“We Cut A Board”: On Writing Drafts

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

We were novice woodworkers, and it was a very bad table saw, and I don’t know why I’m making excuses this early, because nobody lost a finger. When you’re just starting out with power tools, “Keeping all your appendages attached” is a triumph in and of itself.

That said, every Wednesday I’d go out to the garage with my friend Eric, and we’d build something. Or part of something. Or we’d learn how to use a tool that could build part of something.

But the best part of the Woodworking Wednesdays was sharing our work with Gini. Whenever I got back to the house, my wife would perk up and say, “So what’d you do tonight?” And I’d tell her all the cool things we’d done that evening, bubbling over with enthusiasm, and she’d be thrilled that we were making progress.

Until that Very Bad night.

“So what’d you do tonight?” she asked.

“We cut a board,” I said glumly.

And I watched her face as she did the calculations – yes, we’d been out there for three and a half hours. Yes, she’d heard the power tools running on and off all that time.

Her brow creased as she realized we’d spent an entire evening trying to cut a board square, a ninety-degree cut across two parallel sides, for a bookcase we wanted to build – and it had taken us three and a half hours to accomplish that trivial feat. I saw her correctly imagining us starting out with a project that required a 36″ board, then settling for a 35-3/4″ board, then cursing as we adjusted the measurements down to a 35-1/4″ board, continually trying to get the tablesaw to cut that perfect right angle…

“Well,” she said, brightening, “At least you – ”

“We cut it wrong,” I said, admitting total defeat before traipsing back into the bedroom.

Now. The evening, as it turns out, was not a total waste. We learned a lot about compensating for wobbly fences, and how to correct (or not correct) a bad cut that we made. We figured out all the ways in which our bad saw was tetchy, and come the next week we used all of that effort to make a good cut in only half an hour or so.

It was not a pleasant evening.

But even though we finished the night with zero results, we came away with a great deal of knowledge about what not to do, which in some cases is more valuable than a completed product.

The reason I’m telling you this is because last night, I went downstairs to write the first chapter of my new novel. And I spent about ninety minutes massaging the 500 words I’d written the day before, fine-tuning the exciting opening of an hyper-competent techno-genius breaking into a prison cell, before realizing this wasn’t the story of a hyper-competent techno-genius, this was the story of someone scared but competent doing something they’d never done before.

And with that, I realized everything I’d been doing for the past three nights was completely wrong. I’d been starting the novel from the wrong emotional beat, because I’d been focusing on the wrong aspects of this character, and needed to come up with a start that emphasized this person’s vulnerability, not their flawless planning.

Which happens a lot, particularly in writing, particularly if you just wing things like I do. You get a couple thousand words in and realize it’s the wrong character, or the wrong plot development, or the wrong tone.

And because people are always sharing their daily word count, there’s that temptation to think that all that writing was wasted energy. But it wasn’t. You learned what didn’t work, which is equally valuable. You had the humility to walk away from the sunk cost fallacy, the wisdom to stop polishing a turd, and the faith in your own voice to find the story you’re excited about telling instead of the story you accidentally wrote down.

That’s all progress, even if it’s not as tidy as “+1,000 words.”

So when I slumped upstairs after realizing I’d have to scrap everything and start over fresh tomorrow, Gini asked me: “So how’d the writing go tonight?”

“I cut a board,” I said, and she nodded.


  1. dellstories
    Sep 7, 2018

    “I have not failed 700 times. I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a lightbulb.”
    (or some variation thereof. The original quote is obscure)

    Thomas Edison

    For all of the man’s failings, you have to admit that he was persistent

  2. Raven Black
    Sep 8, 2018

    Sometimes the challenge is recognizing when your wobbly quadrangle is close enough to square that it’ll be fine if you just use it, and it’s time to stop redoing it better.
    (This comment brought to you by my own tendency to rewrite sections of code that work fine and have perfectly acceptable performance, but maybe a little bit of a clunky interface.)

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