I feel defeated at the outset. It’s as though I have wandered into the wrong room – rather than being in home economics, I have ended up in an engineering class and it is overwhelming. I began to write my manuscript with no knowledge of how to write a book – it simply poured out in its way – and fear that now it may be all wrong. It seems like a train wreck. This is about acknowledging to myself, and you, that I am overwhelmed. Perhaps this is normal.
This writer, we’ll call her Lola, is not alone in reaching a point where she doubts herself and fears that she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Yes, it can be overwhelming to realise what lies ahead in the development process. Let’s face it, it’s an enormously challenging thing to write a book. These feelings are common, and show that Lola is digesting the reality of the road ahead – a huge plus in the long term.
First drafts are messy. Yours, like Lola’s may seem like a train wreck. It may be shambolic, confused, all over the place. It may be overly long, or under the word count you’re aiming for. All of that is fine. It’s just the first draft. And getting to the end of the first draft is an achievement in itself. In the first draft you are discovering the story, the world in which the story is set, and the characters who will populate that world. You are experimenting, you are finding your voice, you are playing with ideas. Hopefully, you are having fun! In later drafts you will deepen your understanding of what you want to say and how to say it. It takes multiple drafts. But you can’t get there without that first draft, whatever state it’s in.
For example, if the inciting incident happens in the middle of the story in the first draft, that’s okay – you can move it and rearrange things. If there is way too much backstory up front, that’s okay – you can work out what you need to keep and where it should go. If the dialogue feels stilted and the characters all sounds the same, that’s okay – you can dig deeper into who your characters are to discover their individual ways of expressing themselves. That’s the work of redrafting.
Loads of successful writers wail and bemoan over their messy, hopeless first drafts. They come to understand that it’s part of the creative process, even if they temporarily forget just how bad the first draft can be. Michele de Kretser talked about this at the 2022 Sydney Writers Festival:
de Kretser said she wanted to test herself while writing her latest novel, Scary Monsters, trying out the first-person perspective for the first time. But “it was just shockingly bad. I panicked!” So she rewrote what she had, in the third person this time. Except, it happened again. “It was just SO bad. And then I remembered the thing that I manage to forget between each book, which is that the first draft is ALWAYS mortifyingly bad.” (‘Controversies, epiphanies and the case against Canva: highlights from Sydney writers’ festival’ The Guardian, Steph Harmon, 23.5.22)
It doesn’t matter how mortifyingly bad that first draft is. It doesn’t matter if you feel it is like a compost heap. It’s a first draft. And it serves a crucial purpose. It’s in the development phase over multiple drafts that you grow the idea that has been planted in that first draft. You need the compost to fertilise that seedling. It’s in the redrafting process that magic happens.
I shared some of these thoughts with Lola and was pleased to receive a reply:
You have helped me turn my attitude around and instil hope that my work can be stronger, fresher, wiser draft by draft. I will pick myself up and keep plodding forward, with the occasional huge sigh. There’s a light in sight.
Great advice for other writers who are feeling overwhelmed by their messy first drafts. Thank you, Lola.