Friday Speak Out!: My Sh*tty First, Second, Gulp, Fifteenth Drafts or What I Learned from Years in Writing Groups

Friday, July 31, 2020
by Libby Ware

Ann Lamott, in her writing guide, Bird by Bird, advises writers to move forward without editing until reaching the end of a “shitty first draft.” I’ve tried this approach and I’ve also written a chapter, taken it to my writer’s group, revised it, and then moved on to the next chapter. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. But whichever method is used, a warning is due.

I started my first novel in the mid-nineties. It arose out of a short story with a minor character demanding that his story be told. My story about Lum, a white intersex Appalachian woman had a character, Smiley, who was a Black peddler in the same community. So I took off with his story, initially calling it a novella. I noticed that writers often mislabel novels as novellas until they realize that there’s more story than they thought. I started a workshop run by a writer who is an excellent editor. We could turn in pages every week, and then we’d have a chance to read to the group every three to four weeks. My optimal plan was to give her pages one week, get back her comments the next week, and then revise based on her input. Then take it to the class and revise with their suggestions. That plan went along well until I got to the end. Then I started all over again. And then I workshopped the whole thing over again. And I joined another more casual writers group, so I was getting even more feedback. Other writers were also bringing their work back for their third or more read through.

I met an agent at the Atlanta Writers Conference who, after reading the whole novel, advised me that there was not enough connecting Lum and Smiley. She suggested either adding more association between them, or separating the novel into two. Lum’s story is about a spinster not having her own residence, but moving from one relative’s house to another as they need her for child care, housework, hog killing, etc. I decided Lum deserved her own story and I pulled her chapters out, only to find that I didn’t have enough for a full novel. I added new material; and, instead of taking new chapters back again and again, they got one pass only with the teacher and were seen once by the class and the other group.

I think workshop leaders do their writers a disservice by encouraging or just not discouraging three or more readings of the same material. Over-revising can take the freshness and energy out of a piece. Also, a lot of time can be spent revising chapters that may not end up in the finished book. And for every time it’s brought back, someone will find something that needs to be changed.

Libby Ware is the author of the award-winning novel LUM and co-author with Charlene Ball, under the pen name of Lily Charles, of Murder at the Estate Sale, to be published August 15, 2020.

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photo by Amy Gibbons
photo by Amy Gibbons 
Libby Ware is a member of Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and president of Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers Association. She is a fellow of The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. Her debut novel, LUM, won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Honor Book in Literature, a gold medal by the Independent Publishers Association, and was a finalist for Lambda Literary’s Debut Novel Award. With Charlene Ball, she writes the Molly and Emma Booksellers Series under the pen name Lily Charles. Their first title in the series, MURDER AT THE ESTATE SALE, is due out from Black Opal Books in August 2020. Find them at

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Libby--There's the (rather cruder version that I'm adapting) saying, "Poop, or get off the pot." Endlessly revising is avoiding the really scary task of submitting and querying. If we're true writers, we write, we revise and we send off our work, hoping that it gets published.

For me, what worked (in my case) was slogging through a first draft, getting an editor (Margo Dill) to critique it, writing a second (which became a third draft as I wrote it), having a couple of beta readers read it, and then I started submitting and querying. Has this process truly worked? Time will tell. I'm racking up rejection emails--so far, a few nibbles but no true bites.

Good luck with your soon-to-be-born book. Just a thought: I'd love to read a post sometime about what it's like to write a book with someone else. How does the process change? What makes it more difficult? What makes it easier? Did having two authors make the piece go in an unexpected direction?

Libby (and Charlene)--congrats, and I hope your new book's debut goes well.

Libby Ware said...

Hi Sioux, I agree that continual revising can be a way of avoiding submitting and fear of rejection. Charlene and I wrote a guest post about writing together. I’ll send you a link.

Margo Dill said...

As an editor, I couldn't agree more with you. I have been handed several projects where the writer was at their wit's end trying to follow so much advice. Sometimes, I start with: You have to write the book in your heart, and then figure out what to do with it.

I find this especially true with children's picture book manuscripts. I guess the shorter format leads people to get a lot of critiques in a fast amount of time, but that's not always good.

Thank you for reminding us! said...

This is good to hear! This is my first try at writing a first draft the Anne Lamont way. It's a bit liberating knowing it doesn't have to be good or ready the first time around. But I am already worried about the edits!

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