Wait, did I just make a golf analogy? I hate golf, and I never do that.

Oh, well.

Anyway, last Sunday I finally finished the rough first draft of my urban fantasy novel, tentatively titled Cleopatra, Queen of Seattle. Last week I wrote a bit about why it took me longer to finish that I’d hoped, and about how much more work I’ll have to do in the initial edit, with inspiration from Don Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.

But what do I mean by a “rough draft?”

Time and again, when I was editing other people’s novels, I’d run across an author who just couldn’t hit a deadline to save his or her life. Most of the time that was due to some variation of the same problem, and it wasn’t laziness. What these authors were doing was trying to make each sentence perfect before moving on to the next. In the context of the shared world books we were working on then, books that tend to have a heavier editorial hand than most, that was particularly frustrating. Over and over I would call or send an email with some variation on: “Just finish it—get it out of you so we have something to work on.”

Some authors would contact me on an almost daily basis while they were writing, looking for editorial comment as they went along. I hated doing that, and would resist to the best of my ability. And not because I was lazy, too busy, or didn’t care, but because it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to edit text that doesn’t yet exist. First you have to write it, then you have to edit it.

To illustrate in gory detail what I mean by “rough” I’ve gone back to an old file of Cleopatra, Queen of Seattle and cut out part of a scene exactly as it flowed from my keyboard, totally unedited, untouched by human hands, direct from brain to Microsoft Word.

Here we go:

“Who is that there?” the man in the drab gray uniform called out, his voice echoing in the confined space made of concrete and steel pipes.

Cleo couldn’t see his face, and wasn;t sure where he’d come from, but his prsence there was dreadfully inconvenient. She’d entered the sub-basement through the stairwell. The lobby elevator didn’t go there, and she’d had to melt the lock on the door. The building management didn’t want anyone going down there—if only they knew.

She trook a breath to answer, to warn the janitor to leave, to run and never look back. Cleo wanted to tell him to run as though his immortal soul dependened on it—but he wouldn’t believe her. They never believed—even the ones who said they did. It was how they all managed to hide in plain sight for tywo thousand years.

“Mistress?” the janitor said, the voice different, tentative.


The abomile screamed—a dead, solid sound—and blood sprayed from the stump of its left arm. Its right arm flailed away, the back of its hot, rough hand scraping Clleo’s cheek. It fell back, spraying black blood all over the concrete floor, and across the floursencent tube set in the ceiling. The light dimmed and turned a sickly shape of violet.

“Thanks,” Ceo gasped over her shoulder to Marcus, then she filled her mouth with fire again.

“Don’t—!” Julian shouted from farther down the dark corridor, and Cleo spat fire into the abomile’sopen, screaming mouth, and drowned it in something a mortal chemist would have called “napalm.” “—kill it.” Julian finished.

The abomile shook a few times, bashed its ankles aginast the blood-spattered floor, and was still.

Cleo could hear Julian take a deep breath in, then there was a space of almost absolute silence before he released it in a tired, perturbed sigh. She didn’t look back at him, didn’t bother asking why he wanted it alive. Marcus had tracked the Fury Tisiphone back here, to the little manmade Infectrum deep beneath the glittering steel and concrete tower in the heart of the shiny new city fo Seattle. Julian might have been the only living creatire outside the Great Ennead itself that could have compelled the creature to speak, to divulge he location of its mistress, but . . .

“It ruined my jeans,” Cl;eo said, thumbing the broken belt loop. She wasn;t even wearing a belt.

Marcus exhaled through his nose in that pecuiliar way he had that was a sort of battlefield laugh. The sopund made Cleo smile.

She turned to Marcus with a smile and said, “Thank you. It was going to rip my face off.”

“That,” Marcus replied with a curt little bow, “would have been a crime against the ages.”


“Above,” Marcus warned them, and Cleo sank into a crouch, risking a greater mass of fire in both hands.

The scraping d=sound came a gain, a little louder, a little closer—and Cleo flicked a droplet of liquid fire up at the ceiling and a dozen feet down the corrodor. Something hissed and flinched away. The flame was barely brighter or hotter than what you’d get from a disposable lighter, but it was enough to reveal a glimpse of a dull back eye and the pale, flaky skin on the face of a little monkey.

“They’re on the pipes,” Julian said.

Cleo just had toime to think, They? and they started dropping alla round her.

On instinct along, she tosed up a fist-sized blall of orange fire, traced in bvlue. I caught one of vazalli between the legs and it fell off ots mark—it had been aimeing for her face.

Cleo spun on her knees and gabbed another of the little monkey-demons right out of the air, burning ot with her eight hundred degree palm. It still tried to bite her so she threw it away, knoicking onto another one that was scuttling across a collection of steel conduits screwd tp the wall. The two of them tumbled, but only one scrambled to its feet to try fpr her again. Marcus took its head with a twitch of hois enchanted blade.

Pain flared in her calf and Cleo sat back and twistedf, breaking the neck of the vazallux that bit her, but alos drivinf its nasty litte fangs deeper into her leg. She made an angry sound and stood, whipping the dead monkley-demon away.

Another of its kind deftly hopped over the limp corose and threw itself at Cleo. She was off balance and prepared for another bite—to her faceno less—but the thing’s head popped like a bubble filled with hot red blood and tiny little fragmets of skull. Cleo bashed her lebpow against the wall, trapping another vazallux that cklawed at her form the side, and she saw Julian take his finger away from a scar hat ran along his collarbone. The top three buttons of his his Jacob Kestral buitton-down shiort were open, revealing half a dozen scars hjust like it.

They didnlt have time to exchange a smile until the vazallux Ckleo held against the wall bit her in the arm. She gritted her teeth and gave it a loittle growl before heating her elbow so fast and thoroughloy the sleeve of her bliuse burst into flame and the vazallux’s blood boiled. It died quickly and messily, and Marcus helped her patt the fire out so she only lost the one sleeve and not the whole shirt.

“Forward,” Julian said, and didn’t wait for them.

He brushed past and dodged into an open doorway—hwat looked like a dead black rectangle. Two vazzalli leaped out of his way, turning their pinched little naked mionkley faces away from him as he passed. Before they could recover their wits, Marcs had implaed one with his sword and Cleo had burned the eyes out of the other. The blinded vazallux squealed and shrieked, which Cleo ignored long enoygh to follow Juolian into he dark room.

Marcus kicked the blind vazallux againstg the wall wigh one heavy work boot and twisted, breakling its neck as he followed jUlian and Cleo into he darkness. Cleo opened her right hand and let flames rise up like a torch to light the room.

“Two of hem!” Julian called, but Cleo and Marciis could already see them.

Julian had led Cleo and Mrcuis into a wide, low-ceilinged room that housed some sort of machine. It was a set of wide pipes that came up hrough the floor and twsited around the room to dissappear back up into the ceiling. Here and there were crank-valve wheelso f various sizeds, one of which was hung with a sign that read: Leave Open in read letters on a white background. Water dripped out of  badly-welded joint to puddle on the floor and lazinly run down a rusted drain.



The strix brought one of h=its arms up to fend off the blade, and Cleo was sure it would lose the arm in the process but at the last fraction of a second Marcus turnded the bvlade so that it slapped gainst the strix’s scaly forearm.

“Wait,” Cleo whispered to herself. “I know thatr blade.”

The strix marcus had hit staggered forward and came out of the network of pipes to sprawl on the ground only a few feet from Cleo.

Julian stooid faceing the second strix, which sttod transfixed beofre him.

“You’ll want to cvlose your eyes,” Julian said.

Cleo, marcus, and bothe strixes complied, and a split second laster the strixc Julian had been staring at when he scrpaed a bloody line against one of his own scars, made a rumbling, gurgling sound, then a gasp like a chorus of wounded animals and it started to bulge on places.

The strix on the floor at Marcus’s feet began to claw at its own face.

The other strix, fell face-first into a denser art of the piopework, its body bloating and exxpanding to lodge oitself into place. Its scaly skin began to bulge so badly it wraooped around the pipes.

The strix on the floor at Marcus;’s feet torn all three of its own eyes out of its skull and begged for death in the language of ancinet Mespoptamia.

Then the stix in the pipes burst open, entrils and blood and chips of bone fiilling the air like a mist.

The strix on the floor at Marcus’s feet ripped open its own throat and gurgled in a thousand drowning voices, choking on its own corrosive gorge.

Cleo remembered that sword of Marcus’s. Any blade could kill a man, but only that one could compel a man—or a demon—to kill itself.

“We need to start questioning these things,” Julian complained.

Marcus looked as though he was about to reply, but stopped short and took three long strides to another open doorway on the far side of the room, past the gore-strewn pipework.

Cleo scrambled to her feet, once again ignited bnoth hands, and followed.

“Don’t—x” marcus called back, but Cleo and Julian were already through the door behind him.

“Tisiphone . . .” Cleo said said, but Julina helfd up a hand to silence her and he shook his head.

Set aside the actually bigger issues of it being overwritten in parts, maybe repetitious or contradictory to previous or later text, or just in general lacking in finesse—that’s the harder part of the edit, actually making the writing good. For now let’s look at how clean the text is. When editors say that text is “clean,” we mean that there are few spelling and grammar mistakes, few typos. There’s no such thing as a manuscript with no mistakes or typos. These are things created by humans and so there will always be flaws. That’s okay, as long as you do your best.

But obviously the text excerpted above is far from my best.

Let’s break it down.

The first line in the scene is actually more or less perfect. I’m firmly of the opinion that you should never sit down to write until you know precisely what your first sentence is going to be. The rest tends to flow from there.

The limits of my keyboard dexterity is revealed in the very next line, in which the word wasn’t is rendered as wasn;t. I do this all the time—seriously maybe 90% of the contractions I type start with a semi-colon instead of an apostrophe—which are on adjacent keys on the keyboard. Why is this? I have no idea. Maybe I’ve bad-mouthed the semi-colon so often and so publically it;s trying to get its revenge on me. Oh, see? I did it again. Damn you, semi-colon!

My laptop is set up to fix that automatically, which accounts for the occasional straight quote. I actually keep meaning to turn that off—and turn it off entirely, not just try to fix it so that it auto-corrects with “smart quotes.”

If you’re wondering why my computer isn’t just fixing a lot of this automatically as I write, its because the first thing I do when I get a new computer is turn off virtually everything that Word does automatically. Especially writing science fiction and fantasy I tend to use a lot of invented words and names for things and I don’t want my computer trying to reinterpret those for me, and all those little red lines under every other word just bugs the crap out of me. I know I’ve spelled a lot of stuff wrong. That’s what this post is all about. Please don’t let your computer edit for you—they’re really not as good at it as you’d like to think they are. And there is something to be said for cleaning up your own messes—you can learn a lot from the mistakes you’ve made, and the slow process of fixing typos gives you a chance to make a slow, considered crawl through your own text, which will reveal things more important, and more in need of greater attention, than the occasional typo.

So the first block isn’t actually that awful, typo-wise, but as I get into it, especially as the action ramps up, it gets sloppier and sloppier. I tend to like to write action scenes as fast as possible in order to infuse them with some sense of urgency. I think that works, but it also results in a huge mess. Keep in mind that no matter what, I just kept writing. I didn’t interrupt myself to fix goofs like Cl;eo or fo (which is actually of). It’s okay—keep writing.

The third block is even worse. How on Earth does the word “sound” come out as “d=sound”? I have no idea.

Some of the typos are kinda funny, like “monkley-demon” or the capitalizing snafu that resulted in “jUlian.”

Time and again I hit the key just to the left or right of what I’m actually aiming for: “drivinf” . . . F is just to the right of G on a keyboard.

Sometimes my fingers mash two keys at once, or something, resulting in additional bonus letters thrown in for good measure: “cklawed” for “clawed” or the double word score for: “buitton-down shiort.”

Oh, the letters we transpose: “alos” is an alternate spelling of “also,” apparently.

Sometimes I hit the space bar just a letter too late: “wheelso_f” instead of “wheels_of.”

Then there’s that smart quote thing right near the end, where my intrepid laptop replaced my misplaced semi-colon with a straight quote in “Don’t,” but I left in the little x I type in after an em-dash in order to make the smart quotes go the right direction for the end of a paragraph. But then WordPress fixed the straight quote, so it’s hard to see the example.

All in all, a huge mess, but then remember what I said about using this as an opportunity to go back and really examine your work, word for word. And even more than that, let yourself write. Let it pour out of you. Get it done, then spend as much time as you need cleaning it up.


—Philip Athans




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to IN THE ROUGH

  1. Eric Swett says:

    Amen! I used to fall prey to the over self editting, wanting perfection in the first runthrough, but since then I have learned to ignore the internal call for perfection and I have increased my output substantially as a result. Get the words down in the first place…then edit…the story is more critical and you can’t get the story out if you’re too busy working on perfection.

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  3. Cam Rawls says:

    This is the exact reason that I finally decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. I wrote the first draft of books 1 & 2 of my YA fantasy trilogy this way. Previously, I tried to fix everything as I went along and, subsequently, never finished anything.

    The hardest part of writing is not the blank page. That’s just one of the hurdles. Finishing is the hardest part (at least until revisions). NaNoWriMo helped me feel that it was OK to be a hack as long as I finished the book. Now, I don’t actually feel like I am a hack, but I did when I was compelled to go back and fix everything before I could move on in my first attempts at novel writing.

    Finishing a book, or other creative work, is liberating…and scary. Liberating in the sense that, on completion, you prove to yourself that you can indeed write a book. It’s only after you come back to the book for your first read-through that the scary part begins.

    You think: I wrote this garbage? Yes, you did. And that’s the point. You can always go back and fix it as long as there is any semblance of a complete story there in the draft. Almost without exception, no writer, established author or otherwise, writes a perfect book with their first draft.

    While I am still reworking some bits, mostly the beginning, of the first book of my trilogy, I have more confidence in my writing and my ability to write.

    Nothing destroys confidence in a writer more than never finishing. At the very least, it’s one of the first confidence-busting experiences in a writer’s career. Conversely, finishing is one of the greatest and if we want to write for a living, this is the most important step.

  4. Pingback: THE JOY OF WRITING BY HAND | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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