Every writer who has ever finished a first draft knows it’s a mix of ecstasy and agony.
Often more agony than ecstasy.
Anyone who has written more than one or two first drafts discovers writing habits that hinder the writing process. I know that’s true because I have many such habits and I cannot be alone (at least I hope I’m not!).
The good thing is that encountering the same mistake frequently enough often leads to solutions.
Here are three of the mistakes I routinely make and the solutions that work for me.
Mistake #1: It Has to be Perfect
I’m a perfectionist when it comes to certain activities. Paintings have to be the best I can make them, especially if someone is paying in advance. That’s just the way it’s always been.
I’m the same way with stories and, yes, first drafts. Every word has to be perfect. It. Just. Has. To. Be.
The problem with this attitude is that first drafts are not designed to be perfect. Quite the contrary. As Danielle recently pointed out, first drafts are usually muck and mire (to quote Abbott & Costello). Being a perfectionist writer working with a muck-and-mire first draft is guaranteed to produce frustration and lead to failure.
The obvious solution is to get over the perfectionism. But when it comes as naturally as breathing, how do you do that?
The thing that works best for me is to allow no wiggle room for editing. Whatever I wrote yesterday was written yesterday. Don’t review it. Don’t edit it. Don’t look back.
That doesn’t always work, though, so I often start the writing day by reviewing the last scene. That sets the stage for whatever comes next and if I limit revisions to correcting obvious typos, I don’t get bogged down.
Another way that works even better is to copy the last paragraph or two for the day into a fresh document for the following day. It takes just a few paragraphs to set the stage. If the entire manuscript isn’t open, it’s less likely I’ll be drawn back into it.
Mistake #2: Giving Up Too Soon
More accurately, giving up.
I added “too soon” because I almost always hit a wall at about 20,000 words. Whether I’ve pre-planned or am writing by the seat of my pants, I get about a quarter of the way through the story and everything comes to a screeching halt. I’m sure you don’t have that problem because you’re sensible writers. For me, though, it’s a fact of life.
Of course, when you hit a wall like that at any speed, it makes a mess. I’m usually writing between two and three thousand words a day at the point of impact, so it makes a huge mess.
It also totally derails the writing process. I come to a complete standstill, ignorant about how best to proceed.
So I usually take the easy way out and work on something else. Obviously, this idea was trash or it wouldn’t have crashed, right? (Never mind that it happens to every story.)
Write scenes beyond the point of impact.
If you’re a linear writer (you start at the beginning and write in sequence), skip past the place where you encountered the crash-and-burn moment and work on another point in the story. It may be very difficult to get started with this habit, but it’s well worth the effort. If you can write the scenes that follow, you can almost always come up with answers to the question that stopped you cold.
If you’re not a linear writer—if you write like I do and are all over the place—set aside the story thread or plot line that’s giving you trouble and work on another one.
If you want to try something really wild, ask the characters involved in the crash-and-burn what they’d most like to do. It doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, it’s probably better if it doesn’t! You want wild and crazy ideas, not sensible ones. Wild and crazy is more likely to unlock your imagination to the true solution to the problem and get you back on track.
Mistake #3: Thinking Too Much
Yes. That’s what I said. Thinking too much.
My husband is an engineer. One of his favorite sayings about engineers is that there comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and get on with the project.
Interpretation: Endless fiddling with plans and ideas leads to project delays and—sometimes—complete inaction.
Writers are the same way. At least I am. I’m a big fan of brainstorming. I’m capable of thinking an idea into total oblivion.
There comes a time when I have to stop thinking and just write. Otherwise, the manuscript gathers dust while I’m pondering possibilities and pretty soon it’s been twenty years (yes, for real!).
Thinking about your story is good. So is brainstorming. Set a deadline for thinking. When that time comes, stop thinking. Review your ideas, choose the best one and get going. If it’s not the right solution, it may lead to the right solution, but the chances are, it will work.
So there you have it. Three of my biggest problem areas when it comes to writing first drafts. You’d think, after nearly a dozen first drafts, I’d get a handle on these things, but no. Each of them is a pit with slippery slopes. One false step, and I’m in over my head.
But we–you and I–don’t have to stay in that pit. Try these solutions and see if they help you with your first draft.
What typical mistakes do you make with your first drafts?