Tuesday, 15 November 2011

First Draft Doubt

As some of my Twitter friends know (because they told me about it - thank you!) ACID was announced in the Bookseller yesterday, along with three other dystopian YA novels by Sangu MandannaLissa Price and Jennifer Bosworth which will be coming out from Random House Children's Books in 2012 and 2013. Their books – THE LOST GIRL, STARTERS and STRUCK – sound amazing and I can't wait to read them! You can see the announcement here: 


And now (ahem), on with today's post…

When I first start a new story, I’m always excited. It’s a shiny new idea, one I’ve thought about for months, even years, and I can’t wait to plunge in and start start that mysterious process of alchemy which brings my plot and characters to life. But as I continue – usually when I get to the end of the first third – uncertainty sets in. And then all my insecurities come flooding in. This is the worst idea ever. I didn’t plan it enough. My characters suck. My writing sucks. I suck.

…You get the idea.

It used to paralyse me. I couldn’t keep going with anything. I’d rip every story up and start over, again and again, until I had to give up on them because I’d completely lost sight of what I was trying to write about in the first place.

Something had to change.

One day, I happened upon a quote from Jacqueline Wilson, where she said that with each book she writes, about halfway in, she starts to doubt whether it’s ever going to work, and that she ‘never write[s] with great confidence.”

Yes, you read that right – Jacqueline Wilson. Former children’s laureate and bestselling, multi-award-winning author of around 90 books. Books which fill almost half a shelf in the library where I work – when they’re there, that is, which isn’t often because they get borrowed so often (she’s one of the top ten borrowed authors in the UK).

I was astonished. Because back then, if you’d asked me who I thought was least likely to have confidence crises in the middle of writing something, I’d have said Jacqueline Wilson.

And it made me think. Apparently, other writers suffered from First Draft Doubt too. Writers who were published, and published many times. So how did they deal with it? How did they get their books finished? Was there a top secret formula which, when applied to wavering plotlines or flagging characters, would bring them round as effectively as a sharp smack in the face (or smelling salts, if violence wasn’t your thing)?

Of course not.

Because there is no secret.

Only this: it’s normal to doubt your first draft. You should doubt your first draft (because that’s what drives you to make it better). And you shouldn’t let that get in the way of you writing it.

That’s not to say if it’s not working that you shouldn’t find out why. These days, I do this by writing letters to myself, starting them “What needs to happen next?” Then I keep writing, trying to switching off my conscious, logical brain and allowing my characters and plot to lead me from my unconscious brain, where the answers have usually been brewing all along.

I also turn to my favourite book about writing and storytelling - STORY: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Although it’s not an easy read – I had to take notes the first two times I read it! – I’ve learnt so much from this book. If I’m having a serious plot problem, a combination of dipping into this book and a What Happens Next letter get it back on track.

The most important thing I’ve learnt, though, is that the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. It can’t be perfect. It’s a sketch, a roughing-out, a shuffling-together of ideas, and if you try to make it perfect, it won’t get done.

Instead, ignore those doubts, accept and note your story’s flaws, and get the damn thing down anyway. Because then you’ve got something to work with. Something to make better. Material for a second draft. And that’s where the real fun begins!

What about you? Is there a particular point in your writing you always lose confidence at? And how do you deal with it when you get there?


  1. My wife just rolls her eyes now when I say 'I'm not sure if this one's going to work'. Oh, and then there's the other kind of doubt - the one when you pass the manuscript on to your agent and spend the next few days thinking - 'I hope she likes this one . . .' I'm currently suffering both of these forms of doubt.

  2. This is really really great advice! I kind of came to it myself a couple of months ago when I'd been wrestling with a WIP that was about 1/3 done. I sat down and bit the bullet and realized it didn't need to be perfect and wrote the rest. Now of course I'm in revision/edits which is a whole other "real fun," as you say, but I'm done with the draft!

    p.s. HUGE congrats on the Random House announcement!! WOOHOO, can't wait to read!

  3. Firstly - great news about the Bookseller preview of ACID - congratulations! Secondly - You're so right Emma, 1st drafts are hard, but then so are 2nd and 3rd.... etc. And, as you said, it has to be this way doesn't it in order to make our work stronger. I don't have a specific point where I lose confidence - it can be any time, and at numerous times - but it happens during the process of anything I write. To deal with it, I ask myself questions too, like: What's wrong? Why is it wrong? What do I want to happen? which helps. I also take a break, go back to my notes, refine characters or plot, and quite often, by doing that, I find an answer. Sometimes I write a scene which will go somewhere but I don't know where and that can provide answers to what should come before it too. Or I go away and write in another genre, then come back to it. And there's normally tea as well - that helps!

  4. Hi Emma. Interesting read. I had to rethink some of my plotline and it was really giving me gip. In the end, I, like you, wrote down the what ifs and the how would they feel? questions and then proceeded to write down all of the possible answers. I hadn't tried this before, but it helped. I guess it was a little like mind mapping.
    Kind regards

  5. My husband does the same, Dan! I think the wives/husbands/partners of writers must be a very patient lot. As for the second form of doubt, I'll keep everything crossed that you have nothing to worry about. :)

    Thank you, Julia - glad you think so. It's quite a revelation when you realise your work doesn't have to be perfect the first time round, isn't it? (And thank you for the congrats!)

    Thank you, Abi! You're right, all the drafts are hard, but when I get to the 2nd, 3rd etc at least I (sort of) know where I'm going, because I've been there before. The terrifying thing about first drafts, for me, is that driving-without-headlights feeling I always get, even if I plan. But I guess that makes it exciting, too. And yes, anything caffeinated definitely helps!

    Laura, it's so cool that that technique works for you too. It's definitely like mind mapping! I find it very relaxing, and I love how it frees up snarled plotlines.

  6. i tend to lose confidence when the first draft (of a novel) has grown organically to about 30,000 words or so, and/or when the characters begin to proliferate and take over. more and more scenes pop into my mind but there's less and less structure. happens to me every time because i don't start with a structure (tried that too but it stifles me too much). my remedy: let the work rest, not touch it for a while; or change process dramatically: draw; get physical with the work...there are many ways to get away from the desk and computer and still keep at it.

    i'm interested in the fact that publishers like "dystopian YA novels" ...perhaps you'd like to take a peek at a recent panel discussion on "morality in the arts" @ Atticus Books...but that is a tangent...i just wonder how life-affirming this dystopian fiction is.

  7. Hi Emma. Today, my Blog was presented the Liebster Award and I would like your blog to be one of the five with which to honour the same. It was today's post that caught my eye and led me to your other interesting topics.
    Please go to my Blog at www.lauraejames.co.uk to read about the award and then collect it from my Photos page (page 2).
    Looking forward to meeting you.
    Kind regards
    Laura E James.

  8. Oh, I suffer from such crippling self-doubt with first drafts! It's maddening - but you're so right!

    Thanks for the shout-out, Emma, I can't wait to read ACID!

  9. Marcus, that's a great idea too. I think coming back to a manuscript with fresh eyes can help so much! As for dystopian YA, I can't really comment on publishers' tastes, but I know that I love to read and write it!

    Laura, wow, thank you! I'll be right over! :)

    Sangu, thank you too. I'm thrilled that ACID is going to be in such great company!