First draft blues

waste paper

The trouble with dishing out advice is that you kind of feel you should practice what you preach. If you’ve visited this blog before you may have read my exhortation to ‘whack out’ the first draft of a book. It won’t be great, in fact it will probably be a mess, but you’ve got to start somewhere and that first draft just has to get written.

Well I still believe that, but I’m currently about halfway (I think) through the first draft of the sequel to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’m planning a three-book (initially) series, and I’ve started work on the second book even though the first isn’t yet finished. (The first book has gone through four drafts, but I’m now getting more feedback and going for a fifth, figuring that the book can only get better as a result, I hope.)

And it’s been a bit of a struggle. I love writing but at times it’s a bit more love–hate. I find the first draft the toughest one. Sure, re-drafting and editing is hard work too, but it’s somehow easier for me when there’s something to work with already there, even if some of the changes are pretty extensive and often involve adding whole new chunks as well as excising others.

Perhaps that’s the point: the first draft is the rawest, purest act of creation, of creating something from nothing; and that process of wresting words, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, plots, characters, from brain to screen can seem painfully difficult at times. It always seems to demand more of me than any other part of the writing process.

It also takes persistence, especially when you can clearly see the flaws in what you’re producing. Because although I know the first draft is inevitably going to fall short, that knowledge makes it harder to plough on. At least in the re-drafting/editing I can see how the book is improving, and it’s immensely satisfying to see that happening. But when I’ve spent an hour hammering down a chunk of prose for the first time, and then look back and realise it’s a bit ‘meh’, that can be more than a little de-motivating.

This can lead me to break my own rules about splurging it all out and worrying about quality in the second draft. I do find myself back-tracking a bit at times and making some minor alterations, as well as fixing some of the more annoying typos. (If I type ‘starts’ instead of ‘stars’, or ‘this’ instead of ‘his’, many more times I swear I may cut my hands off.) But then rules should sometimes be broken. I don’t see the point in writing total garbage. (Partial garbage, sure.) My first drafts are always going to be somewhat dodgy, because I know if I tried to fix everything at once I’d never get anywhere, but I need to see something good in what I’m producing.

What makes it even worse for me is that the Danny Chaucer books, being children’s / middle-grade level, aren’t very long. The first book is around 30,000 words, and for the second I’m aiming for about the same. How long can it take to write a 30,000-word book? I’ve written longer (BASIC Boy is twice that length), and adult novels are typically much longer. I really admire anyone who writes a decent 80–100,000 word novel. That takes some effort.

But I’m forging ahead, slowly but surely – though slower than I’d like and not entirely sure of myself. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t keep going with something I completely hate. I’ve chosen to write, and I’ve chosen to write this book at this time, so I shouldn’t keep belly-aching about it. No-one’s holding a gun to my head. Actually that would be pretty motivating, but in its absence I keep reminding myself of a few things when it comes to first drafts, to help me keep going:

  1. It’s just got to be done. I bet a lot of would-be writers fall at this first hurdle, and that’s a shame.
  2. All writers’ first drafts are dodgy, even the really famous and successful ones. It’s part of the process.
  3. If you can already see some of the faults, then that’s great. You can’t fix them if you can’t see them. (And if you can’t see them, don’t worry, you will – or otherwise someone else will show you if you ask.)
  4. Find you own method and pace. You might be a ‘slap down the words as quickly as possible and fix the problems later’ type; or need to spend more time to get more right first time. Both are fine if they work for you. And your approach might evolve over time, or vary between projects. Just don’t get too bogged down – get it finished.
  5. Finally, remember that you’ve got plenty of time, and subsequent drafts, to improve the work, And there will be plenty of good to improve, not just faults to rectify. The first draft is the necessary – if often difficult – first step along the road to a book you can be proud of.

So with the above in mind, I should probably stop writing this and go back to writing DCFS2.


  1. In the EXACT same boat. I have 13000 words left to write on my first draft for my current WIP, and I definitely have a case of the blues. The magic of the new project is gone and writing is further stunted by my insecurity. Some days I stare at the screen and the words just. won’t. come. Ugghhh. I never thought I’d say this, but I wish I were editing… 😦

    • I feel your pain. Writing is an awesome thing, but it’s also work, and some days it’s very hard work indeed. But you’ll get there – and once you’ve finished the draft then maybe take a break from the book for a while, write some other stuff, and after a while hopefully you’ll have regained some of your passion for it, and be ready for the joyous (???!) editing phase!

  2. I find that first drafts are both the easiest and the hardest to write. I think it’s easier for me to do the “don’t get it right, just get it written” thing with a first draft, in that I can genuinely handwave any flaws and move on. It’s my least insecure draft. But you’re right – it’s so hard to make something from nothing, especially when you hit the blues in the third act.

    For me, editing has been a much slower process. I can pop out a first draft in two months, but it might take me six months to turn that into a second draft. It’s a combination of burnout, indescision, and the sudden arrival of “oh crap, I have to care about these plot holes now” that drags out the process.for me.

    • My second draft doesn’t normally take too long, typically less than my first. I guess it depends on how extensive the changes turn out to be – if you end up practically re-writing it then that’s a longer haul. Mind you, I’m saying that now – I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that in a few weeks’ time, up to my elbows in editing, I’ll be looking back fondly at those distant golden days of the first draft …

  3. Me three! And I’m also facing the reality that what I thought should be 65000 words tops is already over 70000 and there is a LOT left to write! Which makes me wonder if I should save time by condensing before I write but I already did a major plot overhaul in December. Thanks for letting me kvetch about it!

    • Yes, you never really know how long a book will end up until you write it! Well done on breaking 70k though – that’s an impressive amount of work. Good luck with the rest – and thank you for introducing me to the word ‘kvetch’ which is one I’ve never come across before, but just one question: do you pronounce the k?

  4. I just got halfway through with my first draft. I’m editing it all in one week, so I’ve got a very short amount of time to dwell on the “oh this is shit” aspect of it, and the rest of that time is just pure editing. I’ve had one moment of blind panic like WHY AM I A WRITER THIS IS THE WORST FIRST DRAFT EVER… but I got over it :p

    • I’ve had that moment of blind panic too – more than once! I think that just rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it, as you are, a good way to go. That, and remembering that it’s actually good that you can see the faults (though it might not feel like it) and that all faults can be fixed.

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