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On Facebook, in response to my previous “Handy Hints for Editing” post, my friend Michela asked if I could do a follow-up post on the creation of first drafts.  She had a few specific questions, which I’ll try to address here, and I’ll see if I can come up with any hints beyond “just write the stuffing thing!” which is my main piece of advice (aimed at myself, most of the time!)

Michela asks :

1. Something I find difficult when drafting is that however I look at the first draft, I know it can only be the worst version of what I’m writing.  I feel compelled to perfect it as soon as possible.  How do I get over this?

Perfectionism is all very well if you’re designing aeroplanes for a living.  If you’re a writer, or an artist, it can be a bit of a curse.  I know more than one person who has never reached beyond the first chapter of the novel they were writing because of their mental insistence that the first chapter had to be “perfect” – without achieving that they couldn’t carry on with the draft.

I’ll let you into a little secret.  No book is ever perfect (not even published ones.)  No painting is ever perfect.  No piece of created art can possibly live up to the impossibly high standards some people set themselves.  And you know what?  That’s perfectly OK.  It’s OK to say “I like this bit, I’m proud of this bit, if I did it over again I might have less trolls and more fighting.”  No writer worth tuppence has ever looked at their work and gone “Damn yeah, that’s perfect!” (I suggest that if you meet a writer who does have that attitude, they may have a higher opinion of themselves than their work actually merits…).

Give yourself the freedom to mess up, to scribble on the pages, to be a bit silly.  There is nothing that can’t be fixed in editing, but the one thing you can’t do is edit a blank page.  If it takes you eighteen months to perfect the first paragraph, you’re going to lose heart long before you reach the end of the book.  If you try to make it perfect first go round, you will never, ever finish it, and you will remain unsatisfied and unfulfilled.  Let it go.  Fix it later.  Get on with telling the story you want to tell.

2 What do you like most about drafting? What do you find exciting about it?

When I have a story swirling around in my head, it won’t shut up until I get it down on paper.  I’m a pantser rather than a plotter, so I usually start with an idea, a beginning, four or five scenes that have to appear in the story, and an ending, to aim for.  The idea of the first draft, initially, is to join all these things up.

I like the physical act of writing, or typing, just getting words down on paper. On a good day I can walk away from the desk with a real sense of achievement and productivity.  The most exciting thing, I find, is also the thing I enjoy the most ; uncovering the plot, watching the story twist and turn in ways I didn’t quite expect, feeling the characters come to life and start doing their own thing (which is not always the thing I expected or even wanted them to do), listening to their voices in my head, and then trying to pull wandering plot and stubborn characters back into the vague frame of what I was doing in the first place.

3. Even when a scene seems clear in my mind, when I come to write it suddenly it’s not so clear at all.  Any insights or handy hints?

Happens to me all the time.  I can have a scene written out in my head that changes as I’m writing it, or when I come to type it all the brilliant prose that was swilling round my brain has escaped out of the window and I’m left with nothing but clunky rubbish.  My advice is not to dwell on the brilliant words that have escaped.  If they were that brilliant, you would have remembered them, and you can hone the clunky rubbish into a better state with careful editing.  As long as you get the idea and tone of the scene down in your draft, that’s the thing that’s important.  The right words will come later.

OK, let’s summarise with a few tips.

1. Starting with stating the bleedin’ obvious again – don’t get it right, get it written!  Stop worrying about getting your words perfect, and concentrate on getting them down.  So it doesn’t sound all that great?  Hey, that’s what editing is for.

2. Work on your manuscript every day.  Even if you only get a few lines down, every sentence you write brings you closer to the end.  And forget that deathless prose, “The End” is the most satisfying sentence you will ever write.

3. Don’t panic if your plot starts wandering off in unexpected directions, or your characters don’t behave as you expected them too.  That’s part of the fun.  Run with it and see what happens.  Sometimes the story knows what should happen better than you do, and sometimes it throws up lovely surprises!

4. Don’t be daunted by the scale of novel writing.  If the idea of writing a whole book seems overwhelming, just concentrating on writing the next chapter, or the next page, or the next paragraph.  You will hit walls, everybody does.  Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint.  Keep ploughing forward and you’ll get there in the end.

5. Don’t stop your writing session at the end of a chapter, or you might find it harder to get going again.  Stop in the middle of a scene, even in the middle of a paragraph.  That way you won’t have to sit there wracking your brains trying to remember what it was you intended to write next, because you will have already started it and what you have written will remind you where you were heading.

6. Enjoy it! Have fun with it, play around.  If you’re not enjoying it, you will end up hating your book and you won’t want to stick with it.  Writing a book is a long-haul effort and there might be times when you get fed up with it, but stick with it and it will all be worthwhile.

As always, these are just suggestions.  There are as many different ways of writing as there are writers, and what works for me may not work for you, but I’d be interested to hear how you tackle your first drafts.

Many thanks to Michela d’Orlando for her questions, and for suggesting this post!

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