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A Hot Mess: Why you shouldn’t expect your first draft to be a work of art

I am currently writing the first draft of my latest story. I call it a story and not a novel or a short story because, to be honest, I don’t know yet what it will be. Right now it’s on course to be a novelette. When I’m finished with this draft, I’ll have to decide if that middle ground is the right place for this story or if I should expand it into a novel or tighten it up into a short story. There are a lot of other things I’m unsure of at this point, as well. My prose currently goes back and forth between rich description and more spare language. My main character is sometimes sarcastic and sometimes diplomatic. I’m concerned that my exploration of the themes of the book are too on the nose. I’m not even one hundred percent sure that the plot idea is going to work! So much uncertainty.

This, obviously, can make writing difficult. It’s hard to keep going when you don’t know if the final product will be worthwhile. It’s tough to know how to proceed if you aren’t completely sure who your protagonist is or what mood you want to portray with the prose. Some days I feel empowered and in control. Other days I feel like I’m flailing. Some days I sail through a thousand words. Other days are a slog. So how do I stay motivated to keep writing?

By constantly reminding myself that all of my indecision doesn’t mean I’m failing at writing this first draft. Indecision is what writing a first draft is all about! There’s a great quote by Shannon Hale that captures this perfectly: “I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” A first draft is for gathering your “supplies.” It’s telling yourself the story so you can figure out what it is. What feels like muddling about and floundering is actually important creative work. You are pulling a world and its inhabitants out of thin air! You are unspooling a tale that has never been told! That’s not something that just materializes. It requires getting into the muck and digging around. It requires trying things and discarding them and trying something else. It means shoveling a lot of sand into your box so you can figure out how much of it you need to build your castle and what kind of castle you want to build.

Once you have the bones of your story written, now you can focus that plot and sharpen your character’s personality. Once you have something on paper (on screen, most likely, but that doesn’t sound as literary!), you’ll be better able to see where you need to cut and where you need to expand. You’ll be able to see whether the story is better served by more moody or more economical writing. You will get to this point, but the first draft isn’t that point. Meandering and waffling and exploring and wrangling—that’s what a first draft is. If you understand this going in, you’ll be much less likely to pull your hair out and criticize yourself for writing in a crooked line. And you’ll be much more likely to enjoy the process.

Now, don’t believe for a second that, because I’m an editor and tell authors this type of thing all the time, I’m any less prone to falling into the I’m-flailing-and-I-can’t-get-up trap. It’s a lot easier to explain how this works to others than it is to internalize it when you’re in the thick of a wooly manuscript. On my current project, everything was going great, until it wasn’t. I was feeling confident about my idea and was happy with my progress. Then I began reading a book by one of my favorite authors. The story was magical. The writing was beautiful. And suddenly my draft looked ugly and thin. I reminded myself that the book I was reading was probably a third or fourth draft, not a first draft. That the author had probably had moments of doubt too and had a lot of help in going from a manuscript on her computer to the book in my hands. (The author even helped me with this by admitting in her acknowledgements that she had gotten lost several times in the process of writing the book and was thankful to her editors, agent, and early readers for helping her to find her way.) Intellectually, I knew all of this to be true. But staring at my computer screen and trying to write the next chapter, it didn’t feel true.

So, what did I do? I kept writing. What am I doing now? Still writing. When my heart doesn’t remember that first drafts are messy by design, my head says, “Whatever. Keep going.” When I feel like everything I’m writing is pedestrian and no one will every want to read it, I remind myself that everyone’s first drafts are a hot mess. And I just keep reminding myself. I’m not doing it wrong because it’s all over the place. I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing at this stage in the game.

It can be helpful to think of writing your first draft like meditating. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know that your brain is like a pile of puppies. You try to focus on your breathing and your mind is contemplating whether to have pizza or hamburgers for dinner. (The answer is always pizza.) So, what do you do? You bring your mind back to your breathing. When it wanders off again, you bring it back to your breathing. Many people quit at this point, thinking that they are bad at meditating, but in reality, that is meditating! Meditation isn’t an event, it’s a process—the process of redirecting your thoughts when they stray. Do you eventually get better at meditating and have to corral your mind less frequently? Sure. And after you’ve been writing a while, you get better at first drafts and your sandbox is less messy. A first-time novelist might need a dump truck full of sand while an experienced novelist might just need a couple of wheelbarrows full. But the process remains. You gather your supplies, you dig around, you throw handfuls in the air and see where they land.

So, repeat after me: My first draft might seem like a mess but that’s exactly what it needs to be right now. The sandcastles will come. Right now, I’m going to play.


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