Broken THings
Craft of Writing

Broken Things: An Approach to First Drafts

I have a bizarre relationship with new things. Maybe you can identify with it. I can’t seem to own them very long before they’re damaged. Many years ago my husband and I went out and bought our first really nice, new piece of furniture, a dining room table. We’d had it exactly three days before my 110-pound boxer, who’d never done this before to our knowledge, decided to go for a pizza box sitting in the middle of the table. His claw marks left the evidence.

I won’t lie. I cried.

Before that, the day we moved into our house, I was carrying some kind of metal sculpture across the nicest tile we’d ever owned, dropped it, and chipped the tile. For years afterward I would just stand there and look at that dang chip.

I come from a long line of relatives who do not have this problem. Especially my mother. She has owned pieces of furniture for 40 years that look brand new. Granted, she buffs and waxes and has some special tricks for small nicks, but it’s like there’s an invisible shield around what she owns. No one spills stuff. No one drops stuff.

No such luck for me. New cars get dings. New carpets get spills. Clothes get holes. Even trashcans get ruined. All the while I’m trying to live up to the high standards from which I was bred.

But I was freed from all of this a few years ago when I went to stay with my friend Torry Martin. Torry and I had teamed up on a few projects and I traveled to Georgia to stay with him while he, his writing partner Marshall, and I worked on our movie Heaven Bound.

Nothing could’ve prepared me for walking into his house. The outside looked simple enough, but when I walked through the door, I was greeted with what can only be described as a decorating marvel. I knew Torry to be a creative guy. He has a shoe collection that belongs in some kind of Guinness World Book of Records. But I had no idea it spilled into his everyday life. His entire house was beautifully and creatively decorated, the kind of eclectic taste that most of us appreciate but would fail at. His entire downstairs was a bed and breakfast, and I felt like I’d just walked into my ideal creative space.

I couldn’t stop talking about his decorating skills when he smiled and said, “Let me show you a little secret.” We were standing in his kitchen and he pulled back a kitchen towel to reveal a nice-sized dent in his refrigerator. He beckoned me to follow him and showed me a huge chunk out the back leg of a living room chair. On and on this went. Tables, scratched but cleverly disguised. Appliances that had seen better days but didn’t show it. Rugs that had holes but were covered with cleverly-placed baskets.

I couldn’t believe it.

He explained he purposefully buys damaged goods. “It reminds me,” he said, “of how beautiful broken things can be.”

I was set free right then and there of trying to buy and keep beautiful things. I adopted Torry’s approach to decorating and buying. It was astounding what it did for my mindset, and my pocketbook. Our entertainment system has a crushed corner in the back. Our high-end dishwasher cost me pennies on the dollar because it has a dent no one can see. My entire office is full of furniture that hides well its secret scars.

Not only does it remind me of the beauty of broken things, but it relieves me of the pressure of keeping a new thing from harm. Just last year, after my son wrecked one of our vehicles, I stood next to a car salesman as he and I looked at a used Ford Explorer. I loved how it drove, and it seemed well cared for. But as the harsh February weather beat down on us, we stood at its rear and both stared silently at its back end. There was a good-sized dent in the back. It was well-hidden by a bar that ran across it, but it was still obvious to someone looking for problems.

James looked at me, his lips pressed together. He seemed to know what was coming.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

Confusion swept over his expression. I could read his face. “Should I mention the dent? Maybe she didn’t see it. But maybe she didn’t see it and I should rush her into the finance office.”

But it was exactly what I needed. A well-cared-for car with a dent. It took all the pressure off.

So, how does this relate to writing and first drafts? Well, I think it has to do with mindset. We have two ways of looking at our first drafts.

  • I nailed it! That sets us up for some difficult truths that are about to come our way, either when we read it ourselves, or someone else does. It’s the chip on the nice tile. We thought it was shiny and new, but it quickly doesn’t stay that way.

OR

  • This thing is broken. Arriving at the end of draft one, and approaching draft two with the mindset that what you have is beautiful, but nevertheless broken, will put you in a nice place to start getting it ready to be seen by the world.

My friend Torry’s astounding ability to hide the flaws through clever decorating techniques can be a fun approach to how we view our manuscripts. He told me that he has sometimes moved an entire living room around to accommodate the flaw of one newly acquired piece of furniture.

And I suppose that’s what we do with our manuscripts. If we go in knowing there are flaws, our eyes are better open to what we can move and how we can shape it so that it is ready to be appreciated for its beauty.

It may be a one-man show, or you may need the help of others to spot how to “rearrange the furniture,” so to speak. But either way, I will tell you that the “it’s broken but beautiful” approach to writing can really help make that second draft way less painful and a delight to jump into.

I’ve published twenty-five books in my life, and only one time did a manuscript pass through substantive edits without changes. And in a bizarre twist of fate, I was so terrified this book was no good that I told my husband we should prepare that they may release me from the contract. I really thought it was that bad. So when I got the call that they loved it and were sending it on the line editing, I can’t describe the shock.

Most of my writing requires rearranging the furniture plus an additional “friend with an eye for it” to spot where my weak spots are. I appreciate those eyes. I think many outside the business tend to think that we sit down, knock it out on our first try, and hover over some kind of superpower.

We know better.

But when I walked into Torry’s house, my first thought was, “Man, writing’s been good to Torry,” not having a clue that most of what was in his house was purchased at discounted rates and found at estate sales.

I wouldn’t have been the wiser had he not disclosed his secret.

But I have a feeling Torry has more in mind about his house than just a hobby of shopping for used furniture.

I think he enjoys reminding a lot of people that broken things can be beautiful.

And inside of our first drafts I think we’ll find the rawest, truest version of our story, the one that poured out of us, the cathartic beauty that flowed right out of our soul.

Now we have to dress it up and make it socially acceptable. That’s draft two.

But that first draft had to come out. It always does. And as broken as it is, it’ll always be beautiful.

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11 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your article “Broken Things: An Approach to First Drafts” and am recommending it to my critique group. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for sharing this message. I love turning our perspective around, and looking at the first draft as “broken but beautiful.” I’m so sorry that the damage magnet has attached to you. I have a similar issue! It’s a great reminder for that, too. My beautiful cherry furniture with kitty claw scratches from their liking the view atop it shows that I’m living my life, alongside my pets. If I get to enjoy the scenic views, it’s only fair that they get to as well. Happy writing to you!

  3. It’s such perfect timing to see this article. I just got back from a meeting with a new writer who has his first draft done on a compelling topic and wanted to discuss what happens next. I strove to both encourage and help maintain realistic expectations. This article sums it up nicely – I’m forwarding it to my new friend so he can continue on his creative journey with a visual of the celebration to be had during the process.

  4. I can completely relate to the inability to keep things in my possession unscathed. But when that first dent or scratch comes, it certainly takes the pressure off from then on! I love this article not just for the writing insight, but for the life wisdom in general. Lovely analogy. And I had an opportunity to meet Torry at a conference in May but didn’t. I was too overwhelmed by his huge personality. He was like a rock star to everyone there. But after reading this I’m thinking he’s someone I’d like to say hello to next time. His statement that it reminds him how beautiful broken thing can be got me in the feels. That goes far deeper than just furniture and first drafts. Thanks Rene!

    1. Definitely say hi next time, he’s so sweet! And he does have a huge personality, doesn’t he? Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lori!

  5. Thanks for sharing! Yep, I cried. Sometimes the “broken things” turn out to be one’s body, mind, and spirit. Each life’s story is so amazing…I find a new friend is a great book I haven’t gotten to read yet.