In the Trenches: Tips for a First Draft

So I’m writing again, which is… awesome. Scary, always, but awesome.

But, as always, it means I’m in my head too much, constantly analyzing and worrying and working to psych myself up. I won’t say that writing is more of a mind game than any other creative endeavor, since I simply don’t know, but it’s definitely up there. From a skills perspective, it’s just being able to sit and type or move a pen… All that’s left is the thoughts.

Beyond the raw ability to create characters and settings and plots, which is a whole other topic, the ability to draft is all about the mental process.

And with this, my second major project, I’ve figured out a few tips and tricks that can help… and how much things will always be difficult.

Renewing Mentalities

A lot of writing advice and encouragement, rightly so, is all about being able to face bad writing, rely on the entirety of the process, develop discipline to just keep going… And these things are absolutely true.

But what I don’t hear as often is that these mentalities are not a one-time achievement, once found able to be held forever. They will waver, they will crack, doubts will creep in—and so the number one ability a writer must cultivate is the technique of renewing these mentalities.

I have a long, painful history of doubts popping up and derailing my projects, so I am more skittish than most about their presence. But I have to remind myself that the mere appearance of doubts is not a sign that the story is doomed or that I am failing—it’s merely time to renew my confidence or discipline or patience, and keep going. And I might have to do that again, and again, and again, but still, that doesn’t mean anything’s wrong.

It means I’m a writer.

Revision is Coming (But Don’t Think about Killing Your Darlings Yet)

A huge part of the first draft is reminding yourself, constantly, that revision will come and fix everything. Using repetitive language—like me, who apparently must be describing where characters are looking and standing at all times or cannot go a page without using the phrase “for a moment”—is just for now; and someday in the future, revision will swoop in and fix it.

But even as you use this to reassure yourself, you might start to think about how you’ll fix it, or just how much will need fixing at all. And unless you’re someone who can edit as you write, thinking too much about this will only fuel the doubts.

The fact is, the harsh “kill your darlings” mindset that revision requires? There’s a reason you have to put your work aside for a while before you can achieve it. I cannot simultaneously maintain the freedom and confidence mindset I need to just write anything while also being objective about its flaws and eventual erasure. It’s not about thinking what you’re writing is perfect, or can never be fixed, but about putting those thoughts off for a while… Just don’t think about it.

Indulge in Your Flaws

As a related note, you have to learn how to embrace your worst writing flaws… for now. Not only because if you can’t, your process will probably be achingly slow and plagued with doubt—but also because you need that free flow of crap in order to get the raw material.

Revision isn’t easy, and it isn’t talked about as much as the first draft—probably because not everyone reaches that stage (though I’m proof that even the most hopeless procrastinator can get there… eventually). But even at its most ruthless, burn-everything-to-the-ground-and-start-over worst, revision is easier with something there to work with.

For example, I struggle with dialogue styles—making characters sound different. As I’m drafting, I can’t worry too much about that… but when it comes to revision, I’ll have a much easier time working with the content of what I’ve already written and shaping the delivery than I would starting from scratch.

Or repetition—my current project has a lot of repetitive scenes, in framework more than content, but either way, chances are I’ll have to rewrite most of them. As I said above, I can’t think too much yet about what sort of changes I’ll make; but when I get there, it will be easier to work from the material I have, to pick and choose the right content or context or pacing using what I’ve already written.

At the very least, writing can help you practice discipline, get to know characters and settings, try out different techniques—even if you use nothing.

So you have to just… write. Badly.

A personal note: The Other Side of Rejection

For the most part, this new drafting experience has been a lot like the first: for more thoughts on the process, I suggest checking out my posts from late June and July of 2014 (sidebar); a lot of my thoughts and feelings are surprisingly similar.

But there has been one major difference: I’ve been rejected now.

To be fair, I didn’t try as hard as I could have to find an agent, for a variety of reasons—and I’ve made peace with it. I think it might ultimately be for the best, and I have in no way lost hope. And someday I still want to share my first project, in some way.

Yet even though I always knew rejection was statistically probable before, I existed in a small optimistic (and arrogant) bubble of expecting success. To a certain extent, that ridiculous confidence remains… I will be published. 🙂

But now I know that… well, maybe I won’t. At least not quickly or easily, and possibly not at all. It doesn’t mean I’m giving up, at all, but it does mean that flaws in my work stand out to me more. I’ve lost the ability to love my work blindly. I’m more susceptible to questioning what an agent might think of my story, and that can be the kiss of death in the drafting stage.

I’m strong enough not to stop writing what I want, even if I did feel like it was unpublishable (and I don’t think this project is unpublishable—I’m just a little more aware than I was before that it might be). And I think, in the end, this awareness and realism will serve me better, has made me stronger.

It’s just… different.

But I’m WRITING, and that’s everything. After six months of falling back into my old ways, I’ve come out of it with a new project, with actual work to show for it.

And who knows what will happen next? 🙂

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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