You’ve done it.
For weeks, months, maybe even years, you’ve been working on some great piece of writing – an essay, a novel, a screenplay. Now here it is: the first draft.
This should be a euphoric moment. A moment of celebration. Instead, you’re angry. Deflated. Despondent.
Why? Because you’ve just looked over the first few pages of your work to remind yourself where it all started…and they’re not great. Actually, they kind of suck.
Did you really write this? Are these seriously your words? They seemed fine when you were writing them – good, even – but now you can’t help but feel like you would have got the same result if you’d just thrown mud at your screen.
So you come to the realisation that your first draft sucks. Congratulations! You’re in good company.
“Getting a first draft done is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” ─ Joyce Carol Oates
“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
“Writing it like pulling teeth…from my dick.” – David Rakoff
Just about anyone who tells you their first draft represents a story exactly how they intended it to is either a liar, or a bad writer. You might think I’m being harsh, but here’s the thing: not only are first drafts usually terrible, they should be terrible.
The brilliant Terry Pratchett described the penning of the first draft as the process through which the author tells themselves the story they want to write. We might start out with a plan, a theme, and a vision of how a story is going to unfold, but it is only when we write it that we recognise what will work, and what needs to be changed.
Does your novel change tense halfway through?
Does your screenplay introduce a character in the third act to solve a problem?
That’s perfectly fine!
The issue isn’t that you’re violating basic rules, it’s that we take these violations as a failure of our ability as a writer.
We’re comparing early versions of our work with the completed publications of our peers and heroes without considering why it doesn’t make sense to do so. Starting out, we might find comfort in the comments of Oates or Hemingway, but in the midst of the process ourselves, gripped by fear and egotism, we’re quick to forget them.
We bow to our inner critic, pull out our editing shears, and get busy making changes to something that was never meant to be right in the first place.
The biggest mistake a writer can make is to resist the need to write on. No matter how bad it might seem at the time, a page covered in words is still much closer to representing the story you want to tell than a blank page ever will be.
You’ll have your chance to make the tense consistent, to introduce that character at an earlier stage, or solve any other problem. Later.
So write on. It is as simple as that. You will discover new ideas. Realise some of the ones you liked most don’t work at all. A bit will work. Much of it won’t. That’s fine. The creation of a story is just as much a journey for the writer as it is for the reader.
As Annie Lamott once said, “very few writers know what they’re doing until they’ve done it”.