Writing a first draft is a journey. There is no better way to describe it. And for most of us, it is a journey with more downs than ups and we spend most of it wondering if we are ever going to reach our destination. It is an emotional roller-coaster. But do not fear. You are not alone. Every single one of us is suffering the same fate silently along side you. We are all sobbing into our
coffee red wine hard spirits, celebrating writing 100 words like we just won an Oscar and let’s not mention the days (weeks) where we sit there wondering why we do any of it, that we are actually pretty rubbish and really, the only thing the draft is good for is the trash can.
Everyone’s journey is different but here’s my beginner’s guide to…
Most people are familiar with the Kubler-Ross model of grief. Her five stage model changed the way people understood the human reaction to death and helped psychologists develop ways to help their patients survive and make it to the other side. The more books I’ve written, the more I’ve noticed how applicable her stages are to my general mental state as I go through the arduous process of creating 120,000 words of art from nothing but a Pinterest board and a random dream I only part remember.
Stage One: Denial
AKA I’ll get to it tomorrow
Most projects die before they have a chance to live. It is sad but true. I have over forty open plot folders on my PC (and those are just the ones that have made the cut since childhood ended). Of those, I have ten that have made it to book format. Of those, I have two that have an ending – that goes from Once Upon A Time to Happily Ever After (or Unhappily in both cases). I’ve been (officially) writing since I was sixteen. That’s a decade. I have one book to show for it. Now I’m not going to say that other things haven’t gotten in the way. Say. Life. But mostly, I’ve gotten in my own way.
Denial comes in all sorts of forms for writers. I will be the first person to advocate that writer’s block is a real thing but we have a choice when faced with it, we can write around it or we can let it stop us. I know I’m guilty way too often of choosing the other path. Other excuses include (but are not limited to): the apartment needs cleaning, writing will have to wait; I’m exhausted, I just want to sleep; they say I should read, that counts towards my writing hours right?; (for us nine-to-fivers) I have just done 9 hours straight, I want tv not a blank page and a thesaurus.
Survival tip: Just do it. It is as simple as that. Time is not going to work in your favour and life laughs in our faces. Writing is a solo sport. There is no substitute on the bench to take over when the going gets rough. There is no coach to keep you motivated. It is on YOU. And that’s scary. I find having clear goals helps. Knowing exactly what I want out of the project. Giving myself mini in-project targets that I’m looking forward to, to keep me driving forwards. And if you can, find a cheerleader. Someone who is willing to stand at the sidelines and keep pushing you to keep going. I know I would never have finished so much as chapter one of my projects without my dedicated team of cheerleaders. Even solo sports get cheers from the crowd.
Stage Two: Anger
AKA Why is this so hard?
It is normally after about page thirty when things start to get rough. It starts small. Little things will start to irrationally annoy you. Like when you end dialogue with a dash and so Word insists on putting the inverted commas the wrong way around. Or your shift key is sticking and you swear it never used to bug you as much. And then it starts to grow. As the uphill hike of writing a novel turns more into an Everest expedition in stilettos, these things become a big deal. Suddenly, the noise your nails make on the keyboard will be infuriating. In truth, it is not the keyboard. It is not the shift key. And… well no, that Word thing is infuriating.
You are angry at the universe for making it so hard. You have this amazing story in your head and it gets infuriating when it won’t go down on paper right. Writing is hard. All those Pinterest gifs warned us of that. We knew it going in. But that doesn’t make it any easy to face when the road gets tough. You are ready to be a published author already but your brain is struggling to conjugate verbs.
Survival Tip: Let it become a positive. Let it keep you driven. We get angry because our writing means so much to us. Find solutions to the problems where you can, brace your loved ones for impact but mostly, just remember, you love doing this. No. Honestly. You do. I swear.
Stage Three: Bargaining
AKA Your crazy is showing
We all know as writers we have to be slightly unhinged but at this point in a project (we are probably at about 100 pages now and struggling), our crazy really starts to show its colours. We start talking to everything. Our laptop gains a gender, a personality and an opinion on our writing. Friends will often walk in on us having fully blown pleading sessions with our characters begging them to just behave and do what the plot requires them to. We will pray to anyone listening to be shown a sneak preview of what happens next. Just a hint. A tiny little clue. Anything. And then my personal favourite, bargaining with the universe that if it provides me with a way to telepathically link with my PC and translate this beautiful image in my head into words that a human can actually understand, that I’ll do anything.
Survival Tip: Indulge in your inner writer. If your friends are true friends, they’ll judge you silently but let you get on with it. Everyone has their process. For years, I tried to be a normal person and a writer. It wasn’t until I embraced my literary insanity that it was like a floodgate had been breached and I found myself writing so much more and so much better. In this case, madness is the method.
Stage Four: Depression
AKA: I’m a talentless, delusional wannabe
So we are doing well. We’ve made it over two-thirds of the way through. But you can feel something building. Like clouds, its been gathering for the last few chapters. Just like in a British sky, there is rarely a day where there are no clouds, but most days the sun shines through. But then we get to winter and the chill sets in and it comes with darkness and self-doubt.
Writing is hard. Did I say that bit? The biggest onus is on us as writers to believe in ourselves enough to keep going. And that’s brutal. There will be days where you want to put the whole project file in the trash can and pretend it never existed. You’ll want to rip the words off the page in sheer loathing of your lack of talent. You will hate every single syllable. But don’t worry. It’s completely normal.
You’ve been staring at this document for months now, if not years. You are probably bored of it. You probably resent every time you have to write your lead character’s name. And you’ve probably reread it so many times, you can’t really see it any more.
Survival Tip: Have a beta reader. Someone who can read it when your confidence is at an all time low and remind you that it is actually pretty decent. Remember that six months ago, those 80,000 odd words didn’t exist. You put them there. You created that. And that’s pretty awesome. It’s a starting point, even if it is rough as guts, you now have a rock that you can shine into a diamond.
Stage Five: Acceptance
AKA Actually, this is pretty good
The stage we all want to reach and I promise you will get there too. It doesn’t even take to the end of the book. For me it’s when I reach the climax. I can feel the whole book finally coming to the fore and everything I’ve been working to build coming together in this magical moment that makes me want to sing out in pure glee. This is the reason why we write. To feel this way. To get that feeling of accomplishment. To look at that file and know that you put every single word in it. It’s an amazing thought. We are owed a little credit for what we achieve.
Survival Tip: Live it up. You deserve it!