Surviving First Draft Blues

Anne Lamott: The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

For some people, writing a first draft is the easiest thing in the world. Armed with nothing but a pen and some paper, they write beautiful prose without even breaking a sweat.

And then there's the rest of us.

For "normal" people, writing a first draft of a novel is both a scary and a magical time...

  • It is scary because facing a blank sheet of paper, or a blank computer screen, and having to fill it with words, takes grit and determination.
  • It's magical because you finally get to see your fictional characters come to life on the printed page, like your children taking their first steps.

Now, us writers are a strange bunch...

When most people have to work, they roll up their sleeves (metaphorically or literally) and get on with the job at hand. They might not like it but they know it has to be done, and so they do it.

But writers are different...

On the one hand, they love what they do (hey, what's not to love about getting paid to make up stories?)

On the other hand (and this is the weird thing), when the time comes to actually sit down and write the first draft, writers would rather be doing anything else at that precise moment than facing a blank computer screen.

Come to think of it, "doing anything else" is a pastime most authors excel at. Yes, they might be great storytellers, but they are equally great at...

  • staring out of the window
  • making stick figures out of paper clips
  • re-organizing the icons on their desktops
  • taking the most non-urgent of chores and elevating it to the status of must-do-now.

If all of this rings a bell, you're not alone. If it doesn't ring a bell, you are a saint!

But what can you do about it?

Well, the key point to remember is that a first draft doesn't have to be pretty. As a matter of fact, you'll probably hate most of what you have written when you come to read it back.

But that is okay. It's to be expected.

Taking all those ugly words and making them pretty is what revision is all about. Before you can revise, you simply need to get black on white.

When you think about it, the fact that a first draft doesn't have to read terribly well takes a lot of the pressure off writing it (and therefore a lot of the pressure off parking yourself in front of your computer in the first place).

If you find yourself writing the clunkiest-sounding paragraph that has ever been written, so what? You can get the words right later. And so...

The magical part of drafting a novel is something to look forward to.

The scary part really isn't as daunting as some people would have you believe. It's really just a question of...

  • taking it day by day
  • not worrying about the quality at this stage
  • knowing that, over time, the words will stack up.

Writing a First Draft Takes Professionalism

The very fact that you are reading this (and are therefore tackling the writing of a novel in a methodical and purposeful way) makes the writing of the first draft so much easier for you than it does for other, more haphazard writers.

When most folks decide to write a novel, all they actually have in mind is writing a single draft. They believe that the first draft (or, to them, the only draft) is the beginning and the end of the entire writing process.

  • Sure, they might do a little planning beforehand, in the form of a few scribbled notes on a sheet or two of A4 – just enough for them to be able to visualize the story in their minds before they get on with the real task of actually writing it.
  • And they might do a little revision afterwards – probably not much beyond weeding out the typoos typos.
  • But for them, drafting the novel in one sitting is essentially the beginning and the end of the matter. And they wonder why their novels are then swiftly rejected.

Professional writers plan, sometimes for a year or more.

If they are skilled enough and experienced enough, some will combine the planning stage with the drafting stage – that is, they'll plan in their heads as they go.

More often, though, the planning stage involves no writing at all, just lots of note-taking and lots of thinking time.

Professional writers also revise and edit, often obsessively.

As they get better at what they do, they might have to edit less, but they will still have to do it. They know that no writer, however talented, can possibly hope to transfer the novel from their heads onto paper in a single go.

First drafts are meant to be messy, rough, clunky, way too embarrassing to show to the world. But that is okay.

  • First you plan – maybe a little, maybe a lot. This ensures that the draft will be structurally sound.
  • Next you write the first draft, not worrying about how ugly it is.
  • Finally you make it pretty by editing it, over and over and over.

Because professional writers understand this process, they rarely come down with "first draft blues."

Let's wrap this up with some more nuts-and-bolts advice...

Drafting In Stages vs. Drafting All At Once

Having written a great plan for your novel, there are two ways to go about writing it...

  • The first is to write the first draft in its entirety, and then to revise the entire draft afterwards.
  • The second is to draft the first chapter and edit it straight away, not moving on to Chapter Two until you are more or less happy with it.

I prefer the second method myself (when I get the time to write), and I would recommend it to anyone. Here's why...

1. It Gives You Confidence In Your Abilities As a Writer

Writing what you suspect is a very poor first draft of a chapter can have a crippling effect on your confidence, particularly if you are just going to put it to one side and not return to it for weeks or even months.

But if you immediately take that draft and turn it into something you are proud to put your name to, it leaves you feeling good about yourself – and good about the prospects for your novel.

(And by the way, you will find that taking a clunky first draft and turning it into a solid piece of fiction is much, much easier than writing the draft in the first place.)

2. It Helps You Feel Like You're Making Progress

Writing a first draft of an entire novel takes time – certainly several weeks and probably a few months.

If you do it all at once, before revising a word of it, the only thing you have to show for all that work is a stack of paper that you can't even bear to look at for fear of cringing.

But if you revise each chapter as you go, the mounting pile of paper will be something you can look at with a sense of great pride and accomplishment.

Important note: I'm not talking about revising each chapter to a final polished state here, merely taking the time to hammer each one into a state you are "more or less" happy with.

Editing fiction too much at this stage would actually be counterproductive, or not even possible...

  • There are some aspects of revision that you simply cannot perform until the entire first draft is complete – checking for overall character development, for example.
  • Also, there is no point in crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's if you later decide to scrap the chapter.

Nevertheless, taking the time to turn a rough first draft into a workmanlike second draft, before moving on to the next chapter, is well worth the effort.

For me – and maybe for you, too – knowing that your growing manuscript contains quality work (rather than a ton of words you'll probably need to bin) makes the whole business of getting from one end of the novel to the other a lot more enjoyable.