The First Draft Is Shit

I’m calling on Ernest Hemingway for the title of this post:

The first draft of anything is shit. 

I’ve blogged about the difficulty of first drafts before, but the topic is exercising my mind at the moment. I’ve been struggling to write for months now. I had a crisis in January when I had to recognise that the novel I was trying to write wasn’t going to work. Having finally accepted that, unpicked the two novels I was jamming into one, like two feet into one sock, and decided which one I was going to work on first, I thought I’d resolved the problem.


Through January, February and most of March, words dribbled onto the screen: 200 one day, 300 another; if I was really lucky, I reached the dizzy heights of 500. The slow pace drove me mad. I stared at the computer screen, paralysed, I realised with fear. I couldn’t write because I was afraid of writing shit. I knew only too well the answers to the problem (I’ve spouted them to students often enough), but somehow I couldn’t silence that inner critic, couldn’t separate the drafting from the editing process, couldn’t let the creativity out of the bag because the craft was keeping it firmly shut.

Despite all I know about writing a novel being a two-stage process: drafting and editing, deep down I wanted my novel to come out fully-formed first time round. But as Iris Murdoch said Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. In other words, the wonderful prose that is in your mind, the intriguing characters who will leap from the page, the brilliant plot twists you imagine, will not appear on the page first time round – and maybe not second, third, or fourth attempt either.

But it’s only through writing it down that it becomes a tangible manifestation of anything approaching that brilliant idea. It’s an important document that will give you something to shape and build on.

So, why have I written so much of this blog in the past tense? Have I cracked the problem? Am I on the sunny uplands of a completed first draft? Far from it. I’m still rowing for all I’m worth in case I drown.

Cartel simbolo canoaBut I have had a bit breakthrough which makes me feel more positive, and that’s a result of two things. The first is advice from the lovely Lorna Fergusson: Decide on a date you want to finish your first draft. Identify how many writing days are available between now and then. Work out out how many words you need to write each writing day in order to complete by the due date. When I did this, I had a shock. I chose 31st September as my ‘due date’., and that meant I had to write 700-800 words on each of my designated days. If I dithered around at 200-300, I would be still be writing the first draft the year after next!

At the same time as I was absorbing Lorna’s advice, I reread the section on ‘failure to produce’ in James Frey’s ‘Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling’, and a sentence leapt out at me: Make the decision that you will never be caught in the trap of non-production. Simple but that phrase the trap of non-production described my situation exactly.

It’s early days, and I don’t want to be complacent too soon. But with the need for 700-800 words a day snapping at my heels, I’ve managed to complete more than that on each of my designated writing days so far. I might crash and burn next week, but so far, it’s working!


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  1. Debbie Young says:

    Great post, Lindsay, and I’m so glad things are looking up with your draft. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s looking forward to reading your next novel, having enjoyed the first two!) I keep coming across advice in so many places recently along the lines of “all successful authors have a set daily word count” that I’m going to join you down that road too. As my first love is short stories (including flash fiction) rather than novels, I’m not sure what target I should set myself. A flash a day and a short story a week, maybe? Any suggestions will be much appreciated!

  2. Lindsay says:

    Thanks for this, Debbie. The thought that someone is looking forward to reading my next novel is definitely a spur! I have always aimed at a daily word count of 1000 words, but I hadn’t been able to manage it – or only occasionally – for a while. Somehow the identification of an end date has motivated me to produce. I’m not sure a daily word count is so relevant with short stories, but you could employ the same principle of bashing through a first draft, within a self-imposed time limit, and then refining afterwards.

  3. Polly says:

    Nike always comes to mind – I used to quote their strapline to my students: Just Do It – very similar to yours ‘eh? 🙂

  4. … but Lindsay we are all looking forward to the next one…. thanks for your honest and truthful account of what is going on for you…hope it works. (sounds a pretty good idea to me, though rather like the business world, for me anyway ) Lots of love bx

  5. Lindsay says:

    Exactly, Polly – do it! But this time however often I told myself to do it, I couldn’t. I hope I’ve set myself free.

  6. Lindsay says:

    That’s lovely of you, Becky. I agree – I’m not normally someone who responds to ‘where do I want to be, when and how do I get there?’ But, maybe, it will work for me this time. And if it does, I’m not going to knock it. As always, your support is much appreciated.

  7. Maureen Hall says:

    Gosh, Lindsay: you may have written that just to describe your problem, but it surely does describe mine as well. I’m feeling very humbled by your commitment and am now going off to set myself a date, and work out my daily word-count. Thank you (again!).

  8. Lindsay says:

    Good luck, Mo. If I’ve helped motivate you, that’s brilliant. Don’t forget you don’t have to do it every day – just the ones you identify as writing days. I think that helps.

  9. lisa says:

    thanks so much for the post lindsay. I love reading about your experiences. (Often very similar to mine!)
    Nifty software for word count targets: Scrivener ( ) does the calculations for you and recalculates daily targets automatically as you go along. Bliss!

  10. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Lisa. It helps to know someone is sharing the pain, doesn’t it?! I’ve been tempted by Scrivener, but have so far resisted. I feel as if for me it would be another reason to procrastinate! But perhaps I should investigate …

  11. lisa says:

    It definitely does help – ‘care & share’
    I know what you mean about resisting anything that could be another procrastination opportunity! just thought I’d share Scriv because it’s increased my productivity – and confidence – by about 500%. Research, text and notes all accessible in one place; ideas and text fragments organised; project targets; beautiful black-and-white ‘Compose’ screen which eliminates all distractions and makes you want to fill it up immediately… free trial download… definitely worth a try.

  12. lisa says:

    PS. My first draft is still shit, of course!

  13. Lindsay says:

    You’re encouraging me to try Scrivener more by the second!

  14. Lindsay says:

    Love it! How’s the whole Richard & Judy thing going? What a fantastic opportunity!

  15. lisa says:

    Isn’t it, can’t believe it really. I have to submit the completed MS by the end of August, then they announce the winner on 1 October. Very exciting! Just have to finish it. 60k into first draft, 30k to go, redraft, polish… Hence focus on productivity!

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