As Hemingway famously said, ‘the first draft of anything is garbage.’ (I always thought he said ‘shit’ but anyway.) And as he also famously said, ‘writing is rewriting’. Now I am not a particular fan of Hemingway nor of writing aphorisms, which I have learned to approach on a ‘pick your own’ basis, (as in winnowing out the few which make you want to do it from the thousands which make you feel you’re doing it wrong or want to jack it in) but these are two which most writers can probably relate to – and if you can’t, I ENVY YOU.
You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but I do love writing. I even love the way the story comes to me in layers which only become visible one at a time until I get to what it’s really about. I’m a slow writer and for me it really is about the rewriting, the thrill of feeling it all tighten up and start to work. The problem is, you can’t mess around with thin air. You have to produce that garbage in the first place and that’s where I’m currently at: trying to get the bones of the story down. Plotting is not where my instincts lie but I do consider a good story essential; if not I’d be quite capable of producing reams of tedious interior monologue punctuated only by sex and rows.
No, I do not like first drafts at all. Compared to many, I have few excuses not to get on with it and nobody is making me do this. Clearly it was time to give myself a talking-to, and more of a kick up the arse than a gentle pep talk.
It’s not the official system of counting but the fact is, this is my third novel, and starting out has felt totally different each time. For those who don’t know me, the first one I wrote got me a brilliant agent but not a publication deal (I am determined to get that book out at some point – rewritten); my published debut Paris Mon Amour got digital and audio deals and I self-published the paperback this summer, finally getting the massive buzz of seeing my novel on the shelves at airports and railway stations. A lot of readers connected with it and many were kind enough to tell me so. A risky venture, and I count it as a success.
So of course it feels different this time. I’m lucky to have had a taste of what I’d been working towards for years, and I hope there’s more ahead. The goalposts have moved, and with that comes a new set of anxieties (I will always find something.) However, since I last started a book three years ago I have developed a serious interest in the psychology of motivation, especially as it affects writers, and been introduced to Resilient Thinking skills through my friend, author and psychologist, Voula Grand, with whom I now teach workshops on all of this – we are really enjoying the project and seeing how people benefit from it. I can’t go into detail here*, but it’s based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy and consists of learning to identify and challenge the kind of fixed and negative beliefs which can hold us back. In the workshop we specifically focus on recovering from external writing setbacks such as rejection, lack of support, bad reviews (I’ve had a few), but the beauty of it is that it can be applied to many of the issues life throws up, including the horrible doubts and fears which make problems big and small seem huge in the middle of the night.
Since it’s human nature which interests me as a writer and this regularly takes me into exposing territory, I’ve decided to share some of my recent unhelpful beliefs in connection with starting a new book, contrasted with the revised ‘resilient’ beliefs:
I can’t do this. I’ve done it before.
I only had one book in me. I’ve already written two.
The new book isn’t as [whatever]. The new book will be [something else].
The new book won’t be as good. I won’t stop working on it until it is. The more you write, the better you get (not just me, anyone!)
I won’t be brave enough to write the book I really want to write. That’s the whole point of doing it – last time I was glad I did.
A more talented writer could do a better job. This is my idea and it’s up to me to make it the best book I can write.
It’s a mess and I can’t see how I’ll ever make it work. I’ve been here before – the ‘making it work’ (fun) bit comes later.
There are no guarantees this will come to anything. Anything could happen – I’ve already had some amazing breaks out of nowhere.
I could be doing something worthwhile in the real world. Writing is worthwhile. And it’s not an either/or – I’ll find something.
So there you have it. I usually work through these in my head one at a time and I’m taken aback by how it looks written down, because it taps into two different areas a lot of people find embarrassing and uncomfortable: on the one hand, appearing needy and insecure and on the other, talking yourself up and giving yourself credit. We are culturally pre-conditioned not to do this, especially if female. But however unnatural it may feel, I think it’s really important to believe you do have a story worth telling and the ability to do it. That’s how works of fiction get finished and go on to touch and entertain and educate and everything else they can do in a way no other medium can match.
Writing fiction is cloaked in mystique and easy to romanticise – even those who do it don’t fully understand where it comes from and how it ever results in something for which strangers willingly give time and money. But in many ways, it’s no different to anything else: there are days when it’s fulfilling and days it’s a real slog – they’re both part of the deal and both teach you how to persevere and motivate you to put in the hours, knowing there are no guarantees. Readers often express an interest in the writing process but when reading a good book, nobody knows or cares if the first draft was garbage. Or indeed, shit.
From one extreme to the other, I privately have a very ambitious vision of what I want this new book to be. Sometimes it really intimidates me. It doesn’t matter if it’s completely unrealistic (it probably is) – most days it’s what finally makes me sit down and GET ON WITH IT.
I expect plenty of writers will read this – what’s your experience of writing first drafts? Does any of this resonate with you?
Next week my guest will be Autumn Sofa Spotlight author Henrietta Rose-Innes with a Writers on Location post on Cape Town, setting of her novel Green Lion.
* In response to demand, Voula and I are planning some open-to-all Resilient Thinking: Perseverance and Motivation for Writers workshops in London in the spring – details to follow.