Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

The CFD--Crappy First Draft

Posted: February 7, 2013, 3:53PM


Years ago, a famous columnist from a big metro daily and I co-taught a session on column-writing for the Kentucky Press Association Boot Camp. His approach to the craft and mine could not have been more different.

Bob described how he worked on his lead, probably spent a third of the time it took to write the whole column working on that one sentence. Then he crafted and polished a second sentence and hooked it to the first. And then a third. He worked his way through the column that way, paragraph by paragraph so that when he typed the final word in the last sentence, the column was finished.

I didn't work that way. I described how I sat down at the typewriter (if you're younger than 40, Google it. There will be pictures.), closed my eyes and started writing. I didn't stop writing, not for missing information, grammar problems, misspelled words or anything else, until I was completely finished. But when I typed the final word in the last sentence, I was only at the end of the beginning. What followed was a 2nd draft, a 3rd, a 7th, a 12th; however many it took to polish that rough first draft into a column ready to publish.

Though it's not my style, it's easy for me to understand how a journalist could write a column the way Bob did. It's far harder for me to understand how a novelist could write a book that way, and there are some who do. The difference, of course, is story.

Which brings us to the CFD. The Crappy First Draft. (Writers whose sensibilities are not as delicate as mine call it the SFD. I don't think I have to translate.) When I write a CFD, I write it the same way I wrote columns years ago. Though it takes months rather than hours, I write as hard as I can go, ignoring mistakes or problems, until I have set down the whole thing. Then I go back over the manuscript again and again, like combing the tangles out of wet hair, until it is as perfect as I can make it.

The reason I have trouble understanding novelists who write books like Bob wrote columns is that the FIRST thing I get down on paper is THE STORY.  I tell it fast, with as much energy and power as I can, letting it flow out of me raw and untamed onto the page. Polishing the prose, adjusting characterizations, rearranging scene, all that comes later. If I stopped to do that as I went along, I fear the pacing would bog down in the language, the tone would be turgid and stodgy, and I'd so muddy up the tale there would be no resurrecting it. I fear the story itself would get lost. No story, no novel.

Over the course of eight books, I have come to see the CFD as scaffolding. It is the framework I set in place before I do anything else. Then I come back and use that framework to build the Eiffel Tower, The Taj Mahal, The Sistine Chapel, or a ramshackle hovel in the mountains of West Virginia.

Because I write until I run out of breath, throw in a semi-colon and keep going, I am dependant on my Working List, one list to rule them all, to keep track of all that must be fixed in the 2nd draft. In the CFD, I use the word "blank" dozens of times:

Grayson hopped into his blank and drove away. (Later, I'll research cars built in 1969 and decide whether he'd drive a sedan or a convertible or a station wagon.)

Aaron froze when the music started. The band was playing blank. It had been Susan's favorite song.  (In the second draft, I'll go to my list of songs from 1969, find a particularly poignant one, maybe even have Aaron mouth some of the lyrics as he listens.)

When I write the CFD, I avoid anything that will slow me down, anything that will hinder the flow of words onto the page. French author Guy de Maupassant said it best. His advice to fledgling writers was simple: "Get black on white!" That's the purpose of the CFD.

Soooo, you ask, are we ready to write now? Are we? Are we? Huh, huh, huh?

Nope. Not yet. But soon, very soon. AFTER we learn in coming weeks how to keep track of changes over the course of 6-10 drafts, how to do those final edits, and how to set your novel free. (All coming soon to a blog near you.)

Write On! 9e



Lena Gregory June 27, 2015, 7:21PM

Love this blog! It was just the push I needed to get going on my newest manuscript. I've been getting bogged down with the details of the story rather than writing the story, and I've been stuck on chapter two forever, so thank you! And I didn't even have to google typewriter, though I'm sure my kids would have. lol   Reply

Replies (1)

ellen best September 9, 2015, 12:44PM

Cfd in the bag words have rested for a year... I need to begin , I hope you can help me not make this a ruined CFD. Thank you in advance.
P.s. I wrote for three months every day ten hours , more, sometimes through the night pouring, bleeding, on to the page no stopping to correct or disturb the flow. It was Cathartic, exhilarating and exhausting. I am now scared of spoiling what I have by tackling it the wrong way, it may by mucky but under the dirt is my first born.
So glad i found you... where you were waiting.   Reply

Replies (1)

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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

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