First Draft-itis

PJ Sharon  here, although technically, I’m on the road again. I’m headed to Maine for a few days for some R&R and some dedicated writing time—sans internet distractions. Not that I should need to leave the state for that, but I’ve been having some difficulty focusing on the completion of my current WIP.
I thought maybe a change of scenery would do me good. I have to say this is my toughest first draft ever! Partly because it’s the first series I’ve done and because I’ve never written a dystopian story before. But mostly, I’m having trouble allowing my first draft to suck.

I once referred to myself as a first draft addict. When I began  novel writing about seven years ago, I started with the grain of an idea. Then the characters came to me, I briefly wrote a few character sketches, and then I dove into the writing like a dolphin after a school of minnows.
The words leapt onto the page and the story unfolded naturally. The writing was awful, but the sheer joy of telling the story carried me from beginning to end without any consideration for plotting, pithy dialogue, or lame word choices. But once I finished that book and was told by a kind but ruthless retired high school English teacher friend of mine that I “needed to learn the craft of writing,” I moved on to the next story in my head. Revising a 100,000 word manuscript seemed daunting, and I was all about telling my stories…not tearing them apart and dealing with the minutia of making them shine.

I jumped into the next story, wrote that first draft in a matter of months, and by that time had found RWA and some critique partners who told me again that I “had much to learn.” Issues like POV, showing vs. telling, balancing dialogue with narrative, and the dreaded “navel gazing” that I’m still quite fond of, were all problems to be tackled if I wanted to revise and make that story work. It was a story called THE AMULET, and I would love to go back and  resurrect it, which I’m sure would require almost a complete re-write. You see, I had no idea how to revise those early manuscripts, so instead, I just moved on to the next crazy set of characters that wouldn’t shut up in my head. It was a learning process that I needed to endure before I finally had enough “craft” skill under my belt to know how to construct a story. Over time, working with critique partners, taking workshops and working with my English teacher friend, the revision process became clearer.

Now, after revising and publishing three young adult novels, I’ve gotten pretty good at the revision and editing process. The bad news is that now it’s tough to turn that part of my brain off. It’s difficult to simply write my story without tearing it apart as I go. My process these days is that I try to complete a chapter each time I sit down to write. I don’t write every day, either because of time constraints or the simple fact that I need time to research or work out and process my story. But when I do sit down and jump back into it, I first have to re-read my previous chapter and do some revisions before I can move on. That one step back and two steps forward has slowed my process down considerably. I’m hoping it saves me on the other end and that revisions will be less daunting, but I’m finding it challenging to ignore my internal editor who reminds me about deadlines, clichés, missed opportunities to “show”, and extraneous words cluttering the page. It kind of takes the fun out of telling the story.

I have to say, it was helpful to hear from both Kristan Higgins and Sherry Thomas that it is normal for a first draft to suck and that you just have to allow yourself that as you write. With each story, I learn something new about myself and this crazy process of being a writer. I have to wonder if it ever gets easier, or if anything worthy of being called art can be manifest without the birthing pains that come with the process of creation.

How do you handle your internal editor? Is it possible to stuff her in a closet until the end of the first draft? If so, I’d love some tips on how to wrestle her into submission. (I know it’s a “her’ because a man couldn’t possibly be that big of a nag…no offense ladies.)

Today’s unlocked secret:

Turn off your internal editor and give yourself permission to let your first draft suck!


37 thoughts on “First Draft-itis”

  1. I only write one draft because i edit and edit and edit before I allow myself to move on but it usually works for me I can write a complete manuscript in 4 or 5 months.

  2. Paula,
    Each time I sit down to work on my MS, I reread and lightly edit (typos) the previous day’s work. It takes longer, but by the time I am done the first draft is in decent shape and ready for hard editing.

  3. My method is similar to Joy’s. Pound words, review and revise each chapter, let it all cool and then start the run through second draft. It keeps a manuscript from looking too bloody when it comes back from the main edit. Knowing a first draft is not the end product lets words flow.

  4. oh, dear. I’m going to go way the other way. I fully believe in an utter crap first draft. I don’t read back over the previous day’s work when I sit down, I don’t edit or revise until: a) I’m done; or b) I have a day where I’m too tired to be creative, so I’ll do some editing then. I keep my internal editor quiet by waking up and writing before the editor wakes *s*, or by putting a game (baseball, football, whatever season is appropriate) on the television (this somehow distracts the editor. not hockey — hockey distracts the author *s*. golf puts both to sleep) There is a lot of work I do during revision, but I’m okay with that. That’s my process. As long as the process you are using works for you, it’s the right one ; )

    1. I recognize that everyone seems to have a way of finding something that works for them. It certainly is a learning curve with lots of options. I think one of the frustrating things for me is that I am at my best first thing in the morning but I try to wade through emails and get blog posts up and running before I move on to the creative aspect of writing. It kind of sets me up for left brain thinking. If I could get started on the WIP before I do all that other crap, I’d probably find it much easier to stay in my writer’s mode.

  5. You pretty much know my process, keep writing and don’t look back. For me, it’s more important to get the story down. Then after, I can go back and attend to the craft aspects of the story (show vs. tell, wordsmithing, etc.). I usually only have two drafts per book (3 tops), so it is possible to fix it all after the story is done. And not every story tells itself the same way, so what worked for one book may not work for another. Becasue you are already out of your comfort zone, my suggestion is to focus on the story – get it all on the page and tell the internal editor to go amuse the Doubt Monster until you are finished.

    1. Thanks, Casey. True what you said about each book requiring its own process. I’ll be sending my IE packing over the next few days. I just hope that she and Doubty don’t end up having a fling and producing baby doubties.

  6. I write the first draft all the way through before I revise, most of the time. The only exception is if I realize I’ve created a ginormous plot hole or timeline issue; those have to be resolved before I can write the rest of the story. My first drafts are usually pretty clean, though, so even after they’re finished I typically only need to do 1-2 revision passes before it’s ready to submit.

    I used to stress about whether the first draft was perfect, but then I started following the same advice I used to give my special education students when I taught: Get the words on the page. It doesn’t matter if they’re crap, just get them down there. You can fix them later, but you can’t fix what you haven’t written.

    1. I know what you mean, Jo. My inner editor is much the same as my residual perfectionism. I’ll be interested to see if I need fewer revisions of this story. My prevous books took me several revisionary passes before I felt they were well done. With editing, I think more is sometimes better.

  7. I’ve been considering having an ‘Editor’ off button installed. I can’t seem to turn her off. She’s a tad mean and frightens me, frankly. I love Write or Die for quick shots out of the chute. My editor hasn’t caught on to this sprinting for chapters, yet. Thanks for the great article.

  8. First rule :Whatever works for you works. With that said, there are some choices worth considering. Write a letter to a friend about the scene you wish to write, as if you just witnessed it. For some of us, such letters are more natural and less vulnerable to the inner critic. Or dictate the passage. Corrections are difficult to do during dictation, so the critic might get frustrated. Another choice is to write it as a parody (or homage to) an author whose style you know well. I once had a great concept I couldn’t get onto paper, so I wrote first pages in the styles of Mark Twain, Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. One jumped out at me as the right approach. I was off and running and the poor critic was left gasping behind me.
    By the way, the more you see lousy first drafts develop into things of beauty, the more comfortable you are likely to become with keeping the critic shackled until it is time to rewrite.
    Hope there’s something useful here.

  9. Paula, I edit as I write. I can’t seem to do it straight through like Casey. By the time the manuscript is done, I will have my first draft fully edited at least ten times. Does that make it the tenth draft? I love Peter’s idea of writing in the style of another author, then write it in your style taking the inspiration with you. What do you think?

    1. I agree, Gail. I think that is an excellent suggestion. I would love to write in te vein of Barbara KIngsolver. I bet I could pull that off and it would be a very useful exercise. I’ll try it.

  10. OK don’t tell anyone this, because this is kind of crazy, even for a writer ;). My inner editor is named Wilhelm. He’s this character I came up with for a novel about ten years back, and he’s just hung around driving me nuts. He’s an old curmudgeon, he smokes expensive cigarettes, and has a thick German accent. He wears his bathrobe all day, his hair is a mess, yet all he does is insult everything. I get so mad at him that I will ignore what he says just to spite him, and power through the tough spots to get to the end, JUST to prove to him that I could do it in spite of his digs and sarcasm. I think he secretly knows this, because I have a sneaking suspicion that he feels as proud as I do when it is all done and I have a good story at the end. Maybe you need to get to know your inner editor better, and form a working relationship with him or her. Write him/her a letter telling them what you need and want. You could even start it like, “Look, you SOB, I have a book to write here, so lay off and let me do it!”

    Now you know how crazy I truly am… 😉

    1. Hahahaha! I love this advice and will comence to introducing myself to my inner editor. I Knew she was there, but I never thought to ask her name. Wilhemina sounds about right. Thanks so much for the smiles and the useful idea!

  11. All great ideas above! And of course each of us has a different process, even with different books. One trick I have found is to write in 30-minute spurts. (I started doing it to prevent repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel, to remind me to move around and watch my posture.) Knowing that timer is going to go off in 30 minutes makes my brain focus on the story at hand and get as many words on the page as I can in the time alloted.

    1. I keep threatening to buy a timer. I’m going to get one this week. That sounds like another great tip that I can do easily. Thanks for the suggestion.

  12. Hi Sharon! I used to edit my stuff to death before I’d move on. That wasn’t getting me anywhere. So, I tried just vomiting it out on the page, but that’s what I knew it was going to look like. Then, I couldn’t really relax and enjoy the process. So now, I do what you do. Each day I take what I wrote before and do a light (very light) edit on that. I allow myself one pass through. That way I can assure myself it’s not sucking and know that I’ve cut down on the editing part at the end by a fraction. And because I’m a complete pantser, that also gives me a chance to get back into the mood and know where I left off the day before. Good luck and enjoy your trip! A change of scenery always does wonders for me. 🙂

      1. No problem, Rhonda. I knew we had a lot in common. I can see that certain personality types have commonalities in the way they process information. It’s nice to know I’m normal…sort of:-).

  13. I have an affirmation:

    I give myself permission to write poorly.

    I will edit too much and never finish if I go back. I have to keep going, even if I notice a continuity issue or a plot issue. I will stop for a moment, turn on comments in Word and make a comment about the problem. It may say something like “She shouldn’t have gotten fired here. I need that to happen later.” Then I start up again and act as if the last little bit didn’t happen. Then when I do the first revision I rewrite the scene to take out that part that didn’t happen.

    I will even give people different names if I can’t remember them. I gave one character at least five different names and had to make sure they were all changed during the first revision. I just keep going no matter what.

    1. I like the affirmation idea. I say them as part of my process anyway, so I’ll add that one to it. Although it seems counterproductive to say that I’ll allow myself to write poorly right after I’ve said, “I am an excellent writer,” “I am a best selling author.”

  14. I don’t really have an editor but a critic in my head saying this is crap, too much crap to continue this scene. Oh well.
    I liked your posting and got much out of the responses. Thanks

    1. Glad it helped, Donna. I have that voice as well. I think we all do. The trick is knowing when to believe it and when to just forge on and keep going anyway:-)

  15. I write the first draft from start to finish without editing it. If I have ideas to improve it or add to it, I will jot them down on notes of paper and put it in the notepad for the next draft. For me, the best thing is to get the first draft done, then concentrate on the major things to write about eg POV, tense, description etc. I think if I kept going over it and over it, I would get nowhere and fed up with it before I finished the first draft.

    1. I don’t think I’m organized enough to use this method because past efforts have lead to notes and notebooks all over the place with no coherent order, LOL. I think tha’s one of the reasons I feel I need to address issues right away. I’m usually pretty organized about things in life, but then when it really counts, I’m the absentminded professor:-)

  16. Hello PJ,

    Ahh yes, the edit gremlin who whispers in that horrible, sly little voice, I know it intimately.

    I use the #key as I’m battering out a discovery draft. Can’t remember who told me about this but it was years ago. Anyway, using the #key next to the word/sentence that’s made your gremlin twitchy – make a note if you like – and then CARRY ON. I suspect this works because we’re saying ‘I hear you, you little bastard, now bugger off because I’ll get back to it later when the work is finished.’

    At first I thought, this won’t work, but it most certainly does.

    So when you’re ready to dive into your edits do a find/replace on word and voila – up they pop. The gremlin’s happy and you’re happy. Result.

    Good Luck!

    1. That is a great tip. I’ve tried something like it before, but end up obsessing about the thing I need to change, LOL.

  17. Uh oh. I know exactly what you’re talking about here, where it’s possible to know too much about writing. I’m a slow writer because of the same things you experienced, and for the first time ever I am trying to race through a first draft, just to see how it goes. It seems to help once you do a few days in a row. Also, try Candace Havens’ Fast Draft workshop. She did a workshop on it at Nationals, and I’ve listened to it several times. So helpful! She does online classes, too. Her next one starts soon.

    Good luck! I hope that once you get into your book you’ll be able to give your internal editor a vacation.

    P.S. Thanks for the info about Kristan Higgins and Sherry Thomas! I actually Googled their names plus “first draft” to see what they had to say about the process. Their blog posts made me feel so much better about my own first draft struggles! Beth Revis and Natalie Whipple also have some very honest posts about first drafts.

    1. Thanks Caryn. I love hearing all the responses. Not that I want to hear that others are struggling, LOL, but it helps to hear about the experiences and how they are all different. I’ll definitely look up those other authors and that great workshop you mentioned.

  18. Finally got to this post, PJ! Glad I did. I hear a lot of people talking about their “internal editor.” I don’t think mine is very active. I enjoy writing more when I pause to find the better word, think more about character development before the words go on the page, and so forth. But I still know that first draft will be just that: FIRST and DRAFT. There are rewrites a’comin’! I read the chapter before, but I only allow myself to make grammar and spelling changes for flow. Plot and character issues must wait until the next go-round. Best wishes with the WIP! I love hearing others’ processes. It helps me figure out my own better.

    1. Wow Julie, better late than never. LOL. I’ve since finished that first draft and I’m plowing through revisions like a trucker on an open road! Thanks for following up and responding. The book is slated for late September. So far, I’m on track, yayyy!

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