When Good Writing Goes Bad

What if F. Scott Fitzgerald had called The Great Gatsby something else? (He briefly considered the title Trimalchio in West Egg, but thankfully rejected it.) What if The Wolf of Wall Street chronicled the rise and fall of an actual wolf? What if A Tale of Two Cities began with the iconic line, "It was a so-so time?" These are the questions that keep Paul Laudiero up at night.

Laudiero, the mastermind behind the Tumbr-turned-book Sh*t Rough Drafts, has made a career out of hilariously re-imagining the thought process behind the greatest works of the Western canon. His "rough drafts," which earned him a publishing deal with Chronicle Books during their first Great Tumblr Book Search, are notable for their mix of irreverence and sympathy: he's simultaneously poking fun at the art we hold most dear, while commiserating with the authors' plights. After all, it's not easy coming up with a title for your novel, even if it's just an article, an adjective, and an iconic last name.

BUSTLE: You do a lot of comedy and improv. What's your background as a writer?

PAUL LAUDIERO: I was an English/Creative Writing major at George Mason University, and performed a lot of improv in DC. That's where I got my start — the way to get funny is to hang out with funny people.

I write every day. Back in college, I was in different workshops, English classes, writing 2-3 hours a day. It was all shit, but that's what got me thinking about the Sh*t Rough Drafts Tumblr. I was so frustrated with all my work because it was horrible, and I thought, "I bet the same thing happened to famous writers." You know, writing a lot of horrible shit, all day. It's still just like that.

Would you say improv is helpful for a writer?

Absolutely. It teaches you to brainstorm new ideas, think on your feet, come up with stuff you never would have thought of before. I do long-form improv, and with longform, you create the entire scene based off one word. It really helps you find your voice.

How did you begin Sh*t Rough Drafts?

I started Sh*t Rough Drafts because I thought the idea was funny, and someone who worked for Tumblr found it and told me I should submit to the book search. I actually got an agent at the same time and she said it was a great move, since Chronicle is a good publisher. She was going to pitch the idea to Chronicle anyway.

Did you have a big following on your Tumblr before you got the book deal?

I had a couple thousand. I got covered by Huffington Post and Mashable right away — I was super lucky, I don't know how they found me. I was sorta posting anonymously. I think I had around 10,000 followers on Tumblr when I got the book deal. I'm almost at 70,000 now.

Here's a meta-question: How many drafts does it take for you to come up with an official Sh*t Rough Draft? Are the first drafts of an official “Sh*t Rough Draft” bad, or are you literally publishing rough drafts?

Yes, my first drafts are usually horrible. It takes a lot of time, a lot of different drafts, to come up with these perfected "rough drafts." A lot of the humor is the lowest, like fart jokes, and even those will take me an embarrassing amount of time. They're my dumb, shitty children. Shitty, shitty children. That's what I treat my drafts like.

I do try to think, “What would the author have gone through to come up with this?” For example, I can totally see F. Scott Fitzgerald freaking out over the title of The Great Gatsby. It's such a simple, stupid title. I try to think, “If I was writing this novel, what would be the most difficult part for me?” Sorry, that sounds so pretentious.

What's your favorite Rough Draft?

Oh man. Maybe the Jurassic Park one, the second or third one I did. I didn't know the formula for a good Sh*t Rough Draft yet, but it's still one of my favorites.

Or the Harry Potter one where Harry is sad that Sirius isn't a black guy, because he's never met a black guy. People were freaking out, like, “Uh, Harry has met a black guy.” I was like, “Guys, it's a draft.”

You poke a lot of fun at classic literature. Do you enjoy reading it?

I've read all the books that I've written about, and I love all of them. My mom was very strict; I had to read a lot growing up. I've always been a book nerd. But I try to poke fun of books in the most non-pretentious way possible. I don't make inside, ballpark jokes ever. The rough draft has to be funny whether or not you've read the book. I feel bad when I don't get "literary jokes."

Is it harder to write funny-bad than serious-good?

I think all writing, if you do it well, is supposed to be hard. Drama would be even harder for me, but comedy is still such a difficult process that takes me hours. Even when comedy comes naturally to people, they still have to work at it, perfect it. I'm sort of trying to show that with Sh*t Rough Drafts. Writing is always going to be difficult no matter what.

It seems like part of the reason your drafts are so funny is because they sort of desecrate what we consider canonical — classic books, Oscar-winning movies.

Yeah, people take a lot of stuff really seriously. I've met people who talked about "Sherlock" for hours. I mean, I love "Sherlock." But people WORSHIP these shows, books, and movies. I love them just as much — but in the end it's just a movie, it's just a book. It's entertainment. When people take it so seriously that they get angry – those are the people I want to read SRD.

One of the funniest parts of your drafts is this nameless editor who just reacts by writing things like, “NOPE.”

Everyone's dealt with getting notes back. Everyone can connect with the red pen of death. I had the idea of this editor sitting in his office, with manuscripts scattered all over, reading the draft and being like, “WHAT THE HELL IS HE SAYING? WHAT?!” That's why a lot of the comments are just like “Really?” or “Are you kidding me?” The poor editor has read thousands of pages and sees something ridiculous and he's like, “WHY, GOD, WHY?”

Do you have a Moby Dick of a rough draft? You know, something you've always wanted to parody but have never been able to because it's just so good?

I've been wanting to do Lolita for a long time. Every time I try, it's sort of just joking about pedophilia, and I don't want to do that. I did one draft where the title page just said "Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov," and the editor just writes, “Vlad, we need to talk ASAP, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Nabokov actually went through that — Russian editors wouldn’t publish him, so he had to take the book to France. That was the only draft I ever took down from the site, because I just didn't want to make fun of that. But I keep trying.

Pre-order Sh*t Rough Drafts, out April 15, if your heart desires.

Images: Sh*t Rough Drafts