How to Survive the Pain of Writing a Shitty First Draft

I was in the middle of writing a steamy sex scene toward the end of my novel and writing so fast my hand was cramping up. My two main characters were finally hooking up and the chemistry was sizzling. But then…I got stuck. I had to describe something that was, ahem, an intimate body part in a somewhat contorted position and I just didn’t have the words. I paused and started to think, but as I was thinking I could feel myself losing the magic of momentum. So, I pushed on as best I could, using horrible clumsy words that weren’t right at all, but knowing I needed to place priority on pinning down the emotions in the moment. I could come back later and fix everything else up.

A few days later I was writing the actual ending. I could see the grand finale in my mind. It took place at sunset as blazing red light streaked across the sky and my protagonist made the epic symbolic gesture that would change his entire life. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote…and got stuck. I tried not to look back but I couldn’t help it. I took one little peek at the sentences I had just written. My blazing sunset felt weak and ineffectual, and my protagonist’s epic gesture seemed a little lame, and well, actually, the way I described it, it seemed kind of downright stupid now.

In my head my story had looked like a gorgeous tapestry unrolling to show the rich and complex intricacies of life and the universe and truth and beauty.

Now, on paper, my story looked like a bunch of stick figures running around doing confusing things.

And, even though I’ve been through the process of writing a novel a few different times now, I went right back into the place I always go at this stage: utter despair.

Rationally, I knew that it was just a shitty first draft and that I could make it better. Logically, I knew that all writers go through this, it was perfectly normal. But emotionally, that didn’t help one bit. I felt like the manuscript I had just slaved away at for over a year totally sucked and that I had just thrown so much of my time and energy straight into a black hole.

So, if this is all totally normal and every writer can expect to go through it, what can we do about it?

#1 – Keep Pushing to the End, No Matter What

If you are in the middle of writing your first shitty draft and you’re feeling awful about it, like, consumed with waves of fear and self-doubt and questioning everything, DON’T stop to pick it apart. Just keep moving. Let the critical voices in your head babble on and just keep moving, one foot in front of the other, one word in front of the other, until the end. If you never finish your shitty first draft, you won’t have anything to work with and make better.

#2 – Detach from the Draft When Finished

Put it in a drawer or in a hidden file on your laptop. Put it anywhere, as long as it’s out of your sight for at least two weeks (and I really recommend a month or more). Go do something else. Distract yourself with anything new. Try to stop thinking about it and let it go, at least for a little while. You need the distance in order to gain perspective and stop obsessing, so that when you come back to it you can look at it with (somewhat) fresh eyes. The break will also give your brain a chance to put puzzle pieces together and help you solve story problems you couldn’t see your way out of before because you were just concentrating too damn hard on them.

#3 – Surrender to the Process

Look inside yourself and ask yourself honestly if you’ve done the best you could with this book. If the answer is yes, then surrender to what the book is and how it turned out to be, regardless of whether it met your preconceived expectations, or not. Accepting your book is the first step toward embracing your book—for what it actually is, not what you wish it could be. Much of the time, when we want our book to be something vastly different from what came out of us, we’re caught up in idealized notions of what our artistic output should look like. It is what it is. The sooner you accept that, the easier it is to move forward.

Most importantly, know that you can keep working on it. Nothing is set in stone and no part of a shitty first draft has to be shown to anyone before you’ve had a chance to polish it and make it better. If writers were ultimately judged on their shitty first drafts, then our world would be a lot poorer in stories. Even the writers who are literary giants to you still struggled and tore their hair out when working with a shitty first draft.

Keep pushing, keep working. It will get better. I can promise you that.

Lauren Sapala is the author of  Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, a guide to help any HSP, INFJ, INFP, or introvert writer move past resistance to selling and marketing their work. She is also the author of  The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers.

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