Do you let your first draft rip never looking back, or do you rewrite as you go meaning your first draft is a partial rewrite? Maybe you find it impossible not to constantly go back to earlier writing, interrupting your progress and flow?
Do you wonder how bad your first draft can be? Is it OK if it’s cringeworthy rubbish, or does that mean you’re a talentless writer?
- How bad can your first draft be?
First drafts are often really, really bad. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘All first drafts of anything are shit‘. I find great comfort and relief in this. When I reread my first draft, it’s little more than a basic plot outline using simple words. I just need to get something down, a structure of events, that I can build on. Often there’s no flourish, sumptuous description, depth or complexity and there’s plenty of cliché, redundancy and repetition etc.. If you’re like me, you’ll be relieved to know this is perfectly normal.
- How first draft is a first draft?
Depending on my writing flow, I sometimes finish a section or chapter, then go back and improve the words before writing the next part of my story. This draft is by no means final. That comes much later after a lot more work when I also look at structural and other matters. But I want my work to have some substance before I move on. Here’s why…
- Fixing the words – what am I really trying to say?
Fixing the words it the best part of writing for me. It’s what makes me want to write, and brings excitement and joy to a challenging process. I also find it — as often happens to be the case in life — the most difficult part of writing. You know, yin and yang, growth comes from challenge etc..
I’ve long thought that when rewriting or editing the key question to ask yourself is, What am I really trying to say? I watched an interview with author Sophie McManus in which she confirmed this. She went on to say that when a writer redrafts, they’re responding to technical questions about how to improve a sentence. It’s only then that the writer discovers the real meaning of what they’re writing because this is when they’re forced to ask what they really mean to say. In particular, this requires a focus on nouns and verbs, which I’ve posted about before.
- Creating versus rewriting and editing
In this post here I talked about how you can’t create in editor mode because these processes use different parts of the brain that are not connected. But this doesn’t mean you can’t switch from one to the other, if it works for you. Perhaps you’re able to create in the morning or create on one day and rewrite in the afternoon or the next day. It’s OK too to get your first draft done in one hit before even rereading what you’ve written. You’ll know what’s best for you.
- Continual redrafting
It’s critical, however, that you don’t get stuck in continual redraft mode, perfecting your words before you even get to the end. This is an endless loop that can delay your project significantly.
Seek perfection later. There’s a reason for this. It’s only when you have a complete plot with an ending that you can fix the sentences so that each one helps build your story in that direction. How will you know what’s missing or redundant, how will you know which words are most apt if you haven’t written the ending yet? Even if you think know your ending, there will be changes along the way that will impact your words. Trust your creative process.
- Just write it, confident or not
You don’t have to feel confident as you write your first draft. Getting something down on the page is a start. Remember, you can’t rewrite or edit a blank page. Don’t let fear of writing poorly or going down a dead-end path hold you back.
When you’re ready to rewrite, keep working on the language until it gets to the point where you’re saying something in a style or voice that knows its purpose, even if you don’t consciously know at first what your story is truly about. Ironically, through technique, writers create meaning, beauty and art.
Let’s talk about how to keep going with your writing, against all the odds: time, the miniscule likelihood of being traditionally published, the challenges of being standing out amid the ocean of self-published works. I could go on, but you get the point.
In last week’s post here, I mentioned business woman Beate Chelette’s quote on breakdown, breakthrough and breakout. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’ve been struggling with writing boredom. I know myself well enough to know that boredom comes from within me. It’s not an external thing that’s imposed, it’s in my head. I realised that something had to be wrong with my writing if I was bored, but what?
This has been my process of reinvigorating my writing.
- Realise that perseverance is not just willpower or resilience
Persevering in your writing is not just a matter of willpower (bum glue, making time, mind over matter), resilience (against rejection, fear and criticism) or endurance (it takes so very long to write and especially to write well).
Perseverance comes down to loving what you’re doing. Research on the psychology of creativity shows that we produce our best results when we’re slightly excited, optimistic and seeking pleasure (not in fear mode). You don’t always have to love what you produce, especially first off, but you need to love the process; the story, words, creating.
My main problem was that the feelings I had inside me weren’t being reflected on the page. My writing was reading adequately, but not as richly or evocatvely as I wanted. I was frustrated about the level of my writing but I had no idea of how to improve it. What to do?
- Ask yourself if you need to grow, and how
For inspiration on how to rekindle my love of writing, I began reading a new (deceased) author, Angela Carter. Her writing is intense, beautiful, transcendental. It’s not how I write or want to write, but her use of words is masterful. I realised I wanted some of that in my writing, which felt a bit safe reflecting the fact that I felt safe in my writing. I wasn’t pushing the envelope anymore and I was truly bored. (Aside: Reading is so important to being a better writer.)
I explored some websites and ordered a few time-honoured books on the craft of writing. Why I didn’t already have these technical books is beyond me (der!), although I’m sure I’ve read such things in the past only I took what I needed from them at that time, which is not what I need from them now.
From this research I worked out that I wanted to strengthen my style and voice. Ideas, structure and plot have not been issues for me so far (but every book is different). Next I found a free online course on style and voice. Wow! I spent just half a day completing week one, then rewrote the first page of my current novel adding in sensuous description. I referred to Carter’s work as a guide.
The result? My writing group loves my current novel (unlike my last), but rewriting the first page has taken it to a whole new level. I received comments like: “It has a dreamlike quality about it now that draws me in deep.” Not bad for a day’s work!
Since then, I can’t wait to write every day. I’m writing much slower, but I have a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that’s been missing for a long time.
- Be determined to grow
Perseverance in itself isn’t enough to be a good writer. It’s perseverance in a willingness to grow your writing that’s critical. If you read published authors on writing, many say they must relearn how to write eah new book. What is life if it it’s not change, and what is change if it’s not growth?
Be willing to examine where you’re at and how you might improve your writing. Listen to your gut, listen to your critics. Open up and always look for opportunities to challenge yourself and grow. Stagnation is death.
To stay engaged in your writing process and become a better writer, what do you need to improve?
- Also, for inspiration and camaraderie, read this amazing piece
Here’s a link to an incredible piece by writer Michael Ventura that I occasionally read during times of doubt called ‘The Talent of the Room’. It’s deep, brutal and real. In it he discusses the dangers of the (writing) room: the craziness, compromise and learning, the slog, the selling out and success (or is that really failure?).
“Writing is something you do alone in a room. The only thing you really need is the talent of the room. Unless you have that, your other talents are worthless.”
Perhaps you’re disappointed at not being published, or you self-published but the sales weren’t great, or you’ve been plugging away for so long without ‘success’ that you’re having doubts about this writing thing, or the words that come out on the page aren’t the ones you feel inside, or you’ve simply lost sight of why you’re writing.
The result is that you can’t seem to find your enthusiasm for writing anymore. It used to excite you to sit down at a blank page, it was fun. But now all you feel is dread. You start avoiding it or you procrastinate or you talk yourself out of it. Maybe you’ve given up entirely, or if you do manage to force yourself to write it feels like a chore, another obligation in your long list for the day.
What’s happened to make you feel this way?
Writing has become a negative experience
Whatever the reason, the end result is that writing makes you feel bad. Most likely, you’ve also lost confidence in yourself and your writing along the way. So why would you write if that’s how it makes you feel?
You need to get back to what you enjoy about writing to shift it back into a positive experience. Here are some ideas on how to do this.
- Let go of your expectations
Did you set some goals, perhaps secretly, such as a deadline for when you’d finish your book, or when you’d have an agent or get published, or when you’d win your first writing prize, or when you’d be able to write like James Joyce?
If you did and you haven’t met your goal, then no wonder you feel like a failure. You’ve set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. Need I remind you that writing is hard, really hard.
Let go or detach from your goals and become zen about your writing. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the writing or the process rather than focusing on the outcome. The result is a side benefit, not the primary aim of writing. Loving doing your best writing is the only true goal. See what happens.
- Revisit the reasons why you write
There were reasons why you first stepped onto the unpredictable path of being a writer. What were they? Write them down. Do they still apply? If not, are there new reasons? Write them down on the other side of the page. Be honest with yourself, but be careful push aside those doubting voices that counteract everything positive you come up with.
On the other hand, if you’ve dug deep and can’t find any reasons why you should continue to write, perhaps it is time to give it up. But if that thought fills you with horror and a list of ‘buts I can’t because…’, then you have your answer. Read your list of why you want to write every time you meet the blank page, and watch your self-belief slowly return.
- Stop the negative self talk
We all do it. It’s a fact that around eighty per cent of our thoughts are negative for reasons of survival. But how can we expect to create when we’re in a negative, fearful state of mind? Putting it simply, we can’t. The brain doesn’t work that way.
When we write, we’re not in a life or death situation. So next time that doubting, fearful, critical voice tells you something bad about you and your writing, try acknowledging what it has to say, thanking it for its concern and then telling it you’re not going to follow its advice today as there really isn’t any need. Then get on with your work. Remember, you control your thoughts. Don’t let them take control of you.
- Get help
Join a writing group (one that’s supportive and is going to give you positive, constructive feedback), hire an editor, read a writing book, work with a trusted fellow writer or beta reader, or do a course to help you get some perspective about what’s working and what could be improved in your work. There’s a lot of free and paid advice out there. Use it to keep moving forward. We all like to be challenged. We all need to grow. And believe it or not, we all like the rewards of hard work. Create a growth mindset, not a reward mindset.
- Create a positive writing environment
I’ve talked about how to create a writing routine here. Schedule quality time, meditate or walk beforehand, go to your favourite writing place (physically and/or mentally) etc. so that you feel optimistic and excited about writing. In other words, make your writing experience as enjoyable as possible by setting yourself up for success. By doing that you’re showing yourself some respect and taking yourself seriously.
This seems like a lot of hard work for something you once believed would flow easily from you via some muse. For most of us such a muse is a myth. The muse is really you delving deep into yourself without fear of consequence or expectation of reward and creating (more on how to do that here). Set up the best writing environment possible and you might be surprised at what turns up on your page.
- Perseverance – breakdown, breakthrough, breakout
I heard Beatte Chelette talk recently about the challenges she faced before succeeding in business. (I do that a lot, listen to inspiring people to keep my enthusiasm fire stoked and remind me how much hard work is involved.) This involved a lot of failing. She said ‘success’ has a pattern: Breakdown, breakthrough, breakout.
Perhaps you’re at breakdown, at crisis point? Perhaps a breakthrough is just around the corner. Success (meaning growth) depends on perseverance, which is resilience in the face of failure and adversity. If you give up now, you may never know. You have a choice. Over to you and the best of luck.
So you’ve completed your manuscript. Before you send it off to publishers, make sure it’s the best it can be. Not just the best it can be right now, but best FULL STOP. Often we get impatient and send our manuscripts out into the world too early when we should put them away for a couple of months before reviewing them again, send them off to a professional for an assessment or do yet another draft. But let’s say you’ve done all that and your book is the best it can be. You truly believe in it.
You compile a list of publishers and you send it to them. You’ve spent the time you need to write each personalised letter, hone your pitch, nail your marketing strategy, write gripping synopses of varying lengths and a fascinating author bio. Off your MS goes into the wilderness (with a touch of that true belief).
Now you wait. Perhaps you get bites for more of your MS. Perhaps you succeed quickly – someone wants to publish your book. Yay you. Congratulations! But if you’re one of the majority who either hear nothing back (“assume if you haven’t heard from us within three months that we’re not interested”) or get outright rejections, then what?
This is a normal human reaction. Allow yourself a set time, say one day, to sulk during which time you’re allowed to indulge in all your self-doubting thoughts such as what a crap writer you are, you’re never going to get published, you’ve wasted your time and you’re definitely going to give up.But once your twenty-four hours are up, it’s time to stop the tantrums and get on with it. You have a choice to make. Do you want to write or not? Ask yourself why you’re writing and who you’re writing for? If the answer is anything other than you’re writing because you need to and that you’re doing it for yourself, then you might need to have a good hard think about your motives. Good writing comes from truth and honesty, from baring your soul, not from dreams of fame and certainty. This is not that kind of career. Writing demands vulnerability because that’s the creative process.
- Get detailed feedback
If you don’t want to give up on your story yet, you could take on board the feedback you’ve received from editors and begin a re-draft. For deeper feedback before you begin re-drafting, get a manuscript assessment done. You should end up with a thorough twelve-page report that assesses everything about your novel from structural issues, voice, character, style and so on. These can be very helpful. This is a lot cheaper than hiring an editor, which is another option. If you can afford an editor, they will take you through your MS line by line as well as giving you a detailed report. Just make sure they believe sufficiently in your writing and your story before, and that your MS is ready. Going down the editor path costs thousands of dollars so getting the right person at the right time is critical.
- Retire your story
No one else can tell you if your story is worth persisting with or not. But perhaps, after much thought, you’ve realised this was your learner book and that you don’t want to salvage it. Perhaps you know in your gut it’s time to let it go. For many published authors their third book is the one that gets published. Say thank you to your story before putting it away for good. Also, pat yourself on the back for having finished a novel. That’s not something that a lot of people do, even though many try. Now you’re free to start the next story bringing along everything you learnt from your first. This might be a good time to do a course or read a new book on writing, something that inspires and strengthens you.
- Self publish
If you’re satisfied your story is the best it can be and really do believe in it, perhaps self-publishing is the right option for you. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but there are many free and paid websites, eBooks and courses full of step-by-step how-to advice, including on how to market your book. Marketing is a skill you’ll need no matter which way you publish as most publishers don’t have large marketing budgets these days. You can publish an eBook only or give people the option of buying a print-to-order hard copy. If you decide to hire someone to do the work for you, be very cautious. Most such companies, including some owned by the big publishing companies, do very little for thousands of dollars. They’re in that side of the business to make money, and by all reports they’re raking it in. Do your research first.
The important thing is not to be beaten in the process of getting published. You may view not finding a traditional publisher as failure, but failure is simply another form of feedback. Use it wisely and keep moving ahead.
As you can see by the well-worn cover, I love this beautifully written 1978 biography of the editor, Max Perkins. It’s not so much a how-to book on writing but a story of how a humble though intellectual man discovered, fought for and supported his list of writers, many of whom became famous.
It’s an inspirational book about the process of writing and how it renders even well-established authors terminally insecure. I also loved the deep discourse between his stable of writers on writing. If you’re looking for inside stories about authors such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Rawlings etc. (not many women, sigh) then this is a good book to dip into when you’re in the mood.
Key take outs:
- It gives inspiration and comfort about how fickle the writing process can be
- Cut out every word that is not essential to the meaning of the writing
- Great writers take great risks e.g. Tom Wolfe saying he’s “going into the woods for two or three years” to “try to do the best, the most important piece of work I have ever done.”
Writing routines are great (see this post about how to create one), but what about those times when you’ve done everything right (have you, really?) and you still don’t feel like writing? Perhaps you get annoyed at yourself for not using your time optimally, which makes you feel worse and even less like writing. So you decide not to write today but rather to wait for inspiration.
Only it doesn’t come next time you sit down to write, nor does it come the next time or the time after that. At this rate it’ll be years before you’ve completed your first draft. Surely there’s a better way.
- Know that it’s normal
Not feeling like writing is normal. Feelings are indicators. Acknowledge them, which is all they want, and write anyway. Writing is an action and requires doing. Sometimes by starting your brain complies.
- Ask yourself: What is it I’m resisting?
Writing is a relationship you’re having with deep bits of your mind. Not feeling like writing might mean you’re resisting. Perhaps you’re trying to avoid the pain of writing because it leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed? Perhaps you’re scared of that pain?Yet, the days when you don’t feel like writing are the days when you must break through this resistance because these are the days when a breakthrough is most possible. If you’re a true writer—if you must write—such days that will define you. Do some deep breathing (in 4, hold 4, out 8, hold 2), cast your feelings aside and write.
- De-romanticise the process
Know that the professionals—those who make a living from writing—sit down and write whether they feel like it or not. Exorcise all romantic ideals from your head about the inspired artist, the elusive muse or whatever, and move ahead despite your mood or the circumstances of your life. As one writer said, the writing life may be colourful but the writing career is not a romantic one as the work itself is rather drab. Remember, this is something you have chosen to do.
- Write badly
Fake it till you make it. Writing something is better than nothing and it might lead you to a breakthrough or some inspired writing or even just bad writing. But at least you’ll have the self-respect that comes from trying your best.
- Read something inspiring, then write
We all know that we learn from reading, often subconsciously, so read work that’s going to life and inspire you. Then wait for words to flow out of you. As writers we all need to read regularly. It’s part of the job.
- Copy out a couple of pages of inspiring writing
Copy out a few pages from one of favourite books or pieces and then write. Perhaps you’ll produce the best two paragraphs ever, or two pages of dribble. Do it anyway.
- Free write
Write for ten minutes or two pages letting whatever comes out fall onto your page. Again, anything to get your juices flowing.
- Outline rather than write
Perhaps you’re daunted by the blank page. Consider where you’ve been in your story and where you need to go next (just not too far ahead). I have a kind of knowing in my gut about this; when it’s time for a character to come back or for some serious action etc.. Go with that and begin. The next day won’t be nearly as daunting.
- If you’re enjoying your story, but not the words
Write the story and don’t worry about the words. Who said everything had to be perfect first time around? You can go back and fill in the words later. This is the vomit draft, also known as the creative fun part of the process before the editor in you steps in.
- If you’re enjoying the words, but not the story
The story is annoying you perhaps but you’re loving a character or what they have to say. Indulge in those words and let the story fall out.Alternatively, there could be something wrong with the story, which means you need to fix it before you can write again.
- Reward yourself
Now that you’ve resisted the temptation to give in to your mood, reward yourself. Best not with food, I think, as it has too many connotations. Have a bath, take a walk, sit in the sun, watch your favourite TV show, do some yoga, meet a friend for coffee. Just make it something that’s positive for you.
I recently attended a great workshop on remembering your creativity with author Sue Woolfe. She’s turned to neuroscience to understand how the creative mind works in order to optimise creativity after being somewhat stuck with her own writing process. Here are some gems I took away with me that have lifted a weight off my shoulders and made writing fun again.
We used to believe that so-called creative people had ideas constantly flowing through their minds. A study done in the mid-seventies discovered that instead such people’s creativity dipped sharply before taking off exponentially. This is known as the lull. By decreasing brain activity or going into stillness, we allow the creative parts of our brains to activate. Begin your creative time by de-focusing and see what happens. Remember, we are all creative beings and problem solvers by necessity.
- Writing is a two-part process
It’s not possible to write a perfect story in one hit. You need to do the creative—often called the vomit draft, first. Then you begin the editing process, fixing your story by bringing in structure and order to it etc.. As Sue said, you need to make the clay before you begin the sculpture. Here’s why…
- You must turn your editor off
This is critical. For so long I would write a section of my story then edit it. Then I would edit the whole chapter and next the chapters before it. I was fearful that if I didn’t, I would end up going down dead-end paths. The problem was I became stuck in an endless editing loop and my stories’ progress was slow and stilted. Most critically, I was no longer having fun writing. Here’s the reason. Apparently when we edit we engage the frontal lobe. It carries out higher mental processes such as thinking, decision making, and planning. The problem is the frontal lobe isn’t connected at all to the creative part of our brains. This means that when we engage our editor we’re switching off our creative thought processes. So turn your editor off, go into the lull, trust yourself, and see what comes out. It may be half rubbish but it also might lead you somewhere exciting and new, adding depth and beauty. You can always go back and fix it later. Better an imperfect something on the page than a perfect nothing.
By observing Sue’s advice I’m enjoying writing again. When I look back over the previous day’s work (briefly and without editing, of course), I sometimes can’t remember what I’ve written and am pleasantly surprised. Characters are taking over, which deepens point of view and adds authenticity.
Give it a go. What have you got to lose?