Point A to Point B. Cutting the work into small chunks makes it much more manageable. It might not be totally legible, but here’s the most recent outline I used to finish The Star Pirate’s Folly. 





For me, quantifying the book into a number of words or pages made it something I could wrap my head around. At first it was pretty intimidating to think about all the words I hadn’t written yet. But as I got farther into the book, keeping the wordcount in mind made it easier to plan and adjust my outline as things came up.

And because I’d been thorough with my outline and plotted out each chapter, I got a better idea of which parts of my story would need improvements and which might take more space than I thought. Some chapters got removed, split up, or combined with others. Each time I made a big change I’d update the outline so I had a “current” version in addition to my old ones.

Just going to say it one more time.

Mind map –> Outline –> Write

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