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.
I’m very glad to hear the next novel is in the oven. You’re an inspiration, Isabel.
This post is opportune for me, so thanks.
Another pearl of wisdom I’d like to add if I may (credit: Sarah Moore Fitzgerald), is: when you compare your rubbish first draft to published books and wail, you’re comparing it to the final, finished, edited, polished version that found its way to the bookshelves. It’s no comparison at all. (or something like that.)
For me, I like first drafts. I like the whoosh as the story unfolds before my eyes and I have to keep writing so I can find out what happens next.
Apols for delayed reply, Susan, it was lovely to hear from you and thanks for your kind words. Really interesting to hear from a few people (not many) that they love first drafts. Most people seem to find them as painful as I do!
I’m also a slowish writer but for my current WIP got the first draft down fast at a rate of 1000 words a day. Three years on I’m still revising and rewriting, but loving it more as it goes deeper. Can’t decide whether that’s an advert for or against fast writing!
And well done you and Voula getting more psychology into how we discuss the writing process etc.
Look forward to the new book!
Sorry for my delay in replying, Anne. I’m impressed that you managed to go at your first draft with such efficiency. (1000 words would be an exceptional day for me). Great to hear you’re still enjoying that manuscript. Having completed Paris Mon Amour in 18 months flat (first draft in 6 months), I can already see this one’s going to take longer. Thanks for your penultimate comment – we are really pleased at how well this stuff is being received by writers – we’ve long felt that there’s a huge gap in addressing the psychological challenges of writing.
You have some very interesting points and yes, it’s all very resonant and relatable. Its particularly poignant that I read this now as I’m currently applying for an MA at UEA in Creative Writing and having to big up myself and my writing – NOT an easy thing to do, especially, as you say, when you’re a woman. I’d be very interested in your resilience workshop! Thanks again x
Thanks for commenting and following the blog, Anne. How exciting to be applying to UEA – if ever there was a time to big yourself up, this is it! Good luck!
Wow. Thank you so much for this timely post.
Thanks to a FB post by a writing mate about the launch of Stories for Homes 2, I found my way to your sofa as I sit on mine ‘writing’ and to this and your previous post. Both are just what I needed as I make sense of a first draft of a novel that weaves Edwardian with late 70s, with the modern elements in better shape than the Edwardian. It contorts my head and I wonder, why?
The answer is because I spent too many years looking for the perfect novel to read without finding it and the seemingly innocent thought popping into my head, ‘you can’t find it because you need to write it.’ This was (inevitably) followed ‘by who me, but……..’
I am especially grateful for the internal dialogue that you found embarrassing and uncomfortable as it reminds me of this simple tool for contradicting negative self-talk that I already know, but seem to forget.
Since this contradiction skill could do with sharpening I am very interested indeed in your resilience workshop as I have a tendency to think that I have to ‘sort it all on my own.’
Thank you so much for this lovely comment! Feedback like yours really makes it worthwhile and I’m delighted you found it helpful. To me it sounds like you’re on the track to ‘the novel only you can write’, which is really exciting. It’s not easy to convert all the feeling daunted/stumped into believing it could be something really special but once you get there it’s not only motivating but opens up a lot of new creative channels which make it easier to see how to make it work -I’ve experienced this myself and seen it happen for a lot of other writers. Wishing you all the best and maybe hope to see you at our workshop one day?