Don’t Look Down: On Writing a First Draft

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"Don't Look Down" by Caryn Caldwell - On how to fool yourself into finishing your first draft.Here’s the thing about first drafts: They are fun, but they are also scary. They are messy and muddled and awkward and hard. They have no guarantee. And they can make perfectionists like me very, very uncomfortable.

But they are worth it for the times when everything works and, anyway, they have to be done in order to get to revisions. Even on the difficult days.

And those days do come.

Unfortunately, there’s no category for Personal Cheering Section in the help-wanted ads, and the cats would rather sleep on the couch than rah-rah-rah me into getting all the new words written. So when I’ve used up my last jar of inspiration, and my motivation has fled, I have to flail those pom-poms myself.

Throughout my recent two-month long frenzy of creative chaos — otherwise known as a first draft — I did just that. To be specific, I built a page of reminders to look at any time my typing lagged. As the manuscript grew, so did my list, because I learn new things every time I write a book or, more likely, I learn the same things over and over, forgetting in between.

Here, prettied up for your sake, and shared in case it provides inspiration (perhaps to those embarking on NaNoWriMo), is my memo to myself:

Tell a good story.

Write now. Revise later.

Have fun. Smile. And then send a knife hurtling toward your protagonist.

Go on. She can take it.

Forget layering in emotion, setting, symbols, and theme for now. This is an empty tortilla, baby. Only one floppy layer to be had. Fill it later.

At some point — usually three days — it will be harder to stop than it is to keep going.

Until then, write it anyway.

You have finished books before. You will do it again.

Probably even this one.

Comparing an untamed first draft to a previous book’s reworked, polished, final form is like comparing a supermodel’s eighth grade school picture with her Vogue spread. Not fair. Everyone looks awkward at the beginning. The pretty comes later.

The book will not be perfect.

The book will not be perfect.

The book will not be perfect.

But it can be fixed. That’s what revisions are for.

Just type.

Don’t look down.

How do you convince yourself to keep going on difficult writing days?

  • “Have fun. Smile. And then send a knife hurtling toward your protagonist.” :: My favorite from your list!

    When I’m feeling a lack of motivation, I think of my friends who’ve “made it” (or, sold a book) and that often help me to focus in on my own goals and my own (crappy) first draft.

    Great post, Caryn… I’m glad I stopped by your blog today!

    • I’m so glad you stopped by, too! I enjoyed reading your blog, as well.

      As for the knife part, I actually wrote it last night as I was falling asleep, then forgot about it. This morning when I woke up I thought, “Oh, no. I was messing with my blog-post last night, wasn’t I? What did I write? Did I ruin it?” But I actually kept it, which I can’t say for all of my late-night brainstorming.

  • Holy cow, did I ever need this post today. You rock, Caryn. This post is going on my desktop…

    • Heather, that makes me feel so good, although I’m sorry you’re having a rough day. I hope it gets better. Any time you need me to be your personal cheerleader, you just call or email me or, heck, knock on my door if you don’t mind the drive.

  • I’ll echo Heather. I’m about 5K from finishing a first draft, and I’m at the stage where I’m just dying to have finished. But it won’t magically write it’s crappy first-drafted self, so I must push through! I’m hoping to finish this sloppy sucker by Monday.

    • Woohoo! Go, Jess, go! I’m so glad to hear that you’re almost done with your draft, because I have such high hopes for you. Plus the sooner you finish this book the sooner you can get it published (I hope, I hope!) and the sooner I can buy a copy. Because you know I will!

      Good luck on your writing!

      P.S. Love the “sloppy sucker” bit. Perfect!

  • This is great Caryn. I’m trying to get a first draft down and it is very slow going. I love the tortilla image. That’s brilliant. Now before I get too discouraged, I’ll just think this only has to be a tortilla not a 9-layer cake.

    • Yes! A tortilla instead of a nine-layer cake. Perfect! I always feel like I have to have everything in the first draft but, really, the layers come later, don’t they? And, actually, that’s part of what I like so much about revision – the layering. Making that cake.

  • This is AWESOME!! I need this more when I’m revising because I love (LOVE!!) those first drafts, but it all still works. My favourite is: Go on. She can take it! Love it 🙂

    • Thanks, Jemi! I’m revising right now, and I need to come up with something, at least for myself. Even though I like revisions better, I still have tough days and need some motivation. If you have any, feel free to send it my way!

      Good luck with your book!

  • Pat

    Go girl go – I’m cheering you on!

  • Okay … now I want to forget about the rest of these revisions and dive into that adrenaline-filled first draft stage. Ha. Whenever I had a rough writing day with this most recent manuscript, I’d often stop for a few minutes and envision the ending. Just having that picture in my mind motivated me to jump back in and type, type, type. I suppose it was a bit different since I’d been with these characters through three books, but truly, I think your “Just type. Don’t look down.” advice is SO IMPORTANT.

    You totally need to do one of these posts about editing now! 😉

    • Love your advice to think about the ending! I haven’t tried that before. I’m going to have to. In fact, I’m probably going to read all of these comments several times while I’m drafting my next book, whenever that happens. (i.e. whenever I finish revising this one…)

      And, yes, I need to make something up for editing, if only so you don’t have to listen to me whine when I’m having trouble making a plot point work! 😀

  • This is my approach, which is why I hurry through the first draft. Great post!

    • Exactly! I’d never hurried through a draft before, but now I think that’s what I’ll do in the future. It seemed to work well.

  • Oh man, I have a love/hate thing going on with the first draft. All of your advice is dead on. Especially the not perfect. How many times do I have to tell myself that very thing! Great post!

    • The bit about the book not being perfect is what I tell myself the most. It’s so hard to move on when you know it’s not quite right, isn’t it?

  • I need these post-it notes on my laptop too! I’m going through the first draft stage and it’s so frustrating to know how imperfect it is.

    BTW, I love the color scheme of your blog! My favorite colors. 🙂

    • Thanks! I agonized about the color scheme for a long time, so I’m glad you like it! I’ve been really into purple lately, and the green just seemed to go with it.

      Good luck with your first draft! I’m sure it will be wonderful. Okay, well, I’m sure the revised version will be wonderful (because is any first draft actually wonderful? And how many times can I use the word wonderful in this comment, anyway?)