In the Quagmire of the First Draft

I spent the last two weeks submerged in the quagmire of my first draft, paralyzed to the point where I could barely write 100 new words.  This hasn't happened to me for a while, so I guess I thought I was past it.  But every book has its own challenges, and this one is no exception.  I am in first draft hell.

I am always terrified of first drafts.  They seem so overwhelming.  All those pages to fill with characters and scenes and, you know, plot.   I always feel like I'll never make it from the first chapter to the last.  That I'll be stuck in the muddle of the draft and never make my way out.  But that ever-present fear is usually just that, a nagging worry that doesn't really stop me from pressing forward to "the end."

Until it does.

And boy did it.

I was just starting to feel like things were coming together, like I understood the characters and their journey and the story was flowing.  Then I hit 40K and everything came to a screeching halt.  I began to second-guess everything I had written so far.

Act 1 was too long, the main character was too serious, the story was too depressing.  No one would ever want to read this manuscript, let alone buy it.  The story was not turning out to be anything like I thought it would. I couldn't see past the flaws.  I couldn't write for a week and a half.

I considered abandoning ship.

I didn't.  And, while I still feel a little lost in the swamp, I can see a faint trail to the other side. Here are some things that are helping me get unstuck:

1. Muzzle the Inner-Critic:

Once I get through the first draft, there will be plenty of time to second-guess myself and address the things that aren't working.  I am much too close to the manuscript at this point to know what is really working and what is not.  I need to see the entire picture before I start axing scenes or changing characters.  I have to remember that three weeks ago, I loved this story, and I'm sure I'll love it again before I'm done with this draft.  It's okay to hate it for a little while, as long as I keep writing.  I'm willing to bet that when it's done, it's not as good or as bad as I thought it was while I was writing it.  It's just a first draft.

2.  Ignore the Word Count:

I barely look at word count when I'm revising, but I tend to be a slave to it when I'm writing a first draft. The great thing is that I can see my productivity and have an objective barometer for my progress.  The horrible thing is that I also have an objective way of measuring my failures. Yes, that 5000 word day was amazing.  But you know what, that 600 word day, when I spent hours staring at blank pages, but started to solve a major story problem?  It was every bit as important. Yes, there are deadlines, but writing is not a race.  It's a creative process.  It takes time.  It takes thought.  It takes courage to push through.

3.  Call in Reinforcements:

When you're stuck in the quagmire, it's much easier to get out if someone is there to throw you a rope.  Don't be afraid to ask for help.  I emailed the Muses, and spent a day with writing friends,where I got some objective feedback, and a supportive ear.  Sometimes it helps to talk through plot problems, or just to have someone remind you that you'll get through your story problem.  Or feed you chocolate.

4.  Take a Breather:

While it's tempting to try to push through the block, sometimes you just need a little time away from your manuscript.  Read a book, take a walk, go to a movie.  I find that the solution usually comes to me after I've stopped trying to force it.  A day or two away from your manuscript is okay.  You'll get back to it.

5.  Do Some Freewriting:

Can't write the next scene?  Open up a blank document and do some freewriting.  Write a scene from another character's point of view.  Do some character worksheets.  Write out a scene from your character's past.  Write a poem.  Write anything.  Just write.  You'll find your way back into the story.

6.  Remind Yourself that It's Supposed to Suck:

It's a first draft.  It will never see the light of day.  It's a discovery draft. Yes, some parts of it will suck. Keep going.  The good news is that you'll get to revise those sucky parts later.  LATER.  For now, ignore the suckage and move on.

7.  Write:

No matter how bad it feels, the only way through is through.  Open the manuscript. Write even though you don't feel like it.


This is a great post. : ) I have been working on a book myself and occasionally run face first into walls, and while I know that I'm not the only one, it's nice to have a reminder that other people deal with this and manage to get through it in one piece. Good luck, and can't wait to read your book!

Ah, that 40K mark. The set up is all done and the middle begins, and suddenly there are all those possibilities. And nothing is happening.

I love these tips for getting through! THanks for sharing, Talia! Hope it goes easier from here on out. I've no doubt that you are going to nail it.

Writing Rabbit, you are not alone at all. Those walls hurt, but somehow or other we make it through. Glad this post was helpful.

Martina, yep, everything's in place, ready to go, and then just kind of stalled at the starting gates. I tried writing some scenes near the end, but then I realized I need those little details from the middle, and the only way to find them is to write.

Oh, boy, I needed to hear this. I'm about to start a new first draft based on a story I wrote years ago. It's taking on an entirely different one and I have to convince myself I'm okay with it. Time to get going on it, though. As you said, it isn't going to write itself.

Yes, I needed this! My first draft is giving me fits! Well, you saw it out of the corner of your eye. Prose? Verse? WHO KNOWS. It's reassuring to see someone else with the same problems and insecurities - someone who I know gets through it every single time. Thank you!

I am printing this and sleeping with your wisdom under my pillow at night. THANK YOU TALIA. <3

You're welcome Jodi! To update you- I did get through that first draft, and a second, and a third. It took months, but I finally am back at the place where I love the story.

But before I get too complacent- I've started a new first draft...

I remember reading this many moons ago--thanks for posting. I'm going to link to it in an upcoming blog, "Write Raw."

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