On writing a shitty first draft

I strongly believe that, if you’re ever going to write a book, let alone a decent book, you have to be willing to write a really, really shitty first draft.

This is advice I read a few years ago and it’s stuck with me. I guess there’s a part of me that thinks: great, a shitty first draft. That sounds achievable. I can do that, right?

But the truth is, for me it’s harder than it sounds. I like to do things well. So when I’m in the middle of a shitty first draft, I have to fight against the horror of feeling like I’m doing something really, really badly.

I’ve been plugging away at the first draft of my novel, yet to be named, for heading on for six months now.

While six months isn’t all that long, it is also a reasonable portion of my year, in what I have been warned is a finite lifespan. There are a lot of other things I could have done in those six months that I haven’t done because I’ve been writing:

  • I could have learnt some really good swear words in a foreign language.
  • I could have perfected the art of baking macaroons.
  • I could have joined a cult or practised square dancing.
  • I could have got a lot more sleep.

Six months on and I’m approaching the end of the story, I think. The end is mostly what I dream of: a beautiful blessed promised oasis where I get to stop and lie down and not do any more and bask in the wonder of the thing that I’ve created. Ahhhh…

But what if you reach the end (or in my case the almost end) and all you see around you is the sheer awfulness of what you’ve done?

Right now, if my story were a city these are some of the things I imagine the guidebook would say:

Why come here when you can go just about anywhere else?

There’s no defining style, unless you count the maze of dead-end plotlines and blind alleyways leading nowhere in particular.

Whole blocks need to be demolished. Soon.

I’m not sure why this place even exists. It is surrounded by the most drab and featureless landscape imaginable. Nobody seems to have any idea what they’re meant to be doing or why. And it smells funny.

That’s the story that’s running in my head at the moment about the story that I’m writing.

As well as the necessity of shitty first drafts, another thing I believe is that a lot of the challenge of writing is dealing with your own thoughts and feelings about what you’re doing.

So this post is to remind myself, and anyone else who might be wracked with horror at the pointlessness of what they’re working on, it’s okay to be horrified!

It’s possible that you’re writing a particularly shitty first draft. It’s possible that my story is every bit as bad as I feel like it is.

So I remind myself, a shitty first draft is something I may well have to write if I ever want to write a decent finished book. Suck it up. Do it badly. But get it done.

It might be that I can fix the things that are wrong in revisions.

It might be the story that I’ve given up having a social life, watching TV, getting exercise and sleep for, is just going to suck. I can’t control that.

The only thing I can control is doing the work: getting the words on the page.

I can also try to learn and improve my skills, by reading lots of books other people have written (and reminding myself repeatedly that they are NOT first drafts), and by accessing the multitude of amazing resources that are available online and through books and journals (and my plug here goes to the Writer’s Digest which I find offers a continual source of insightful and useful articles).

It’s also possible that this thing I think is a disaster might be not QUITE as bad as I feel like it is. Maybe.

The reality of it is, at this point in time, I really can’t know. And since I can’t know, the only thing I can do is keep going until I get to the end.

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