Thursday, May 31, 2012

Beating the First Draft Blues

Every story has a first draft. Most of them stink.

Encouraging, right?

I've been talking about first drafts a lot lately on my personal blog, and after reading comments, I've discovered how universal that "my story is awful, what was I thinking?" feeling seems to be among writers.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Someone asks you what you do. "I'm a writer," you tell them, although you likely have other jobs as well, whether it's being a mom, a teacher, a scientist, or a barista. Let's face it. Being a writer is way cooler, so that's what we always say. And then they respond, with an enchanted sort of look in their eyes, "I've always wanted to write a book." And you say, "You should. It's really not so hard. Just a matter of sitting down and doing it, one chapter at a time." But meanwhile, you're internally chastising yourself, thinking, "If it's really not that hard, why have I rewritten Chapter 5 six times?"

The first draft of a book can be a terrible experience. We're embarrassed by our own story. It's betrayed our original idea for the book and turned it into our worst nightmare--something boring. The characters have taken on a life of their own and are doing irrational things. The plot we so neatly laid out in our minds has changed so many times we don't even know the ending. And the black moment? Forget about the characters--we as writers are having the black moment now as we think to ourselves (and let's face it--we've all had the thought!), "I'm a sham of a writer. Everyone is about to find out I'm a sham."

But we trudge through, then go through several editing rounds, and poof! Our confidence is back as our story once again turns into the fabulous idea we once imagined, only better. Everything is happy and cheery again. Until the next book rolls around...

So what can we do to keep this cycle from occurring? To beat these first draft blues?

1) Have realistic expectations. I had such a hard time beginning my WIP. I literally rewrote the first chapters three times. I decided I needed to start sooner and sooner. I kept thinking, "I thought I had grown so much as a writer through my last book. My last book was so good. It shines. This book could never compete with that." Um, hello self! My last book turned out well because I edited it somewhere around four or five times. It's important that we look at the first draft for what it is: a chance to tell the story. It's not a polished manuscript, and it's not a finished book. That is okay. Give yourself permission for that to be okay. Stop playing the comparison game.

2) Enjoy the storytelling process. If you are a creative writer, you enjoy storytelling. So give yourself permission to really indulge in the fun behind your story. Imagine what your characters might do in everyday scenarios. What would they might say if they were behind you in the Starbucks line? You might be surprised how much easier this makes the process of writing your first draft... and how much fun you have in the process. Just don't talk out loud to your characters... at least when anyone's watching.

3) Don't edit until you're done with the first draft. Okay, I admit it. The phrase "epic fail" comes to mind when I think of my own track record with carrying out this rule. But editing too early can be detrimental to the creative process. You're trying to figure out if your character's purse should be red or green while she's still trying to figure out her innermost fears. Give your characters and your plot room to breathe. Editing too early can be very limiting because you don't yet know the patterns that will develop as your larger book takes shape. I've heard of people editing the last chapter they've written before beginning the next one, but for most people, I don't think this is a good practice. If memory serves me correctly, I believe James Scott Bell recommends in his fabulous book Plot and Structure that you shouldn't edit at all (or at least very minimally) until your first draft is totally complete, and I think that's great advice.

4) If all else fails, organize. I took a poll on my blog asking authors how they make it through the first draft. I was surprised how many of them said they use variations of an outline technique. Some make an actual outline, others make a detailed synopsis, and others just figure out the bones of the story before they begin writing. Regardless of whether you're a seat-of-the-pants writer, sometimes it's very helpful to know your basic character arcs and turning points so that you know what direction everything in the story should be heading.

5) Do. Not. Quit. This is my biggest piece of advice. When you feel like you're writing the most boring story known to mankind, keep on keeping on. Remember that the editing stage is there for a reason, and you can rewrite that little thorn in your side as many times as it takes to make it shine. As I said on my personal blog last week, a poorly written story can be edited. An untold story is of no benefit to the reader at all.

I want to close with a verse that I hope will bring you encouragement as you work on your drafts. Philippians 1:6, "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." It's like a piece of pottery. Your story might feel like a big, cold lump of clay right now. And maybe it is. But God has gifted your hands to be a potter, to craft a vessel He fill with His grace and show off to the world.

If God has called you to write, you can be sure He has not forgotten about that calling. It might take seventeen books or six rewritten drafts, but there is a purpose for every season we are in. If we give up when we feel discouraged, if we stop before we ever make it to that stage of refinement, we will never know the glory of our true calling in Christ.

You can find the extended list of responses to my How Do You Beat the First Draft Blues poll at . Feel free to add your own response to the list.

I want to hear from you! Have you ever felt like giving up in the middle (or maybe even the beginning!) of your first draft? What keeps you going? What do you do to keep your goal in sight?

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Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Julia M. Reffner said...


AWESOME advice! I had to learn a lot of this stuff the hard way in order to finish my rough draft.

I love the verse you shared, one of my favorites for the writing journey...and the life journey.

Angela said...

Thanks for the great advice. When I get stuck on a project, I work on a different one. What helps me to continue writing is reading words of inspiration from othes. It helps to know you are not alone.

I like what you said about, "If God called you to write, He has not forgotten." I also like the word of a son that say, "I almost gave up, I was right on the edge of a breakthrough, but couldn't see it."

Angela said...

My comment should say, I like the words of a "song". The title of that song is Almost Let Go.

Angie Dicken said...

Geez, Ash. It's kinda freaky how timely this, duh! I think I was going through this in a way when I emailed. I think there is warfare going on when we are writing for a purpose...rough drafts are so temporary that it's hard to trust that we really need to go through that part of the process.
I like the idea of leaving behind the chapters unedited and fleshing out the story. I am bad about going back and editing...sometimes it's less effort than writing new stuff. I found some research that the town of my setting may not have been the ideal place for my's kind of freeing knowing that I can go back LATER and adjust. I need to push to get the motivation to do so!

Lindsay Harrel said...

Great thoughts, Ash. You're in my head or something! :P

I am an editor. I edit. It's what I do all day. But you're right. It's NOT a good thing to do with your first draft. I found it so freeing to give myself permission to write a crappy first just write what I wanted to and follow my outline and get the words on the page. Like you said, you can always revise later. That's what I kept telling myself, and I wrote that draft much more quickly than I would have otherwise.

But I still struggle with the whole "this stinks" thing.

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Julia! I don't think you're alone in having learned it the hard way! :)

Angela, you have two great pieces of advice! Working on another project can often help us get unstuck, but reading an amazing book is definitely my favorite way to get recharged. I find that every time I read a book by one of my favorite authors while I'm writing, I'm inspired by their skill, and it seems they touch my WIP in some special way, if that makes sense.

Ashley Clark said...

Angie, I'm so glad the editing thing encouraged you. When I saw your e-mail, I thought, this blog is going to be perfect for what she's going through! Cool how God works those things out, isn't it? I agree... right now I'm trying to decide which subplot to put the focus on, and it's so hard to go through all the background stuff, knowing I will probably delete a lot of it, but we find so many cool new ideas by doing that. So keep pushing through! I can't wait to sit down with your chapters in the next few days.

Lindsay, I do too! I think it's our personality to want things perfect the first time, but I'm learning that being so hard on myself limits my ability to be creative. Because I have to create something before I can tear it to shreds! :D

Jeanne T said...

Ashley, I think you must have been in my head over the past couple of weeks. I have started this story over four times. Believe me when I say it needed to start over those four times. :) The first two times, I would write a chapter, and polish it to death, only to be frustrated when the creative juices had dried up.

The third and fourth time, I gave myself permission to just get words on paper, and I've called them my "ugly drafts." And they are. Now, I have about four scenes left before I write "The End," and I'm so excited. And scared. Those fears that the story will fall flat and be boring keep traipsing through my head.

I choose to take heart from the words you've shared today and remember that this is just the first draft. Thanks for your words of wisdom and practical suggestions.

The biggest thought that keeps me going is that God gave this story to me, not to someone else. I didn't ask for it, but He gave it, and He has a purpose for it. My job is to write it, and thank Him for giveing me the love of writing.

I've kept going on it with minimal edits knowing I plan to go back and "make it pretty" very soon now. :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Wise words, Ashley. The "do not give up" is HUGE. So often we get going and then realize that it is difficult and we are writing some terrible junk! We want to give up!!!! But we have to realize EVERYONE writes junk at first. (well, at least I think so!) It's okay!

Joanne Sher said...

FABULOUS advice, Ashley! I need to take it - ALL of it. Thanks.

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, how encouraging to hear from someone who's almost at the end of that first draft! Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

And Sherrinda, I agree--I choose to think everyone else's first drafts are awful. Makes me feel better. ;)

Thanks, Joanne! Glad you stopped by!

Unknown said...

This is awesome, Ashley! And as others have mentioned, so timely. I just finished plotting my next book and I start writing it...tomorrow! I've been putting it off...I'm nervous...but your tips are great encouragement. :)

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks for sharing that, Melissa! I think we all seem to be in the same stage of the game right now, preparing for conference season! Happy writing! :)

Ava Walker Jenkins said...

Thanks Ashley,
I needed to hear these encouraging word right now as I plot out my WIP. Your quote, " An untold story is of no benefit to your reader," resonated with me and I loved it. I copied the verse from Philippians and posted it by my desk. Time to dig deeper. Thanks.

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks for your feedback, Ava! I'm so glad to hear that and wish you the best as you tackle your WIP! Hope you have fun with it! :)

Amanda Fanger said...

This is awesome stuff here! I'm book-marking this page and coming back to this post - like, a LOT! Everyone here always has such great advice and tips, but Ashley, I really like your stuff. Keep it up and thanks for being inspiring!

Ashley Clark said...

Amanda, your words mean so much--thank you! Have a good evening!

Pepper said...

FANTASTIC, Ashley!!!
Oh man, I'm sorry to be late to this one - what a great list of reminders.

I'm with you on the failure of 'finishing hte first draft first'. Oooo, it's so hard not to want to make things better right away. I'm learning though. 2 chapters away from the end of my first draft with my WIP!

And the story stinks, btw.
Just sayin'