Your first draft is always going to suck

by Alexandra Sokoloff

It’s an interesting thing about blogging – it’s made us able to get a glimpse of hundreds of people’s lives on a moment-by-moment basis. I don’t have a lot of time (well, more to the point, I have no time at
all) to read other blogs; I can barely keep up with posting to Murderati and my own blog. But I do click through on people’s signature lines sometimes to see what they’re up to; it’s an extension of my
natural writerly voyeurism.

And a certain pattern has emerged with the not-yet-published writers I spy on.

It goes something like this: “My current WIP is stalled, so I’ve been working on a short story.” “I’ve gotten nothing done on my WIP this week.” “I have reached the halfway point and have no idea where to go from here.” “I had a great idea for a new book this week and I’ve been wondering if I should just give up on my WIP and start on this far superior idea.”

Do you start to see what I’m seeing? People are getting about midway through a book, and then lose interest, or have no idea where to go from where they currently are, or realize that a different idea is superior to what they’re working on and panic that they’re wasting their time with the project they’re working on, and hysteria ensues.

So I wanted to take today’s blog to say this, because it really can’t be said often enough.

Your first draft is always going to suck.

I’ve been a professional writer for almost all of my adult life and I’ve never written anything that I didn’t hit the wall on, at one point or another. There is always a day, week, month, when I will lose all
interest in the project I’m working on. I will realize it was insanity to think that I could ever write the fucking thing to begin with, or that anyone in their right mind would ever be interested in it, much
less pay me for it. I will be sure that I would rather clean houses (not my own house, you understand, but other people’s) than ever have to look at the story again.

And that stage can last for a good long time. Even to the end of the book, and beyond, for months, in which I will torture my significant other for week after week with my daily rants about how I will never be
able to make the thing make any sense at all and will simply have to give back the advance money.

And I am not the only one. Not by a long shot. It’s an occupational hazard that MOST of the people I know are writers, and I would say, based on anecdotal evidence, that this is by far the majority
experience – even though there are a few people like Rob, here, (or so he SAYS) who revise as they’re going along and when they type “The End” they actually mean it.

Hah. I have no idea what that could possibly feel like.

Even though you will inevitably end up writing on projects that SHOULD be abandoned, you cannot afford to abandon ANY project. You must finish what you start, no matter how you feel about it. If that project never goes anywhere, that’s tough, I feel your pain. But it happens to all of us. You do not know if you are going to be able to pull it off or not. The only way you will ever be able to pull it off is to get in the unwavering, completely non-negotiable habit of JUST DOING IT.

Your only hope is to keep going. Sit your ass down in the chair and keep cranking out your non-negotiable minimum number of daily pages, or words, in order, until you get to the end.

This is the way writing gets done.

Some of those pages will be decent, some of them will be unendurable. All of them will be fixable, even if fixing them means throwing them away. But you must get to the end, even if what you’re writing seems to make no sense of all.

You have to finish.

I’ve had a couple of weeks in which my page marker has not moved past the number 198 because I keep deleting. Nothing I write makes any sense. I don’t have enough characters, I’m not giving the characters I have enough time in these scenes, I have no conception of yacht terminology and am spending hours of my days researching only to find I’m more confused about how things work on a boat than when I started.

I have Hit. The. Wall.

Yeah, yeah, cue World’s Smallest Violin.

Because – so what?

It always happens. I’m not special.

At some point you will come to hate what you're writing. That's normal. That pretty much describes the process of writing. It never gets better. But you MUST get over this and FINISH. Get to the end, and everything gets better from there, I promise. You will learn how to write in layers, and not care so much that your first draft sucks. Everyone's first draft sucks. It's what you do from there that counts.

That is not to say you can't set aside a special notebook and take 15 minutes a day AFTER you've done your minimum pages on the main project, and brainstorm on that other one. I'm a big fan of multitasking.

But working on that project is your reward for keeping moving on your main project.

Finish what you start. It’s your only hope.

– Alex

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For anyone in the New Orleans area, I'm signing and teaching my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop at the Jubilee Jambalaya Writers Conference in Houma, LA this weekend. More info here.

20 thoughts on “Your first draft is always going to suck

  1. Ruth

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I’ve heard it all before, of course, but it’s still hard. You start with an idea that seems to you the best anyone on Earth ever had, and when you begin working on it you can only see, hear or feel how dull it sounds on the page. “This is not how I meant it to happen, it wasn’t like this, it sounded so much better in my head…”Many profesional writers advice us to keep going, to finish what we start, and I know that it’s the only way (how can you try to publish something that is not finished?), but it’s so damm hard…Thank you. I’ll never get tired of reading encouragement like this.

    Reply
  2. Marie Force

    Great posting, Alex. I so agree with you about finishing what you start. I had a WIP that literally sucked the life out of me for a whole year, but I forced myself to finish it before I could start something new and more fun. The end result of the book straight from hell is something I’m quite proud of. Also, I’m with Rob. I revise as I go and usually end up with a pretty solid first draft. It’s the copy editor in me. I can’t move on until I get it right. Otherwise, that one sentence that I know is “off” on page 25 will nag at me until it’s fixed. What can I say? It’s a sickness. Good luck with your yachting research. I live in the Newport, RI area. If you need to hook up with some real life yachts-people email me off line (marie@marieforce.com). I’ll find some for you. A good friend of mine worked on sailboats in the Caribbean for years.

    Reply
  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Thanks, Alex. I really needed this post this morning. I’ve reached that midway and feel a bit lost. But there’s really no point in stopping now :-]

    I even have pinned to my wall: “The First Draft is ALWAYS going to suck, but that’s okay.

    Reply
  4. cj lyons

    Great post, Alex! I always tell myself that the first draft is just for me–I give myself permission to not only write crap but also to be selfish and have fun with it, playing with blind alleys, exploring the story and characters without worrying about logic or polish or anything. It’s mine, mine, mine!

    Then my second draft is where the work starts–this one is for the readers (including my editor) so it’s where I’ll slice and dice and focus on what will make this the best read possible for someone else (after all, I’ve already had my fun with the first draft )

    Not sure if this technique would work for anyone else, but it helps me to both get through the first draft as well as divorce my ego from the revisions necessary to make the second draft shine.

    Reply
  5. billie

    Alex, great post. My personal writing issue is not so much not finishing, but having 3 new projects shoving at me at once the moment I even see the end in sight on the current one. In this rapidly moving “new year” – can anyone believe it’s April already? – I am moving through the projects that are done, trying to find homes for them, while continuing to hold the other ones at bay. It gets a bit wild inside my head. 🙂

    One thing in your post is very clear: you need to go take a cruise on a small yacht, where you can do the research hands-on while enjoying a bit of surf and sun. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Dana

    I once told my writers group I had discovered the secret to publication. Not that this one element ensure publication, but I could guarantee anything that lacked it would not be published. Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Camus, Better Homes and Gardens, Cosmo, you name it. All the writers had this one thing in common: you have to finish what you start.

    My group was not amused, and several members continued to write half of stories that had potential; they just didn’t want to climb the wall.

    I keep a folder on my hard drive called “Story Ideas.” Any time I’m interrupted with an idea while in the middle of another project, it goes in there. It’s amazing how many of those are garbage when I sit and think hard about them, but would have distracted me from the WIP had I let them.

    Reply
  7. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, Alex. The contractor can’t finish half a house and expect to get paid, the account can’t do half the taxes. We can’t wait ’til the Muse decides to show up. (I’ve never believed in ‘the Muse’ anyway–I believe in bursts of inspiration, but those will happen more frequently if I’m writing more often, not the other way around.)

    Reply
  8. J.D. Rhoades

    Great post, Alex, and well timed. I’ve just entered the Vale of Tears on my way to the Slough of Despond (aka the middle sections of my WIP) and I needed that reminder.

    Reply
  9. J.T. Ellison

    I believe in the Muse. I keep her chained to a wall in my basement and feed her lots of ambrosia so when I unchain her she’s willing to help : )

    This is excellent advice. Everyone has a novel in them, but very few people actually can finish one. Stay with it, and listen to Dana’s advice – when you have a brilliant idea, tuck it into your idea folder and come back to it. You don’t want to be a one hit wonder, after all…

    Reply
  10. Robin of My Two Blessings

    Thank you, Alex. Great post and a great reminder. I have to keep reminding myself “it’s just a first draft” and turn off the internal editor and just write it. I’m at the tail end of my current wip first draft and just letting it flow.

    Reply
  11. Louise Ure

    Not only does a first draft always suck, but that next idea is ALWAYS better than the one you’re working on.

    Thanks, Alex.

    And J.D., I’m now renaming my office The Slough of Despond.

    Reply
  12. Allison Brennan

    OMG, did you read my blog for tomorrow? It’s going to work great with this one. I swear, sometimes I think there’s this psychic connection with you and Pari . . . my blogging bookends 🙂

    I do edit as I go, but I ALWAYS get stuck at the beginning of Act II and I ALWAYS do at least one intensive edit/revision after I type THE END. Usually two– and that doesn’t count clean-up.

    Before I got serious, the next idea was ALWAYS the better idea. I was such an idea slut. Moving from one to the other with no commitment, just for the thrill of the moment. As soon as the writing got tough, I was so outta there, chasing the next hot-looking idea . . .

    Reply
  13. Cornelia Read

    Alex, I’m going to print this out and hot-glue it to the back of my laptop, because i’m about to start a first draft.

    And let me know what you need in terms of yacht terminology. I was raised by a feral pack of hardcore sailors, and have the vocab down pretty well (to the extent that no one in my writing group will write about boats anymore, because they don’t want me to correct everything).

    Reply
  14. pari

    Alex,I agree with you almost entirely.

    Almost.

    I’ve got one and only one reason to stop and I’m blogging about it on Monday. (How’s that for an obnoxious tease? I should be ashamed . . .)

    Reply
  15. Leanna Renee Hieber

    I couldn’t have heard this at a better time. Just finished the rough draft of my second contracted book and very much needed to hear the cue of the worlds smallest violin to get my butt back to facing the edit. Great post!!

    Reply
  16. Rob Gregory Browne

    I was at Literary Orange in Irvine all day Saturday, which is why I haven’t responded until now.

    But I do indeed revise as I go along. This is something I was specifically told NOT to do by the many writing gurus I read and the one or two workshops I took. I should, I was told, write straight through without looking back because I wouldn’t get bogged down by details and doubt and would finish the book faster.

    Well, I tried. Many times. But I just couldn’t do it.

    So when I write a novel — or a screenplay — I’m constantly revising as I go. And when I type THE END, I’m done except for the editor’s notes. Which, fortunately, have always been very few. And I think this is largely because I revise and polish as I go…

    This, of course, doesn’t mean everyone should do what I do. There are no rules of process. Just what works for YOU.

    Reply
  17. Melanie

    I love this post and it’s just what I needed to hear this weekend. I linked you on my blog today and included a couple excerpts. I hope that’s okay.

    melanieavila.blogspot.com

    Reply
  18. Nicole

    Man, I’m late reading entries this month – but I am SO glad I read this!!!

    Of course, you realize, I wasn’t working on my own WIP because the world’s smallest violin (I borrowed yours;) was playing for my stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere story.

    Instead, I decided to surf Murderati. But see? It helped. I’ll head back to my dreaded PC file now. You’re researching boats, I’m researching car engines… and I think I’m going to call my Uncle for help.

    Good luck!

    Reply

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