The Fear of the First Draft – does it ever go away?
One of the questions I’m regularly asked in good faith, now that I have ten books published, is if writing the first draft has become easier over the years.
I’d love to be able to answer with a big, bright smile and a big, resounding ‘Yes’. I’d love to be able to pass on some well-earned nuggets of advice as to how this wisdom has been acquired, share a few short cuts that I’ve discovered, reveal a golden spark of creativity I’ve finally stumbled across. Ten books down the line, surely all the trials and errors I’ve come up against have given me a valuable head start in the process?
Unfortunately that’s not the case. Ten books and years of experience later, I’m still held captive by The Fear of the First Draft. When I’m staring at the prospect of 300 or so blank pages waiting to be filled with words I must pull out from the inside of my head, it’s all too real and daunting. By now, though, I’ve figured out where The Fear comes from.
It has its insidious beginnings right at the start of the process. Before I begin the hours of work, while I’m still teasing out ideas and mulling over story lines to see if they gel, while the idea of the plot and the characters are still in my head, the dream of a beautifully finished book is there, glowing right in front of me, almost tangible. This could be the wonderful story that will touch people’s hearts in a way I never have before. It could lead to the Big Breakthrough, the brilliant script that will cause a four-way (or even a six-way) auction and a subsequent movie deal, be the dazzling book that resonates deeply with readers and soars to the top of the bestsellers list; at this early stage the possibilities are endless and limited only by my imagination.
Until I settle down and type Chapter One and the bubble of illusion bursts.
Invariably, the words coming out on the page are clunky and stiff, and a million miles away from the beautiful prose and pitch perfect dialogue I’d envisaged. I know chucks of the script are way off key, and it can paralyse me enough to give me second or third thoughts and prevent me from moving on. Also by now, I’ve got to know how the copy editor works, and I find myself cringing as I imagine the reaction to rough, awkward writing and stilted dialogue. At this stage too, with a few books published, more than likely there are good reviews to live up to, readers have said how much they enjoyed earlier book (s), there is an expectation by me and the reader that the next book will be even better, more exciting, but with the inelegant way this draft is hitting the page, far from being ‘a classic’ or ‘your glorious best’, the readers could well be disappointed – that’s if the editor considers it publishable in the first place.
Another factor is the timescale. In the middle of writing subsequent books of a multi-book publishing deal, the likelihood is that beautifully covered, expertly finished copies of the previous book will now have arrived on the scene and the lovely package bears no resemblance to the gawky mish–mash of words that currently constitutes the work-in-progress lounging contrarily in a folder on the laptop screen. In the first excitement of holding these books, it’s all too easy to forget that the script has gone through re-writes and rounds of editorial advice, and every line has been polished and shone before it got within a whisper of the printing press.
I know from numerous articles on the subject that this is all perfectly normal, and the main piece of advice when writing a first draft is to give yourself permission to write badly and just get the words down. They can – and they will – be fixed later. But it’s hard to write badly when part of the job description is also to read widely on a regular basis, and the recalcitrant draft seems more ungainly than ever when it’s up against another author’s flawless plot and wonderful narrative.
However, ten books in, I’ve finally learned to accept that The Fear of the First Draft never goes away. It will lurk there like an ominous cloud until I finally get to The End. I know there’s no point in fighting it, or conjuring up a magic wand and ordering it to disappear, or telling it to take a running jump, because it won’t.
What I have learned to do is to avoid giving it energy and attention and to steer clear of examining the full extent and immobilising depths of it. I try to forget about the actual words I’m putting down and focus instead on the mood and theme of the book I’m writing. I light scented candles, think inspirational thoughts, put on my headphones and blast up the music to drown out that fearful voice. Then away I go, into the unknown and as yet unwritten world of the people whose stories I’m about to tell.
(c) Zoë Miller
Author photograph (c) Kevin Morris photography
About The Visitor:
Izzie Mallon is looking forward to celebrating Christmas on a relaxing yoga retreat. At least, that is what she’s telling her mother and colleagues. In reality, she will be shutting herself away from the festive season, and the snowstorm that has brought the city to a standstill, in her apartment on Henrietta Square — the beautiful home she shared with her beloved husband Sam until his tragic death a few months ago — with only her grief for company.
Then, there’s a knock at the door — a stranger, stranded by the bad weather.
He tells Izzie that he’s Eli Sanders, her husband’s long-time friend. Izzie has never met him in person, but feels she owes it to Sam to welcome Eli into her home. Even though her instincts say that she should do otherwise…
As Izzie tries to reminisce with Eli about her husband, cracks in his story begin to show. But will she be able to see clearly through her grief before it’s too late?
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