Authors Magazine – Surviving the First Draft

This article originally appeared in the digital publication Authors Magazine.

You have a brilliant new idea, you’re just itching to write. It’s so easy for the first few pages… and then it becomes gradually more difficult. So you give up. Sound familiar? Every author has been there.

So how do you defeat the twin foes, Sir Procrastination and the fabled beast Self Doubt?

Before you start writing…

Like any decent soldier, you want to go in prepared. You need to accept that a time will come when this brilliant new story will turn on you. It will feel sticky and wrong and you will doubt yourself. That’s part of the process. You can head off a lot of these doubts by having a plan of attack.

Erika Bester, director of Fire Quill Publishing and author of numerous novels across genres under different pen names, says that she never struggles to finish a first draft, mostly because she knows the story she wants to write before she even puts pen to paper.

“Know your characters like you know your friends. Know the twists and turns, the conflicts. The beginning, middle and end and even the fillers in between,” she advises. “You will be surprised how fast.you finish that first draft without having to push through or experience obstacles.”

Joanne Macgregor, author of seven books for teens and young adults, agrees that often planning is the key to an easy ride, “Many writers experience that trial of the tough middle and are tempted to give up and start something fresh. I think it’s often a consequence of not having plotted the story and structure well enough before beginning, and of thinking that one idea or concept is enough to carry a story. You need multiple plot threads to interweave with your theme to give you enough impetus to carry the story to its climax.”

There are many writers who find that plotting doesn’t work for them (fondly known as “pantsers” because they like flying by the seat of their pants). For these writers, a first draft is less like instigating a well-organised plan of attack and more like entering a dark and gloomy dungeon, feeling the way forward towards treasure. You learn about the plot and the characters as you go. There is nothing shameful about this method, in fact the results can often be more surprising and organic, but it does mean that you need to store up an arsenal of weapons to combat the foes you know are likely to leap out at you from the dark.

 

Enemies to watch out for in the dark

Even if you have plotted, there will be times that you find yourself fumbling in the dark, needing a link between scenes, to bulk out some characterisation or to reach the next plot point. This is where some of the first-draft-halting enemies most love to strike.

 

The Cliché Hunter

When you’re writing a first draft, stumbling around in the dark looking for that mythical next plot point, the very last thing you need is to encounter the Cliché Hunter.

Like all demon hunters, he has a very important job. He’s just not needed in a first draft. If he’s out hunting micro clichés – the kind that pop up in dialogue or description – you might get caught in one of his snares and that will slow your journey forward immensely. (Which is more than a little frustrating when you’re not even sure you’re on the right path and might end up rewriting this bit anyway). But he’s at his most dangerous when he’s out hunting macro clichés – looking for overdone plot elements or characters or the very story itself. That’s when he puts his crossbow to your neck and demands to know “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”. And when you can’t answer he might even kill you. Well, kill your novel.

Sometimes clichés can be a useful means to an end – a way of moving the plot along. Keep them in as placeholders, and worry about them later. If you stress too much about being original, you’ll never finish that novel. Because the secret is, there is no such thing as true originality.

 

Sir Procrastination

He sits at his campfire, frying up some delicious snacks. He invites you to sit with him. What you don’t realise is that he’ll never let you leave. He’s a crafty devil. Sometimes you won’t even realise that you’re stuck until months have gone by and you’ve completely forgotten that there was ever any treasure in the first place.

Luckily he has a couple of weaknesses.

The most effective way to defeat him is developing a writing routine. The well known BOCHOK method has been proven an effective weapon (butt on chair, hands on keyboard). Force yourself to sit down to write every day – or at least every second day. It doesn’t matter if only a sentence comes out (and it’s a bad sentence), you’re moving forward and you’re sticking with the story on the path to that fantastic treasure.

Macgregor suggests that when you do this, you turn off your internet connection (“BOCHOK doesn’t refer to procrastinating on the internet!”). She also suggests that if you’re really stuck, you can set a timer and challenge yourself to reach a certain number of words before it goes off (known as a “writing sprint”).

If that doesn’t work, you might want to up the ante by visiting a site called Write or Die that will delete words you’ve written if you don’t continue to type. The less extreme version is Written? Kitten! that rewards you with a picture of a cute cat if you meet a wordcount goal.

The other major weapon against Sir Procrastination is nagging. In other words, make sure you have some social accountability. Tell your friends, your writing group or random people online how many words you aim to write. You’re more likely to avoid that cozy campfire if there’s a chance that other people in your life will see you sitting there being all lazy. Nothing provides a kick in the pants quite like the question, “how’s that novel going?”.

 

The Middle Marsh

About half way through the journey, there’s this vast marsh. It stinks. It’s full of quicksand. Every so often bubbles of methane rise to the surface – and we all know what that smells like.

Welcome to the Middle. Every author ever will tell you that from the mid point to the three quarters point is a horrific no man’s land where the beast, Self Doubt, roams for prey. Perhaps the passion is dry, perhaps the plot is dry. Perhaps you’re just bored. Getting across here can be even more tricky than getting away from Sir Procrastination. But worry not. Many brave adventurers have faced these marshes before you. And while the skeletons of some do lie beneath the bog, plenty of others have made it safely across.

If you’ve tried the methods you used to defeat Sir Procrastination and they haven’t worked, here are some other things Macgregor suggests you can try:

  • Try writing in another mode (longhand in a notebook, or dictating into a voice recorder).
  • Shift your brain from verbal to visual: lie down in a dark room and imagine the “movie” of the next scene, then capture it into words – quick!
  • Read! A great book will inspire you, and a crappy book will motivate you because you know you can do better.
  • Read some poetry before sitting down to write.
  • Get a trusted writing friend or beta-reader to check what you’ve written so far – your block may be due to a problem with your story.
  • “Interview” the character you suspect is causing you problems. I do this as a Q&A written exercise and it’s amazing what new ideas and character elements emerge.
  • Commit to a deadline. If you want to be really serious about this, upload your (incomplete) manuscript onto Amazon’s KDP for pre-order. You’ll have about 80 days to submit your final manuscript, and if you miss the deadline, you’re banned from publishing there for a year.

 

The Siren of Other Project

This lovely lady likes to strike you when you’re at your most desperate. Perhaps it’s while you’re having coffee with Sir Procrastination, or up against the wall with one of Cliche Hunter’s knives to your throat, or stuck on an island between quicksand and smelly bog water in the Middle. She will appear as a silken spectre of temptation and beckon you towards starting something new. Something new that won’t be as difficult as this is (she promises). She lies! Don’t listen to her!

Macgregor suggests there might be a way to incorporate the essence of your new idea, character or emotional heat, into your current manuscript. If not, make a note of it somewhere and let it stew at the back of your mind. Ideas don’t expire. You might be afraid that if you don’t act on them straight away, you’ll forget them. But the best ideas, the ones really worth something, will hang around.

The other option is to try your hand at writing both at the same time. But beware: the shiny new story will want to take over all your writing time… until you reach the middle of that one.

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