Drafting Spines

1726 words, 9199 characters

Back in September 2022, I realized that I could trade words for money. Armed with the new knowledge, I started a content agency and as a treat, bought a couple fountain pens.

As I wrote more, I started thinking about the craft of writing. I read books like On Writing (Stephen King), Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), and Elements of Style (Struck & White) and spent countless hours practicing (~50,000 words).

I think it worked.

Drafts and Spines

I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

- Stephen King

I always struggle with the first draft of a piece. Everything looks just so crude. My mind painted a beautiful picture, and every sentence I write shatters it into a million pieces.

Halfway through the draft, I can no longer stomach the writing and abandon it. Now, I get to look through the draft and see what I can salvage. Maybe a sentence here, or an idea there. What I’m digging out are the edges of a piece. They form the inspiration for the next draft. They tell me where to look, some sentences have paragraphs within them while others are dry and barren.

The second draft comes along much better. The ideas speak more clearly, the sentences start to flow, and the piece finally looks like it was written by someone who actually understands English. The general structure of the draft starts to take shape, supported by the insights that I articulated.

These insights are like the wing or leg of a fossil. They’re pretty to look at but aren’t enough to support a full narrative. That’s the job of the spine. The spine connects these separate insights into one unbroken fossil. In excavating the spine, I ask myself, “why should a reader read this?”

Now, the third draft starts. It’s the hardest of the three drafts.

At this point, all the ideas from the first draft have come to the light. The problem is that some of them are from different dinosaurs. It doesn’t make sense to stick a wing on a T-Rex. The spine determines what the piece is trying to accomplish and some ideas have to be shelved for future pieces.

I usually stop at the third draft. Sometimes, I might have a couple of second drafts if I feel that the ideas aren’t coming through enough. Or, I might have two tries at a third draft to excavate the spine. But once the third draft is done, the piece now has a strong narrative and is ready to be shipped to the editor.

The editor’s work is to sharpen the spine. Sometimes, ideas have shifted too far from the spine or a wing has come loose. The editor puts everything back into place. Generally, that’s done by removing rather than adding. A rule that Stephen King uses, second draft = first draft - 10%.

And with that, we’re done. The piece is ready to publish. “Ready to publish” is relative.

There’s probably still plenty to do with the piece, some ideas can be explained better or the spine can use some adjustments.

But the opposite of good is perfect. And if we sit to fix every mistake, then the fossil starts to tunnel its way back underground. So, we call it a day and publish.

Inspiration and Grunt

The thing all writers do best is find ways to avoid writing.

- Alan Dean Foster

There are a lot of reasons to write. I do it because it’s fun.

Being a writer means that I get to read a lot and write a lot. Reading is my favorite hobby.

My love for reading started with Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The stories of Guan Yu, Zhuge Liang, and Cao Cao fascinated me and I went on to read just about every single ancient Chinese military saga.

Writing, though, is probably tenth on my list of favorite things. Some days, I’ll glance over a previous sentence and my mind starts screaming of ways to improve it. Once I rewrite the sentence, my mind points me in the direction of a previous paragraph that needs more attention. Soon enough, I’m paralyzed in my tracks. On those days, writing feels like the worst form of torture ever invented.

So when I started writing, my mind would tug at me to enjoy a new TV show, Youtube video, or even go work out. Anything to avoid writing.

To justify this, I’d call myself an inspirational writer. I didn’t think that being chained to their desk to meet some arbitrary word count suited me. Rather, I’d write when it struck my fancy and wrote sophisticated thoughts that flowed straight from mind to finger to paper. Rather, I’d write when it struck my fancy, allowing my thoughts to flow from mind to hand to paper.

The inspiration-driven writing style served me well.

While I played video games or watched TV shows, my mind was busy in the background, instinctively refining my ideas. I’d plop myself in front of a blank page a couple of times a day to see if I was ready to write. If not, I’d go right back to Youtube or the latest TV show.

And when I was ready, well, I’d write then.

When I read over the piece the next day, it turned out that its beauty was a bit overstated.

Yes, it was better than the drivel in the first drafts, but it was nowhere near the level of sophistication I had expected. It still needed elbow grease to find the spine and polish the rough edges away.

And sometimes, the core ideas didn’t make much sense either.

There is a muse… He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you… It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic.

- Stephen King

When I started writing seriously, I exorcised the inspiration-driven style out of my system.

With my previous process, would spend the first few days reading, playing, and napping. Then, when inspiration struck, I’d pump out two thousand words in a matter of hours.

That was fun. But that’s not being a writer.

That’s me being a delinquent and writing at the last minute when I could no longer run away from the guilt of procrastination.

These days, I spend a lot more time doing the “grunt labor”.

I wake up in the morning (as early as I can), boil a pot of tea, and sit myself in front of my desk. I’ll have set my desk the previous night so that I can get started right away, even if that means just staring at a blank page with a pen in hand.

I start my writing in long-hand, writing down what comes to mind without looking back. As I write, I build up a rhythm and confidence. At a certain point, my hand can no longer keep up with my mind. That’s when I switch from long hand to computer, typing out all of my thoughts. Soon enough, I have a couple pages worth of material to edit and refine.

Some days, I’m confident enough to start typing. Those are my “inspiration” days. They don’t come as often as I’d like. Most days, I’m pinned to my desk, etching it out one word at a time.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been able to up my word count from ~500 per day to somewhere in the range of ~1,200 per day.

Of course, not all of these words end up in the next draft but they all play their role in building, shaping, and refining the final published piece.

Why do I write?

To continue the previous quote,

…the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there hat can change your life. Believe, I know.

- Stephen King

My first success with writing came with a book I was writing called “Blood Shark”. The title is beyond cheesy (published in simpler times, 8 years ago) and a lot of the initial readers came from my translation audience. But some of them liked it enough to leave comments. Comments!

Having someone read your words and decide that they liked it enough to leave behind their own words is incredible. There’s no better feeling in the world.

Later, I heard back on a couple of my other pieces including On Trucking (2023), The Art of Retail (2021), and The NA Esports Curse (2021). Every email, comment, and message warms my heart and makes my day.

That said, one thing that I don’t do is read my past work. In writing a piece, I’ll do revisions, edits, and even rewrites. But the moment I call it done, I stop thinking about the piece.

Every once in a while, I’ll come across a paragraph or section that I had written, and it’s like greeting an old friend, one that has left home and is back for a summer break.

As a writer, it’s easy to keep editing a piece. There’s always room for improvement in cleaning up the language, adding new prose, or even simplifying the idea. But at the end of the day, I write because I want my words to stay. I write to capture a single moment of myself, flaws included.

Some writers write for fame, others for money. I write for both of those things, but most of all, I want to write because I know that writing can change my life.

It already has.

Thanks to Dan for reading through this. This has been one of the harder pieces I’ve ever written, it took 4.5 drafts to complete.

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