Thursday, July 08, 2010

First Draft Hell

There comes a time in every first draft--well, every one of my first drafts--when little voices begin jabbering in my head. Shrill, almost hysterical voices, saying things like:

This book is terrible.
Nobody will want to read it.
Your idea stinks.
Your execution of the idea stinks.
Your characters have all the life and spark of reanimated zombies.
Your plot is spinning out of control.
Your plot is running aground.
Your prose contains not one original phrase.
You're not writing fast enough.
You're not writing deeply enough.
You suck.

The funny thing is, the voices aren't there in the beginning. No, they wait. They bide their time, and when I'm closing in on the end of the first draft, when I only have another quarter of the book or so to write, that's when they pipe up with their terrible little naysaying songs.

I've been through this enough times now that I've realized a few things.

The first thing is that the voices come from fear. They don't show up in the beginning, because in the beginning everything is wonderful. The novel bursts with endless possibility! Every story arc is deep and profound! Every character is charming and unforgettable! Every plot twist is shocking and original! In my head, because none of it has actually been written yet.

By the time I'm in 250 pages or so, that illusion of perfection has died a messy, messy death. The real thing--with all its flaws--is staring me in the face. Plot holes big enough to swallow a small planet! Character motivations that make no sense at all! Story arcs that are going nowhere! I've jotted down note after note about what needs fixing, come revision time. Enough notes to fill pages.

The reason the voices kick in now is because what they're really saying is, Maybe it can't be fixed.

The second thing I've learned is the answer to the voices. It's very simple. The answer is:


When I hit a snag--like I did yesterday--I have to remember to take a breath. Don't panic. Realize that the snag is my cue to dig deeper into motivation, into character, into the possibilities of the scene. Yes, the swoony honeymoon beginning is wonderful. But this, the wrestling to the end, when all seems unwinnable...this, I know, is when the real magic happens. But only if we earn it. Only if we keep faith with our visions, and with ourselves as writers.

Only if we keep going.

P.S. For a really good comparison of the inner critic vs. the inner editor, and what to do with both of them, I recommend this by YA author Malinda Lo.


Melissa Amateis said...

I am RIGHT THERE with you. I'm in the midst of plot hell (I think I finally figured it out today), but the voices started getting loud and out of control. They've quieted down a bit now, but just wait until the next crisis emerges!

Great post. I'm sharing it with my fellow FB writing friends. :-)

Christine Fletcher said...

Plot hell...oy, makes my head hurt just thinking about it. Good on ya for figuring yours out. Mine sounds theory. I'm really, really hoping it ends up working on the page.

Thanks for sharing the post! Have a great weekend.

Lisa Nowak said...

I was feeling something similar while I was trying to organize the scene cards for my outline last week. At least at that point, if the story really sucked I wouldn't have had too much invested in it! Of course things seemed better a few days later.

As you said, the swoony honeymoon is wonderful, but we all know that isn't what makes a real relationship. You have to stick it out through the hard parts, the drudgery and the doubt, to know you've got a solid partnership. In love, or in writing.

mi said...

excellent post, christine.

it's true, in the beginning everything is fun and exciting because of all the possibilities and promise. but when it comes time to revise and edit, and you try to look at your work through someone else's eyes, then the doubt creeps in.

thanks for this post! it is inspirational!

Christine Fletcher said...

Lisa, it's so true...there are lots of similarities between the relationships we have with our books and the ones we have in real life. Elation, frustration, despair,'s all there. And both take real commitment, and faith that it will all somehow work out. :)

Christine Fletcher said...

mi-And when the "someone else's eyes" are those of the inner critic, the news is always bad. For once, I'd like my inner critic to read over my shoulder and cry, "Brava! Wonderful! Don't change a word!" Ha! In my dreams. ;)

Andrea Carlisle said...

I know this inner conversation well. You're so generous to bring it up here and admit that even you, such an excellent and accomplished writer, fall victim to it from time to time. I was once so plagued by these voices when I was working on a project that I sat down and wrote The Operator's Guide on How To Get Writer's Block. "First you need to wonder about whether or not your writing is really any good, etc." Somehow seeing it written out as a set of instructions on how to defeat myself and my goals helped me to laugh it off and push through.
Thanks much for sharing this, Christine. I'm going to save it and use it next time I'm stuck.

Christine Fletcher said...

An Operator's Guide on How to Get Writer's Block--I love it, Andrea! That made me laugh out loud. I may come up with my own written guide the next time I need it. :)

Sally Nemeth said...

Oh, the inner naysayer. I've got one too. And she appears just about the same time yours does, in the homestretch. Evil wench.

Christine Fletcher said...

Sally, she IS an evil wench. I should name mine, so I can call her out when she starts messing with me. :)

srmsoft27 said...
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Stephanie Perkins said...

Laini sent me here tonight, though I cannot imagine WHY. It's not as if *I* am currently in the midst of ANY of these problems!

(Ha. Ha. Ha.)

"In my head, because none of it has actually been written yet." — Yes! Oh, this is it exactly.

Thank you for giving me the answer to my voices. YES, IT CAN.

And . . . huuuuuuge congratulations on finishing your draft!!! :)

Christine Fletcher said...

Thanks, Stephanie! Hope all is well in your writing world and you're kicking first-draft butt!