Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What Am I Doing Wrong?

With 20 chapters under my belt, you'd think I've learned a thing or two about writing a first draft.  But I'm just as clueless as the first time I sat down.  I mean, it's a first draft - how perfect does it have to be?

Well, for my standards, pretty damn perfect.  I'm cursed with being a perfectionist.  (Believe me, if you've lived with this the way I have, you know it's a curse - not a gift.)  Why am I doing this to myself?  There will be plenty of time to revise, rewrite, add, delete, and edit later.  Right?

Some days I can't feel my story.  Like today, for example.  When you choose to write about the topics and themes I've chosen, there are days you need a break from the fictional world you've created.  It's freaking depressing.  And for some reason, this week has been tough.  Perhaps it's because I'm surrounded by all this happy holiday nonsense.  It's hard tapping into your darkest blood cells with Christmas music blasting from the speakers above you.  Sorry, I don't hear what you hear.  And I don't really want to either.

(Point of clarification: No, I'm not the Grinch.  I actually enjoy this season.  It's just that, unfortunately, finding that holiday spirit has been challenging the past few years.  I'll come around... eventually...)

Despite not being "in the zone," I forced myself to write today.  When I opened my document, my fingers went paralyzed.  All I did was erase and retype a the same two paragraphs repeatedly, changing a word here and there.  Productive?  I think not.

Three hours later, I've accomplished nothing - except a couple of tweets, and I guess this blog post.  The frustrating part is, I have ideas.  I know what needs to happen in this chapter.  I know why it needs to happen.  But when I write it out, I don't like the way it sounds.  And this prevents me from moving forward.

So, I'm seeking advice from the writing community.  What are the most important elements of a FIRST draft?  What do you focus on during that initial run-through?  What can I let go for now and fix later?  What can fix itself once you have the entire story drafted on paper? 

These are the things I'm trying to learn.  I know writing requires patience, and I know it's not wise to force the creative process.  I also know most authors describe their first draft as crap.

The bottom line is, I want my first draft on paper. Now that the entire manuscript is in my head, I want to sit down and sculpt it.  I want to get rid of the clutter, add what is missing, and perfect my wording and sentence structure.  And I need to read it from cover to cover.  Working on something for so long makes it difficult to remember what I've already written.  Did I use that analogy already?  Did I already insert that reference?  How many times have I used this word?  Ugh, I'm getting a headache.

I'm hoping a lot of this is simply the result of inexperience.  I've never done this before, so I'm learning the process as I go.  Any advice or expertise you can offer will be greatly appreciated.

Happy Wednesday,


  1. I think the most important part of a first draft is getting from the beginning to the ending. Nothing else matters, not characterization, continuity, or how often you use the word "that."

    I, too, strive for perfection, but it just doesn't happen in a first draft, and the more you dwell on it, the worse it's going to get. If something "imperfect" occurs to me, I write it down somewhere else (I actually keep a list of problems with the MS in a separate document).

    Also, it doesn't hurt to take a day off from writing. Sometimes just taking the time to visualize the story helps me. Again, this may not work for you, but I hope you have some ideas.

  2. Hi Paul, every writer out there knows your frustration, so don't worry. It sounds like you're just trying too hard.

    What might help is to open up a new word doc and pretend it's not going into the 'real' manuscript. If you know what you want to happen in your story just relax and let the words spill onto the screen.

    It doesn't matter if there are mistakes, if there are holes in the story - not even typos matter. After all this new word doc is 'only for practice'.

    Once you get the story down - regardless of how good/bad it is - walk away from it and let it marinate.

    After a few weeks go back and see if it works for the story. If it does, add it to the rest of the manuscript. If it doesn't you can fix it or rewrite it.

    Either way you will have it down and you can go from there.

    I hope this helps. :)

  3. @JE: Thanks for your input. I agree - the most important thing is writing from beginning to end. I once read an article (I think it was Laurie Halse Anderson??) where an author was asked how they do this. Her response was, "by any means necessary." And I'm laughing because I also keep a list of problems - things I want to change or fix later on. We seem to think alike.

    @TK: I like this suggestion a lot. It seems practical - open a new document and write in order to get the story down. Tomorrow, I'm going to try really hard to sit down and follow your suggestions. In fact, I'm going to make it a game: no going backwards. I may have to practice ignoring those red or green lines first, but I'm going to give this an honest attempt. My focus needs to be on the story. Thanks for your help!!

  4. Paul, I know exactly how you feel. Truly I do. I've just finished writing a novel, which I started five years ago... I thought it would never end.

    My only advice to you, is to keep putting those words on paper. There will be time enough to edit later. Being a perfectionist is definitely a curse. I too am one. However, I've now leaned to ignore obvious flaws and just keep tapping away at that keyboard.

    It 'will' come together. You'll see.

    I wish you well in your journey. It's a bumpy road. Hang on tight :)

  5. Hi Paul,

    I think the most important pieces of a first draft are those few inspiring, and hard hitting lines. To me if you have those in your head it is half the battle. I like to think you can always fill in the "filler". Go for what you know needs to happen, and then on review we can add what we think needs more explaining. As always, I say junk spelling and grammar - you have some lovely fans and editors who love to help you out in that department.

    I totally understand that the holiday season might be throwing you off. Just take yourself into Michael's holiday season! Find the darkness! I totally believe you can.

  6. Wendy: Thanks for visiting! I agree with everything you've said - I think we just go through moments where it helps to hear it from others. Congratulations on completing your novel! Best of luck as you take the next step. (Here is am excellent post that may help you if you're interested and planning to query:

    Michelle: Thank you, as always, for supporting me in this journey. You are one of the best beta readers and cheerleaders I could have asked for. Thanks for keeping me motivated. (And for anyone confused, the "Michael" she mentioned above is my protagonist.)


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