Bare List on The First Draft

It’s that time of year again. A time that new and established authors alike gather to defy the clock and better judgement to bring their characters to life through writing at least 50,000 words in 30 days. We are thirteen days into NaNoWriMo and that means that your social media feeds are filled with word counts and declarations of early victory, but amid that chorus of cheer and exuberance are silent cries of self-doubt and even defeat. I hear those cries. I see them in the absence of updates from a once elated newbie. I see them in the lamentations of the disenchanted first-timers disappointed in their work. While I see it more this time of year, it is there throughout the course of the year. Every time someone sits down to write a first draft. The words start flowing as a dream comes to fruition but the fear, doubt, writers block, and sometimes just life step in and rob us of our vigor, our determination. You might think that this is an affliction specific to the first time writer, because seasoned writers, we know that this happens EVERY SINGLE TIME so surely we are prepared. Surely we can shake it off and continue pounding out the words, but this is not always the case, because doubt lies. It pretends that this time is different. That we may have survived before, but surely we can’t again. So, for those that are experiencing it for the first time or need a reminder, I’m here with tips for fighting what I have deemed the First Draft Fear Monster.

FDFM is a beast that attacks writers at they fight to complete a first draft. Its weapons include but are not limited to: making you want to scrap every word (maybe the entire concept) because it tells you this brilliant work is stupid, it tells you every word is wrong and illogical, makes you doubt that you can ever accomplish this dream, tries to get you to shelve your work, and generally steals your desire, maybe even ability, to write. It’s soul crushing enemy, but I promise you it is beatable. Here’s how:

  1. Redefine Your Expectation – A lot of writers, especially newbies, think that a great book is written on the first time out. That the purpose of the first draft is to put pen to page and create a work that simply needs a few typos fixed to be ready to go to print. That is categorically incorrect. I’m not saying it’s never happened, but it’s rare and setting yourself up to that standard is asking for failure. Instead, think of yourself as a sculptor except you can’t just go out and buy a slab of marble, you have to create it. That is the first draft. You are building a giant hunk of rock that you can contour and detail, hammer at and cut away. It is not the masterpiece. It is the canvas on which you will create it.
  2. Don’t Get Married to Your Notions– Every author has started one story to end up in another. Every author has cut a character they thought they would love or changed a setting they once thought was important. You are not required to write anything. Having an idea does not set it in stone. If your story starts to go a different direction, let it. If an unforeseen character gnaws at the edges of your mind, give them a spotlight. Evolving your story line does not mean you have failed your novel. It means you have given it room to create itself.
  3. Forget Perfection – That’s not a thing right now. It may never be a thing. Even J.K. Rowling has things she would have done differently if she got a chance to write Harry Potter again for the first time. You are going to edit and edit and edit this thing and just when you think you can’t anymore, you will edit it again. Then, even when it’s published and on display for the world to see and you think “my gosh I’ve done it and it’s perfect” you will reread it and still come up with things, however minor, that aren’t perfect because perfection is impossible. Everything about writing is subjective, not just to the individual but to the individual’s mood, circumstances, hunger level, etc. I cannot iterate this enough. Perfection is the enemy of publication and you will kill yourself and your dream if you hold yourself to its fantasy.
  4. Change Your Definition of Failure¬†– The hard truth of embarking on any manuscript is that it may never succeed in being published. That does not make it a failure. It makes it a stepping stone to your ultimate goal. Harper Lee never would have published To Kill a Mockingbird if she hadn’t first written Go Set a Watchman and the world NEEDS To Kill a Mockingbird (GSaW maybe not as much). Writing is the only forum in which we hold our first attempt as the definition of success. You probably didn’t get the first job you applied for, but you learned how to get better at interviewing. You didn’t win the first marathon you entered, but you got better as you kept going. Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Simone Biles…they have all lost and they are all champions in their fields. Your current work isn’t the next great classic. So what? That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. That doesn’t mean it isn’t purposeful. That doesn’t mean you have failed. It means you are working towards success.
  5. Write¬†– There is this great misconception in the writing community that if you put things away, this spark of inspiration will hit you in the middle of the night or a big meeting and you will suddenly have all you need to steamroll to the end of your work. For most people, this is bull. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you put something on the shelf, it will stay there. Will you think of it? Sure, but then you’ll berate yourself for putting it there in the first place, then the FDFM will use it as ammunition to torture you with until you’ve lost your will to write again. The exclusive way to shut that lying beast up is to write. Write until your you’ve found the story. Write until it’s turned into a new story. Write until you can proudly proclaim to that monster “you are wrong. I know I can write because I have written” and when you’ve done that, write some more.

You are not alone. People out there pounding out the words, sending queries, and signing deals…they are not different than you. They just learned to fight the self-doubt, the agonizing pain of the writing process, and you will, too. The only way you can possibly fail is by not trying, and you’re here. You’re writing. Despite all the life, worry, time constraints, etc. Despite all of it, you are writing and that is how I know that one day you will be able to say “I have written”.

Share this with anyone succumbing to the First Draft Fear Monster. Have you battled and won? What tools would you add to the belt?