The Right Balance: Drafts for You, Drafts for the Reader

Written by Brendan O’Meara

If you have an hour, listen to this conversation on writing between Neil Strauss and Tim Ferriss. Ferriss, while not a master wordsmith (by his own admission) has, at his core, true immersion journalism in his system. He experiments, meets interesting people, and writes about it. If he wasn’t as consumed with life hacking, startups, and tech, he’d make a great narrative journalist. While at Princeton, he took a course with John McPhee. How great would that be!

But it’s what Strauss said about his early drafts that prompted this little riff. At 21:15, he talks about the first draft being for you, being for the writer. It’s the vomit draft, it’s all you want to say. The drafts following are for shaping and crafting. What you wrote in that first draft may not make it into successive drafts. Strauss says, “The first draft is for you; the second draft is for the readers.” I’d rephrase this because it gives a false dichotomy that there are only two drafts. There are many. “The early drafts are for you; the later drafts are for the readers.” You reach that line of demarcation once you being making wholesale cuts, then you know you’ve entered late-draft writing.

For the past five years (!) I’ve been writing, toiling, drafting, cutting, writing more, cutting more, from my baseball memoir The Last Championship. I’m definitely in the late-draft phase. I haven’t touched it in months, which is probably a good thing, but I do have to revisit it at some point. My father isn’t going to be alive forever!

My earliest drafts, and that includes the latest, are pretty harsh at some points toward my father. The more and more I realize it, some of that stuff doesn’t need to be in there anymore, but I needed to write it in the early drafts. I needed to get it out of my head and onto the page. Once there, I could judge its literary merit. I could judge if the reader needs to read the stuff. I could decide if the memoir is too confessional, instead of just laying out a nice story about a father, a son, and their bonds, broken then reformed, by baseball.

The wonderful folks at Summer Game Books, who have taken an interest in the book, wrote me a nice critique. They enjoyed what they read, but figured the book was at its strongest when it adhered to the baseball narrative. Any time it branched off that road it faltered.

My father, at times, behaved in unsettling ways towards me, my sister, my mother, but some/most of that stuff doesn’t need to be in the final product. As I get older, I now realize that we do our best. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback things. I know he did his best. It could’ve been better, but it could’ve been a whole lot worse. I’m not complaining. The early drafts are too damning to him, too hurtful to read, and, in the end, irrelevant to the overall story.

But the early drafts needed to have it. And that’s my point. I needed to get it out of my head, out of my journal, and onto a public page to better judge. The first draft was for me, now it’s onto the later drafts for Dad, and for the reader.

Don’t Be a Jerk: The Worst Blog Post I’ve Ever Written

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I should probably be doing work, but my train derailed and I figured and I’d better atone for my sins. I wrote a post here saying Charles Bethea’s profile in Outside Magazine had the worse opening paragraph I’ve ever read. It was hyperbolic and hurtful. The post was written by a bitter hand. Worst of all, I attacked a fellow writer, which is minor league baseball. I’ve had my work raked over the coals and it hurts. I was a rock-eating troll.

My wife sent me an image of a poster that says, “How to Feel Miserable as an Artist”. Almost every one hit home, especially the first one: Constantly Compare Yourself to Other Artists.  This is what prompted me to rail Bethea’s Outside piece, which I have since read and is well done. It was done purely out of insecurity. I also came across this: 20 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. Again, I was weak-minded.

What prompted this mea culpa was Bethea defending himself in the comments of that post as well as in an email to me where he said, “Have some balls and publish this comment on your site.” Go read it. It’s smart, funny, and well written, a total zinger. I also wrote a long reply with my tail between my legs.

I told him in an email that sometimes freelancing puts me in a dark, dark place. I’m alone for hours upon hours when I’m not shadowing a character. Even then, it’s likely a story that will barely pay for the gas it took me to get there. This makes me bitter. That’s a ‘me’ problem. And reading his opening graf to that story hit me at this intersection. It doesn’t make it right. It’s just what happened.

I wondered if the blog post would somehow reach him. These things have a way of flowing down the river of the Internet to the source of our angst. I feel slimy.

Still, as a result of my childish tantrum, we’ll likely have some civilized discourse about writing and magazine journalism. Remember when I spoke about luck? Maybe in this instance I made a friend out of a crummy thing I did. That’s luck. Undeserved, but luck no less.

Don’t Write Like Sh*t: The Worst Opening Paragraph I’ve Ever Read

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I received my latest issue of Outside Magazine in the mail a few days ago. The quality of this magazine has been in decline for some time. It’s edging into Men’s Health territory, which is never a good sign if you’re into good writing.

One story struck my interest and I sat down to read it, carving out the 30 minutes or so I figured it would take. What I read was the worst opening paragraph I’ve ever read.

I’m supposed to go flying over New Zealand’s South Island with the director of the world’s largest guidebook company, but I’m feeling haggard. Last night, Daniel Houghton and I made a little tour of Queenstown’s bars: Winnies, the Buffalo Club, Zephyr, a few other places …”

It carries on a bit more in this style. Instead of taking two pushpins and jabbing them into the dead of my pupils, I closed the magazine and went back to proofreading a feature I wrote.

I was eager to read this profile because it’s about this 25-year-old billionaire who took over Lonely Planet. I wanted to read to learn what percentage of one’s soul does one need to sell in order to be a billionaire at 25. My guess was somewhere between 50 and 65 percent. But the author of the piece, Charles Bethea, popped that balloon.

Part of being a good writer is being a great reader. With that comes reading shit. I almost want to read the rest of the piece as a cautionary tale. But, then again, I’d rather rant in a blog post than finish that piece.

My frustration with this drivel is that I want to have a sustainable freelance career and much of that comes from cracking into the slicks, the magazines that afford you time to write a great feature and pay you several thousand dollars. A man’s gotta eat … and keep his wife from hanging herself as she watches her husband fail again while she works at a job that has sucked every ounce of vitality from her once vibrant persona.

Maybe it’s not possible.

Bryan Cranston, the brilliant—truly brilliant—actor, best known for his role as Walter White on Breaking Bad, says an artist needs four things: Patience, perseverance, talent, and luck. It is so, so true.

Patience: How long do you wait for your break?
Perseverance: How much of a beating are you willing to take and for how long?
Talent: Do you even have the ability that people find worth waiting for? Have you overvalued your own talent, thus wasting everyone’s time?
Luck: Who the hell knows?

Luck. Luck is really what it comes down to, luck and talent. It’s true, some people have to make their own luck. Luck comes at the intersection of preparation and opportunity. Some people have all the luck, little talent, and still manage to float. Some people have all the talent, but are never granted to opportunity to let that talent bloom.

It’s a tough and brutal industry and reading opening paragraphs like that make me angry and, most of all, deflated.

I have to believe in a paradigm of abundance, that there’s room for all our work and that we can be paid accordingly. It’s unfair to knock Bethea’s horrible paragraph. It probably has more to do with jealousy on my part, but even if I were in place where I was writing for slicks, I’d still find that paragraph about as appetizing as cod oil.

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