Writing a first draft is one of the most magical parts of a WIP – at least, it should be. The first draft is the only thing that is ever completely yours, even as a published author on deadline. You are in control, and you can pen the story your heart wants and your vision creates.
Realistically, though, first drafts can sometimes seem frustrating and sluggish. We drag through them, unmotivated and unsure why we are starting to lose that initial passion which we jumped head-first into the story with.
Here’s the good news… some of the reasons you might be dragging can be recognized, addressed, and fixed. Here are three first-draft mistakes writers make, and how to overcome them –
1. EDITING AS YOU GO
Being very Type-A, I like things to be neat and organized. Leaving something as is when it needs to be changed drives me absolutely crazy! Personally, a huge pitfall for me both time-wise and progress-wise is to reread earlier portions of my draft and edit, before I’ve even finished the manuscript. Skimming back over the last paragraphs from yesterday’s writing session is fine. Picking up at chapter two and reading when you’re now on chapter twelve can be a HUGE stumbling-block for maintaining good forward momentum.
If I happen to see a word or concept which needs to be changed, my fingers itch so badly to stop and do it right then. The problem with this is that a first draft is supposed to be when you get the story out on paper. Build the skeleton, if you will. Once you get bogged down in the nerves and meat of the story, you drag. I have found that breaking a good sprinting pace makes it three times as hard to start again afterwards.
As difficult as this is to believe (trust me, I’ve doubted it too), the more consistently you write, the easier it is. The words flow better, because they are routine and uninterrupted. You longer the period of time between writing sessions, you more stagnant your momentum becomes.
Eliminating any stumbling-blocks to that good flow can help you keep a good pace and feel more motivated for and accomplished during your writing time.
How To Fix It: If you do catch an error or plot hole while skimming, and you just know you’ll forget about it once you start official revisions, here’s how to deal with it… make a note. I use Word to draft all my novels, and there is a function where you can insert comments in a shaded column alongside your manuscript. If I find something I need to go back and change later, I insert a comment in that exact line or word, so I’ll have no trouble finding it later on. This eliminates the speed bumps that can derail your momentum, while still ensuring you’ll have a reminder when you start your first round of revisions.
2. CONSIDERING “POTENTIAL” OPINIONS
This one is so, so damaging, but probably the most common among writers. I have heard countless fellow writers confess to this, and I myself am not ashamed to say that I have struggled with it throughout my writing journey. It used to be a large stumbling block for me a year or two ago, but I do believe I have made great strides towards overcoming it, and I don’t find it to be an overwhelming issue anymore. Nevertheless, those voices do creep in occasionally, and I have to re-center my focus.
When I say “potential opinions”, I mean the ones that don’t even exist yet, but which might eventually. These voices would include readers, agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, etc. We start asking ourselves, “Will (insert said potential voice) like this? If my language flowery and descriptive enough? Should I add this romance in there to make it more appealing? Dream-Agent said she’s looking for (insert said #MSWL wish), so maybe I could incorporate that somehow!”
We’ve all been there. We all know what those little voices in our heads whisper. It’s hard not to questions whether people will like our book, since these stories mean so much to us. These characters are alive in our eyes – their stories matter. For readers to tear them to shreds would be heartbreaking. To receive nothing but rejections from agents and have to give it up would be crushing. There is pressure coming from every angle, and writing suddenly becomes a chore, not a love.
How To Fix It:
Clear your mind, and ask yourself one single question… Why do you write?
Marinate on it for a few moments, and truly pause to ask… Why did you start writing? What keeps you going?
Do you love this story? Does it burn inside you, begging to be told? Are your characters so real in your head that they could very well be living, breathing people?
When we get swamped in all these other voices, we lose our own, and therefore, the voices of our characters. No one else in the world can tell your story the way you will.
Let me say that again, because it is absolutely, vitally, 100% totally and completely important.
No one else IN THE WORLD can tell your story. Even if they had the exact same plot, it wouldn’t be the same story. Their characters would behave different, choose differently, react differently. You are literally the only person who can tell this story. Why on earth would you want to sacrifice that to tell someone else’s vision? Especially when that someone else doesn’t even know your story exists yet, and therefore has no idea they are even influencing it!
Eventually, you will need to consider your readers somewhat, especially once you publish and grow a following, and have people waiting for your sequels. You will also take your agent’s opinion into account, their ideas for changes and improvements.
That is eventually, though. Later, during the revisions, and the polishing. Right now, this first draft belongs to you. Enter a zone where you are excited about this manuscript, and where you listen to your characters, not the thousands of nameless voices trying to convince you that “something else” is better for your story.
3. LOOKING FOR PERFECTION
This can also be called “despairing over imperfection”. Let me just tell you right now, new writers, there will come times when you literally hate your writing. You will look at it and cry and possibly slam the keyboard and walk away. You will teeter on the edge of giving up, and you might even try it for a while. First drafts bring out our deepest doubts. Here’s why…
We are our own harshest critics. This is usually because we know what we are capable of, and anything less than that makes us feel like we fall short. With so many great books out there, reading another talented author’s story can prompt us to doubt as well, if we start comparing our work to theirs.
How To Fix It:
Consider this – Those gripping, beautiful books we love? They started out as a first draft, and I am pretty positive that if you asked any published author, they would tell you their first draft felt like garbage to them too. The difference is, they finished. They stuck it out, made it to “the end”, and then had a full story to work with, revise, and polish into the gem we see on the shelf today.
Comparing our first draft to a published book is like comparing a swan to the ugly duckling. Give it time to turn into something beautiful.
One of my favorite first-draft quotes is from Shannon Hale: “'I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
The words you put down in your first draft are just the tools you will then use to craft something you’re proud of. You can’t build anything without materials. First-draft words are your materials. They aren’t the finished structure.
Besides, “perfect” is unattainable. Hence why many writers keep editing cyclically, and can never let go of a manuscript. They are searching for perfect, and it doesn’t exist. Each person’s idea of a great book is different. Perfection is subjective.
Everyone else’s opinions differ. Each person who reads your book will have a different reaction to it. When it comes to your writing, you are the only constant. Let your vision direct your story.
That’s all for today, everyone! Are you currently drafting a WIP? How has the experience been? What have you struggled with, and how have you dealt with those insecurities? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts =)