To date, I’ve completed 4.5 first drafts. I say 4.5 because I have 4 manuscripts of novels that are at various points of editing and publishing, but I also have a fifth manuscript, a contemporary YA that’s on vacation. I say vacation because it’s nicer than saying on hiatus or abandoned or acknowledging that I *may* not be ready to complete it yet.
In any case, writing a first draft is a complicated and emotional process. It’s complicated because you don’t know what you’ll end up with once you start. It’s emotional because of how invested you become: in the story, in the characters, in the frustration that the “art” you’re creating may be nothing more than a carefully-crafted piece of crap.
But worry not: all great literature had to start off as crud. In fact, all those bestsellers you admire yet secretly envy on your bookshelf were probably rejected multiple times.
So check out these 5 tips for completing your heap of crap!
Plan — Or Don’t!
Some writers are planners. Some writers are not. I am a hybrid of the two: I start off by letting things just happen, and then I start to outline, flesh out characters, and plan scenes. I’m a like a liger, if you will. Magic and all.
It’s up to each writer to determine what works best for them. Planning can help focus a story, but it can also sap it dry of all its intrigue and leave the writer uninspired to get it finished. I find that when I plan too intensely or too early, this happens to me. Remember that vacation my .5 was on? Yeah… I planned too early. It’s like all the magic is gone, and writing it feels like homework. When that happens, it’s best I back away for some time.
But some writers are the opposite. If they have no plan, they have nothing to hold them to their goal of writing a novel. There are a number of methods out there including chapter-by-chapter breakdowns, pre-completion synopsis writing, and the Snowflake Method. Chuck Wendig has a great list of methods to plan your novel.
Seriously. DON’T. Put down your red pen. Editing is the kryptonite of writing a first draft. I never do it unless I want to end up in the oblivion of perfection-seeking and aimless toiling. The number one way to self-sabotage your work is by primping and probing too soon. It’s like taking a baby out of their crib, plopping them in the driver seat of a car, and expecting them to win the Indy 500. It will be disastrous simply because they’re not ready.
The same is true for your novel. Your first draft is the infancy of your novel, and should you helicopter-parent too soon, you will experience an adolescence of bad attitude, screaming matches, and underage drinking. You need to give your first draft some space to breathe. Allow yourself to be creative and get your ideas down before you start picking and pulling it apart.
Just Keep Swimming
When it comes to writing a first draft, perseverance is key. It’s easy to entertain an idea, to write the first ten pages of a piece, to daydream about characters and betrayals and plot twists. Heck, it’s fun even! But when the novelty wears off, the only thing that will see you through the middle-manuscript blahs will be your determination to get that sucker finished.
For me, weekly writing goals work. Do I always stick to them? Haha… no. This last week alone I had a writing goal of 2500, and I only made 1600. But, you see, even though I didn’t make my writing goal, I still wrote. I still persevered. I am still determined to complete my manuscript. In fact, my writing goals are more like guidelines. 1600 words is better than none at all, and if I make even half my goal of 2500 words this week, that is 3000 words closer to a completed first draft.
Allow Yourself to Suck
You suck. I suck. Everyone sucks.
Seriously, the first draft sucks. There’s no getting around it. There’s no way to sacrifice a lamb to the demi-gods of the Sahara and write a perfect first draft (but if there is, hook a brother up!). So come to terms with it. Digest it, and make it part of your writing routine. Allow yourself to suck, and writing your first draft will go smoother, I promise.
In fact, once you liberate yourself, you may find that you don’t suck as much as you feared after all.
Expect to Rewrite
If you haven’t realized this by now, I’m sorry to break this to you: your first draft is NEVER the one you show the world. Wallow in self-pity now, aspiring writer, because if you want this, you’re in for the long haul. Even if you manage to nab an agent or an editor off of your first draft alone, they will insist you edit. In fact, my first novel has gone through 12 edits, and it hasn’t even been released yet.
But this isn’t a terrible thing. Your first draft is crap, remember? The only way to make it into gold is by editing. Essentially, the first draft is only half of the task of writing. Editing is where you get to show the reader your storytelling prowess and wow them with your spit-shined, immaculately-constructed prose.
How do you get through a first draft?