The First Draft Blues

I hate writing first drafts.

I see other writers out there talking about how much they hate revising and think, “How could you hate revising? It’s so much fun!”

Not kidding. I love to revise. It doesn’t matter if it’s my work or someone else’s. An unpolished piece of writing is like a big puzzle. I want to figure out how to fit all the pieces together to make it into a beautiful, completed picture. I don’t have to make myself sit down to do it. I look forward to it. I get lost in it. Not even Twitter will draw me out.

But those first drafts. They’re like that homework assignment you know will take forever and so you don’t even want to start. It took me years to write my first two novels. I’d write a scene, think of a better way to do it, and go back. I wouldn’t go forward until it was exactly the way I thought it should be. I kept getting stuck. Somehow I finished those novels, but it was excruciating.

Then, last year, I learned about NaNoWriMo. Write a novel in thirty days? Yeah, right. But I decided to try it. I had an idea brewing, so why not? I planned out the basic outline of the story and was ready to go on Nov. 1. I also found this handy spreadsheet that allowed me to track my goals. If I wanted to win–and I did–I couldn’t stop and revise. I had to leave the scenes alone with the knowledge I could fix them later.

Within two weeks, I’d finished a sketchy first draft. In the next two weeks, I went back and filled out the rest of the story. I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo as I didn’t reach 50,000 words, but I write middle grade, so for me the win was completing a first draft. It was easy sailing after that because I could focus on revising, my first love.

Fast forward to this summer. I’d started querying DUET WITH THE DEVIL’S VIOLIN (labeled as PAGANINI’S CURSE on the spreadsheet if you can read the small print), and it was time to start writing something new. I had an idea, and I started researching it. I thought I would start it in July, but I kept putting it off. I used excuses like, “I’ll do it when the freelance work dies down” or “I’m still not sure where this plotline is going.” The truth is, though, that I was back to my fear of the first draft. Even though I’d gotten through it successfully–and quickly–the last time, I was afraid to start.

NaNoWriMo isn’t until November, but I’m done with excuses. I decided to make my own version of NaNoWriMo in August. I’m not using the spreadsheet this time because I discovered I could set up goals in Scrivener. I tell it my deadline and which days of the week I’ll write, and it recalculates my daily goal depending on what I accomplish the day before.

For me to finish a first draft, I have to make it my priority each day. It comes before this blog, critiquing, freelance work, reading. If I put it off, it doesn’t happen. That’s why it took me years to do those other first drafts. This is how I have to do it. So each day I write until I meet my goal and then stop. The structure works for me. I’m at just over 11,000 words so far, and I’ll power through to the end.

What about you? Do you prefer drafting or revising? Do you have any tricks that keep you going?

Responses to “The First Draft Blues”

  1. Huw Thomas

    First draft, second draft, third draft… is there ever a final draft? Personally, I find there are times (happy ones) when the first draft is relatively painless but I don’t think I’ve ever written a ‘perfect’ phrase or sentence.
    Going back and tinkering with text, looking for another (better) way of expressing something is a perennial temptation. My first novel took years to write because I would go back and rewrite every chapter at least a dozen times, trying to get it right before I moved on.
    Eventually, I learnt just to stop reading and get on with writing. I think my last novel took about six months to write… although there are still times when I think, ‘hmm, maybe this bit could do with a rewrite’. At least once they’re published though, I have to let go.

    • Michelle Mason

      I feel your pain. I’ve come to the same conclusion–no rewriting until I get to The End. Then I can tinker until I’m at the point where the changes are so minor I know it’s as good as it’s going to get. That’s where CPs are helpful. They can tell us if they think it’s ready, too. Thanks for dropping by!


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