Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Your first draft is always going to suck

It’s an interesting thing about blogging – it’s made us able to get a glimpse of hundreds of people’s lives on a moment-by-moment basis. I don’t have a lot of time (well, more to the point, I have no time at all) to read other blogs; I can barely keep up with posting to Murderati and my own blog. But I do click through on people’s signature lines sometimes to see what they’re up to; it’s an extension of my natural writerly voyeurism.

And a certain pattern has emerged with the not-yet-published writers I spy on.

It goes something like this: “My current WIP is stalled, so I’ve been working on a short story.” “I’ve gotten nothing done on my WIP this week.” “I have reached the halfway point and have no idea where to go from here.” “I had a great idea for a new book this week and I’ve been wondering if I should just give up on my WIP and start on this far superior idea.”

Do you start to see what I’m seeing? People are getting about midway through a book, and then lose interest, or have no idea where to go from where they currently are, or realize that a different idea is superior to what they’re working on and panic that they’re wasting their time with the project they’re working on, and hysteria ensues.

So I wanted to take today’s blog to say this, because it really can’t be said often enough.

Your first draft always sucks.

I’ve been a professional writer for almost all of my adult life and I’ve never written anything that I didn’t hit the wall on, at one point or another. There is always a day, week, month, when I will lose all interest in the project I’m working on. I will realize it was insanity to think that I could ever write the fucking thing to begin with, or that anyone in their right mind would ever be interested in it, much less pay me for it. I will be sure that I would rather clean houses (not my own house, you understand, but other people’s) than ever have to look at the story again.

And that stage can last for a good long time. Even to the end of the book, and beyond, for months, in which I will torture my significant other for week after week with my daily rants about how I will never be able to make the thing make any sense at all and will simply have to give back the advance money.

And I am not the only one. Not by a long shot. It’s an occupational hazard that MOST of the people I know are writers, and I would say, based on anecdotal evidence, that this is by far the majority experience - even though there are a few people (or so they say) who revise as they’re going along and when they type “The End” they actually mean it. Hah. I have no idea what that could possibly feel like,

Even though you will inevitably end up writing on projects that SHOULD be abandoned, you cannot afford to abandon ANY project. You must finish what you start, no matter how you feel about it. If that project never goes anywhere, that’s tough, I feel your pain. But it happens to all of us. You do not know if you are going to be able to pull it off or not. The only way you will ever be able to pull it off is to get in the unwavering, completely non-negotiable habit of JUST DOING IT.

Your only hope is to keep going. Sit your ass down in the chair and keep cranking out your non-negotiable minimum number of daily pages, or words, in order, until you get to the end.

This is the way writing gets done.

Some of those pages will be decent, some of them will be unendurable. All of them will be fixable, even if fixing them means throwing them away. But you must get to the end, even if what you’re writing seems to make no sense of all.

You have to finish.

I’ve had a couple of weeks in which my page marker has not moved past the number 198 because I keep deleting. Nothing I write makes any sense. I don’t have enough characters, I’m not giving the characters I have enough time in these scenes, I have no conception of yacht terminology and am spending hours of my days researching only to find I’m more confused about how things work on a boat than when I started.

I have Hit. The. Wall.

Yeah, yeah, cue World’s Smallest Violin.

Because – so what?

It always happens. I’m not special.

At some point you will come to hate what you're writing. That's normal. That pretty much describes the process of writing. It never gets better. But you MUST get over this and FINISH. Get to the end, and everything gets better from there, I promise. You will learn how to write in layers, and not care so much that your first draft sucks. Everyone's first draft sucks. It's what you do from there that counts.

That is not to say you can't set aside a special notebook and take 15 minutes a day AFTER you've done your minimum pages on the main project, and brainstorm on that other one. I'm a big fan of multitasking.

But working on that project is your reward for keeping moving on your main project.

Finish what you start. It’s your only hope.

- Alex


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Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post, Alex. I know I particularly needed to hear it. You're the best!

Anonymous said...

Alex, your timing is impeccable. I've been trying a new experiment in plotting out the entire WIP before starting to write and now that I've got the whole outline I've been staring at a blank page wondering how to start (the flu probably hasn't helped my focus any). I really needed this reminder to just butt in chair WRITE even if I have to revise the front end a dozen times. Thanks.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kristine, everyone needs to hear it. Pretty much every day. No one said this was easy (or if someone did ever say it was easy, send me an address so I can kill them).

Kait, hope you're feeling better! It's true, if you just sit there in the chair every day, you will eventually get bored and desperate enough to write something amazing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kristine, everyone needs to hear it. Pretty much every day. No one said this was easy (or if someone did ever say it was easy, send me an address so I can kill them).

Kait, hope you're feeling better! It's true, if you just sit there in the chair every day, you will eventually get bored and desperate enough to write something amazing.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Alex, what timing on this post. I was actually kicking myself because my WIP was stalled, but then I figured, "Hey, it's only a first draft. It's okay if it sucks. That's what re-writes are for."

It was really encouraging to see this post now. Thank you.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I know you said everyone needs to hear this, but honestly -- I really needed to hear this. I'm lucky if I write 100 words a day. It's agony at this stage. Yet, I wouldn't have it any other way. At least I'm writing.

Thanks, Alex!

Ace Antonio Hall said...

I concur...I'm at a place where I juggling ideas and this was very timely...Thanks!

Jake Nantz said...

Well said. Working on rewriting my first WIP right now. But yeah, that first "THE END" was a celebratory moment.

Oh and Alex, I LOVE the cover you put up for THE UNSEEN. Just the right amount of spooky, plus the large title font gives it a "This book will be a big deal" kind of feel. Congrats!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Ace! Yeah, we're all always juggling projects. One has to be your main focus... but AFTER that, stealing time for a secret new passion can work just fine.

In writing. WRITING.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jake, CONGRATULATIONS on getting to THE END. Everything from there is gravy.

And thanks, yes, I love the cover for THE UNSEEN, too.

It was a last-minute change and I should really do a post to put up the original that was discarded and this one, and see what people think.

Kaycee James said...

Thanks for the post. It is great advice. Now I just have to take it... :-)

Infogypsy said...

So true - I love Sol Stein who says writing is actually editing - if you don't love editing, you're not a writer. It also reminds me of Outlier, Malcolm Gladwell says:
“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time."
Lynn romaine -

Marina said...

I've heard this before, but it's very reassuring to hear it again now. I feel as if you've been peeking inside my head! I've been slogging on for weeks, hating nearly every painful word, and thinking "but surely writers are meant to love their work? Is it just me? Am I doing something wrong?". It's good to know I'm not alone.

I've only recently discovered your blog, and have been enjoying exploring your posts on writing. They've given me lots to think about. Thank you for taking so much time to share your knowledge.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kaycee, you can do it!

Judi, wow, that's an interesting point by Gladwell. Three hours a day doesn't seem like much, really. It's the ten years that count.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Marina, I'm hating every painful word right now, too. But after I get through my five pages of painful words on the new book, I'm also revising my last book, during the writing of which I often hated every painful word, and I'm thinking - WOW, this is a great book!

It's only the initial brainstorming, and then the revision stages, when everything starts to click, that I actually enjoy.

Karen from Mentor said...

Alexandra, (a few more times and I might get to "Alex" I have a hard time not going with Ms. Sokoloff)

I loved this post. That you would share having the experience of "this sucks" is just amazing. You make it look so easy.

I got to "The End" of my book; sent out a mass email saying I'M Done!.. and then wrote 5,000 new words THAT AFTERNOON. It was hysterical. Something about actually winding the story up got me in the right frame of mind to go back in and add the backstories, the layering that it needed that I didn't take the time for in the first rush through to get the story moving. And in some cases, the backstories didn't even occur to me until after I knew how the whole thing ended.
thanks for this great post!
Karen Schindler :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Karen, congratulations on getting to the end!

I know exactly what you mean about the backstories not occurring to you until you knew how it ended.

Even with all the outlining I do, my first draft is rarely more than the SHAPE of a book. But once I have that shape, all kinds of interesting stuff starts to happen within it.

If only that first draft didn't take so damn long....

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, and good grief - I'm Alex. I still wonder who people are talking to when they say Alexandra.

Except my mother. I know exactly who she's talking to when she says Alexandra. And it's not good.

Barbara Martin said...

Wise words for a writer. I keep wanting to change the ending to my first manuscript, whether to leave it soft for a closing of the threads of main and subplots, or strong, as a lead-in to the second manuscript.

Ellen said...

I know this is a very old post, but if you see this comment, thanks for saving my sanity today. I have slogging forward, giving myself strict word-count requirements each day, loathing everything I write, and thinking (about every 4 seconds) "this isn't what Real Writers do." Thank you for making me feel that the exact opposite is true!

300 more words today and I can go for a walk!!! Staggering-- back-- to--notebook . . .

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Ellen - you just pretty much described my standard writing day.

Sounds like you're doing just fine. I HATE the first draft. But it all gets better, I swear.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Barbara, if it's sold already then you can leave it soft - but if this if a first novel, conventional wisdom is that you finish it strong, as if it's a standalone, and talk about the other books when you have an editor interested. (Agent first, of course...)

Ellen said...

Thought I would share this from the immortal Martha Graham since your blog (and this post in particular) got me through a hard day of writing earlier in the week. Here's what's helping me through today:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”