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How to Survive A First Draft

Yesterday, a Young Relative who is writing a novel sent ellen_kushner  and me a heartfelt plea for advice.  She'd been going along swimmingly, she wrote, sailing through words and pages and scenes, using "My Shitty First Draft" for a mantra when her internal editor got fractious, pretty much making it up as she went along.  And then she was asked to write a synopsis, realized that she didn't know exactly what happened next, began to flail and splutter, and could we please, please, throw her a life-preserver, because she was going down for the third time and hated every single word she'd written and was finding it very hard to imagine it was all ever going to turn into a novel anybody would want to read.

Sound familiar to you?  It did to me.  And to Ellen, who wrote her an encouraging and relative-like letter. 

This is what I wrote.

Welcome to the wonderful world of writing a novel.  Seesawing is NORMAL.  We all do it, to one extent or another.  Once you've written a novel (or two, or three) you learn (or your partner and friends learn) to recognize the symptoms before they become acute, and apply hot tea and soothing noises to avoid an acute flare-up.  Or not.  We all hate them.  They suck--energy, confidence, time.  But they happen. 

The most telling sentence in your screed is "(well, except for a little bit yesterday which was OK.)"  It (where "it" is getting sentences to make sense and say things you want them to which make the story move forward--let's call it "flow") hasn't flown the coop.  It's just become subsumed in your uncertainly about What Happens Next.  This is a pain,  a dark night of the soul, and the moment that ultimately divides Writers Who Will Finish A Novel from Writers Who Won't.  You just have to figure out how to get through it.

Ultimately (as you know, because you said so, very clearly), you need to figure out how you do it yourself.  But there are things you can try.

1)  Don't write a synopsis until you're ready to.  And when you're ready, do what Ellen says.  [Which was:  "Don't give up on your synopsis. Write it as a 2-paragraph overview - as you would a 250-word review of the existing book, glossing over details.  Seriously; pretend you're a reviewer who's reading the finished perfect work - or a kid blogging about her favorite book 2 years after it's come out."--excellent advice, which I intend to take myself, as soon as I'm ready to write a synopsis of my current First Draft in Progress]

2)  Try writing the Good Parts Version.   This is defined as "All the Stuff I know has to happen and I feel like writing, more or less in this order, but we'll see."

3)  Bull on through regardless, throwing words at the wall in the hope that some will stick.  One member of my writing group, when writing her first draft, writes scenes that seem to happen in Real Time, in which the characters sit around cooking dinner or mending harness while talking about the weather or the crops or their love lives for PAGES AND PAGES, which is fun for us to read, but not ultimately useful to the plot or the structure of the novel, in the course of which she will write [FLOUNDER], which is obviously exactly what she (and her characters) are doing.  She doesn't rewrite them until she's finished the draft, at which point they either disappear or get so completely rewritten that maybe only the setting and one line of dialogue survive from the original.  She finds writing them immensely useful, though, however seemingly inefficient, for getting to know characters, for creating an atmosphere or details of her world.

4)  Talk the next part through with someone.  You need someone who will ask you a lot of questions, who will make bad suggestions so that you can contradict them, who is not at all invested in your taking their advice if it doesn't work for you.

Whatever you do (and I'm sure there are other things I've never tried or thought of), get that shitty first draft done.  You can't fix something that doesn't exist.  You can't rewrite a faulty text that's still mostly in your head.  You can't experience the thrill of making a recalcitrant scene or section work by changing a paragraph, cutting a sentence, adding the perfect line of dialogue if you haven't written the clunky version first.  Do whatever it takes.  That's the prime function of NaNoWrMo, which is designed for those who like to know that they are not alone in their suffering.  If you're a page-count junkie, set yourself a daily goal (me, I'd rather type naked on Riverside Drive).  If you like timed tasks, make a rule that you have to write for a certain amount of time a day, whether you're enjoying it or not (that's what I do).  Sometimes I start writing, "This scene has to have these characters in it, and it would be nice if somebody mentioned the 800 Gorillas in the corner in the course of it, and maybe the Hero could cry, and how on earth am I going to make that happen?  Well, he's scared of mice.  No, I don't need to know where the mice come from. . . ."  Etc, etc, until I'm writing an actual scene, which may or may not bear any relation to the scene I started out describing because some days are like that.  Do something else entirely.  But keep writing.  Please.


( 44 comments — Leave a comment )
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Nov. 27th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
Unsolicited, but much appreciated. I'll be saving this, with a big post-it note over my desk to remind me to read it whenever I'm on the verge of deleting a work that I am certain (at the time) should never see the light of day.
Nov. 27th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
This is, of course, wonderful :)

But entirely apart from that I get the biggest grin from it, because I can almost hear you saying it.
Nov. 28th, 2010 04:12 am (UTC)
Nov. 27th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)
This is very timely for me to read. Thanks so much for posting it! I'm bookmarking it for future reminders.
Nov. 27th, 2010 09:55 pm (UTC)
Get out of my mind!

Actually no, I take that back. You can stay, because you are nice and filled with helpful advice, like what you have written here. Even if it is somewhat uncannily well-timed, in my case.

Nov. 27th, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
Well, she was your first Clarion teacher
The teaching comes when the student is ready, Dallas.

Or so it says in my handy dandy mystical guidebook.
(no subject) - deliasherman - Nov. 28th, 2010 04:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anticontrarian.blogspot.com - Nov. 28th, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 27th, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this -- love it.
Nov. 27th, 2010 11:15 pm (UTC)
I've been in the spot of Ellen's relative for three weeks. Thank you for this!
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 28th, 2010 04:17 am (UTC)
Nothing written in the course of bulling through a first draft is a waste of time. I firmly believe this. If I didn't, I'd have to hate myself for all the self-indulgent scenes in which I played with my characters and described their clothes and their rooms ad nauseum, which sometimes yielded insights and sometimes didn't. And that would be a real waste of time, wouldn't it?

We sit around in our kitchen talking. Why can't our characters, eh?
(no subject) - ellen_kushner - Nov. 28th, 2010 04:39 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 28th, 2010 12:54 am (UTC)
Thank You
Wonderful advice. Thank you for posting it here.

Nov. 28th, 2010 09:01 am (UTC)
I love your post, and particularly this line: "This is a pain, a dark night of the soul, and the moment that ultimately divides Writers Who Will Finish A Novel from Writers Who Won't."

Howard calls this "Entering the Dark Wood" and says it happens when directing theater too.
Nov. 28th, 2010 10:24 am (UTC)
Also, of course, donate her a copy of The Unstrung Harp, required reading for all would-be writers. Is it too late to think of becoming a spy?
Nov. 28th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
I LIVE by TUH! I even have a "Dreadful! Dreadful! DREADFUL!" icon for when I need to emote. And being Our Young Relative, I'm reasonably sure she knows of it.
Nov. 28th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
This is great advice! Thanks for sharing :)
Maggie Secara
Nov. 28th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
It's that time of year
when some of us are actively engaged in trying to write and finish a novel in November and are running out of time. I'm passing this to the gang in our NaNoWriMo tree house where I think it will be especially appreciated. Thank you so much, Delia!

Maggie Secara
Nov. 28th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
Re: It's that time of year
Wow. Thank you.
Nov. 28th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
Having recently finished a first draft (third novel), I recognize your every word here as gospel. I do a lot of #3, and I got through this book with the endless assistance of a #4.
Nov. 28th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
What works best for me is to put down a few words each day -- even if it's only 15 or 20. Somehow that keeps the draft ticking over. And I don't reread till I've reached the end (though I do rewrite if I realise I've written myself into somewhere stupid). You and Ellen have some wonderful advice here: thank you.
Nov. 28th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
That's very good advice, too. I shall have to adopt it as 5). I myself am an inveterate re-reader of what I have just done. I keep trying not to, but for me, editing what I wrote the day before seems to be a necessary run-up for the current day's work.

Mileage in these things always varies, doesn't it?
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Nov. 29th, 2010 06:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 28th, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
This is perfectly timed advice for me, Delia :)

I'm revising a completed draft for an editor and have been asked for a synopsis for a sequel (as the basis of a potential two-book deal) - and all I have to hand is a no-doubt-awful NaNoWriMo draft that I haven't looked at in 3 years!

Writing a synopsis of a finished draft is easy(ish), but as a discovery writer, the thought of doing one for a rough, probably broken, draft fills me with trepidation. I like your idea of the "good parts version", and also the brainstorming with a buddy, as I know I respond well to having my Muse poked by a disinterested party :)

I will be back to re-read this post, once the first book is sorted out...

Anne, long-time Riverside fan
Nov. 28th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you, and good luck to you!
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