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First Draft Problems
  • Hi everyone.

    I'm writing the first draft of my first novel. I can't control my inner editor. I keep looking back through my work, and changing things, and it's taking forever for me to get the thing written. I've recently started to highlight in red sections that I think will need a fair amount of further work, but this still isn't satisfying my inner editor. So I wanted to ask, how do you all approach your first draft? Do you just get it down, regardless of whether you think it isn't great, and go back through when you're finished? Or do you edit as you go? I'm just afraid that if I leave it as is, it will end up being rubbish, and will involve more rewriting than necessary in draft two.

    How many drafts do you do, before you consider it finished? I am aware that this will be different for everyone.
  • Well I was once like you, and I only finished the first draft -well two first drafts actually- once I turned the inner editor off.

    If there's something I think I'll need to change I just make a note in brackets and move on.

    You'll do a lot more changing in draft two.

    By the time I got to the second half of the first draft I'd discovered a lot more about my characters, their reactions and motivations that I wasn't aware of at the start. So obviously that will result in changes in draft 2.

    I will admit to the minor word change here and there from the previous writing session, so I can pick up where I left off, but beyond that just make a note in whatever way works for you. So when you get to it in draft 2 or 3 you'll know what you intended.
  • Thank you, I'll do my best to just let the words flow in draft one, make a few notes/minor changes if I feel the need, and move on. It's so hard to just get on with it, and not keep going back over and over what I've already written.
  • CarolCarol
    I know.

    Whenever you start editing instead of writing, tell yourself, just write.

  • If it's plot changes, you have to do them; if it's grammar or wording, you can come back to it.
    You will go through your work many times between now and writing The End, I promise you. You'll find that your characters want to go somewhere that you didn't expect, or that the baddy turns out not to be so bad - it's all natural! Don't get bogged down in the little things, or you may lose your way.
    Nothing you write, even if you scrub it out, is ever wasted - it's all part of the process. If you become critical as you go, that is also a way to show that you're learning on the job. Don't despair - keep listening to your characters, and make notes, and see where you end up in a month of two.
    Good luck!
  • Thank you ladies, this is very helpful. This is all very new to me, (critical analysis is what I did before, for university) and I know I'll eventually find what works for me. I'm just enjoying the experience, and just going with it for now.
  • CarolCarol
    That's the best way. You will learn what works best for you.
  • Hi Shon. I had the same problem with my first book (a children's story) - and just ploughed through the first draft without editing once. It was tough to switch off that internal critic at first, but I found it actually helped to write passages I enjoyed but knew would not make it into the final draft: a bit like purposely spilling coffee onto a floor you know needs cleaning. I found it quite liberating and my work rate increased as a result.
    Another approach is to think of your novel like a painting. Most paintings start out as rough sketches, then the artist blocks in background, establishes tonal value; before adding detail and revealing the characters in all their glory.
  • That's a helpful analogy, thank you andyhitc. I wrote 800 words this afternoon, and didn't overthink/go back over it. I'm sure some (if not most of it!) is drivel, but I'll decide that at a later date. I'm going to get back to it again now that I've got my kiddiwinks into bed, and I'll try the same approach.
  • What I do is write sections and then go back a few days or weeks later and revisit that bit of work. It's amazing how either how great it reads or conversely how ungreat it is. I also usually spot lots of typos and stuff then as well.
  • Shon85 said:

    Hi everyone.

    I'm writing the first draft of my first novel. I can't control my inner editor. I keep looking back through my work, and changing things, and it's taking forever for me to get the thing written. I've recently started to highlight in red sections that I think will need a fair amount of further work, but this still isn't satisfying my inner editor. So I wanted to ask, how do you all approach your first draft? Do you just get it down, regardless of whether you think it isn't great, and go back through when you're finished? Or do you edit as you go? I'm just afraid that if I leave it as is, it will end up being rubbish, and will involve more rewriting than necessary in draft two.

    How many drafts do you do, before you consider it finished? I am aware that this will be different for everyone.



    I'm currently writing my first draft as well and I did what you were doing, looking back over everything again and again to make sure it was perfect. I did this so much until some kind people on here told me to just write, get it finished and then redraft it. I'm still on my first draft, but I'm determined to get that finished this year.

    How far through your first draft are you Shon85?
  • Yes, that makes sense. I've read that you should leave it at least a month before going back over your work, so you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. I will try the same :)
  • LizyLizy
    Hi Shon85. I did the same thing my first time and it took a LOT of self-discipline to change. I got into such a muddle.

    In the story I'm writing now I reached 15000 words before I got stuck on the plot. Now I'm editing those chapters ONCE only before moving on.

    Everyone - even very successful authors - says that the first draft is always dreadful, which is a comfort.
  • I've only got about 7000 words, so not a lot at all so far, but I've resisted the urge to go back and change things the last couple of times I've sat down to write. I think my plan going forward is to just keep writing to the bitter end, and not stop and look back unless I get really stuck. I'm well aware that it will need a lot of work after this draft, and it probably isn't very good at all at the moment, but it's a story that I'm excited about, and motivated to write, so that's the main thing for me for now.
  • karenkaren
    I'm just the same, I find it hard to get anywhere because I want to get it down as best I can to begin with, and keep reading it over and making changes. Just put the blinkers on and go for it! I need to take my own advice too!
  • We're all so good at giving advice we should be taking ourselves!

    Yes, that is definitely what I'm going to do from now on. After all, nobody except me is going to see the awful first draft, so I don't know why it bothers me so much.
  • I'm on a first draft atm. I write until I naturally come to a stop - which could be thousands of words(!) - then I read over what I've done before plunging in again. I don't make big changes. I attend to typos/punctuation/changing the odd sentence structure or word. The further through I get, the more likely I am to go back and add in something ( a phrase or a scene) earlier in the plot which becomes relevant later.

    It's a bit like dropping biscuit crumbs. Some people will leave them until they have to hoover the whole room, others will get out the dustpan and brush there and then. If I made a glaring typo which I noticed as I was writing, I'd sort it out before going on to the next sentence.
  • I'm on a first draft atm. I write until I naturally come to a stop - which could be thousands of words(!) - then I read over what I've done before plunging in again. I don't make big changes. I attend to typos/punctuation/changing the odd sentence structure or word. The further through I get, the more likely I am to go back and add in something ( a phrase or a scene) earlier in the plot which becomes relevant later.

    It's a bit like dropping biscuit crumbs. Some people will leave them until they have to hoover the whole room, others will get out the dustpan and brush there and then. If I made a glaring typo which I noticed as I was writing, I'd sort it out before going on to the next sentence.
  • JediyaJediya
    We (me and writing partner, I'm not insane... no more than usual) used to try and edit as we went (I think everyone does at first) but found it stifled the creativity and caused everything to grind to a halt. This was also true with try to chapter our novels straightaway as well.

    Since realising (and lucking out with having the opportunity to have professional mentoring for six months) we wrote the first draft of our second novel without stopping to edit or break down into chapters (scenes yes, chapters no). Then we go back over it, find probable chapter breaks and make anything that needs editing before we start the second draft.

    Last year I also had the opportunity to talk to many published authors, who shared their own tip. One of my favourites was from Simon Toyne, who said that he doesn't research while writing a first draft. Instead, he makes educated guesses and writes those parts in ALL CAPS, so he can easily find them later when it comes to researching. He noted that if he was close, then he'd tweak a bit or leave it as it was. If he was way off, he'd change it. If he was wrong but the real thing was so dull it wouldn't be entertaining at all, then he would take a bit of creative licence with it.

    But all in all, the best bit of advice comes from a friend of mine (who is also an author and runs creative writing workshops), who keeps telling me, first drafts are meant to be rubbish, the idea is just to get the story down first and write 'the end', then you can go back over it and tighten and refine it later.
  • Editing as you go isn't always a bad thing. As Mrs Bear says, if you realise you'll be changing the plot it might well make sense to do that rather than continue with something which no longer makes much sense.

    Everyone works differently. Perhaps, for you, taking a long time over a tidyish first draft is the best way.
  • Indeed. No two writers are the same and what works for one may not work for another.

    Obviously, if something is glaringly wrong (or massively changed) then there's little point leaving it til later.

    I think the main thing is, if you find yourself not progressing any further (it doesn't matter if you slow down) then maybe something's not quite working.
  • LizyLizy
    For the first time ever, I wrote a plot plan first. It means that after stopping work for several months to move house I have notes to remind me of my incredible ideas!
  • I'm a planner. I have sheets and sheets and sheets of A4 paper, filled with scene breakdowns, character bios, research, etc. There's no way I could be a pantser.
  • LizyLizy
    Nevertheless, there comes a time when you just have to write, and how much of those notes do you use? I had pages and pages of reseach notes for one book, including detailed maps of France in 1940, and I used perhaps 10% of it. The trouble is, you don't know till you've finished what bits you need!
  • JediyaJediya
    Not to mention sometimes the characters want to do what they want to do and sometimes that's not part of your 'plan' (been there, done that, got irritated with them and relented).

    Just remember you can always change anything that doesn't work or jars in later drafts.
  • Ooh don't do loads of research before you start that's a perfect procrastinators pitfall. I was writing on Friday and really needed to do some digging for a section and spent 25 minutes on Google which took me to some really obscure and very funny material which turned out to be inspiring. Research as you go along is fine and much easier these days than it used to be obviously that way you don't fill files and folders with stuff you'll never need. It also brings up the danger that the research you've done will drive the writing rather than the other way around. (Unless it's non-fiction of course )
  • datco2014 said:

    Ooh don't do loads of research before you start that's a perfect procrastinators pitfall. I was writing on Friday and really needed to do some digging for a section and spent 25 minutes on Google which took me to some really obscure and very funny material which turned out to be inspiring. Research as you go along is fine and much easier these days than it used to be obviously that way you don't fill files and folders with stuff you'll never need. It also brings up the danger that the research you've done will drive the writing rather than the other way around. (Unless it's non-fiction of course )



    That works fine with contemporary fiction but not historical. You need to have researched enough to avoid silly errors that will take up a lot of time correcting later on.

  • LizyLizy
    Exactly, Carol - putting my MC in the wrong place in the early months of WW2 would have been a stupid error.
  • Lizy said:

    Nevertheless, there comes a time when you just have to write, and how much of those notes do you use? I had pages and pages of reseach notes for one book, including detailed maps of France in 1940, and I used perhaps 10% of it. The trouble is, you don't know till you've finished what bits you need!


    Actually, you probably used more: you'll have garnered a lot of the flavour of the period while you were making your notes, and that will have fed your work. I think a good background knowledge to start with, and then looking specific things up as you need them, is probably the way to go. You may know in advance some of the things you'll need to research, but you can waste time going down side-streets because they are interesting and because 'you never know...'

  • When I went to an author workshop, Ben Kane was asked about research – he writes about the Roman Empire. An early reviewer of his first novel pulled him up on something he’d included. It was about the small windows, high in the building where Caesar was assassinated. The character rushed in and glanced at those ‘small windows’. The reviewer said it was unbelievable that at that time the character would be distracted from the bloody scene and look up, high up. Ben agreed. He said that he was so pleased with his research that he was determined to include details like that. It was a mistake.

    It’s important for an author to know the details and to imagine them in the background, but you do need to take care that you don’t write the research and lose the plot.
  • I do agree with BB. I reviewed one book that had the word 'room' 32 times in 5 paragraphs, because the author had researched what should be in a gentleman's house and insisted on telling us. It was irrelevant to the plot, painfully OTT, and was one of several things that put me off the novel. Yes, s/he had done their research, but they weren't applying it sensibly.
  • Background is background, and should be just that. What readers want is a story.

    I can't bear oodles of detail. I end up skimming over it. It should be sprinkled when needed, like salt and pepper.

    However, I do see that in historical fiction you do need to know your stuff before tackling a story set in a period, and that any detail you include is accurate.
  • Shon85
    My story isn't historical. I had to research the 7/7 bombings, and an attack against Jews in France, and I've had to do a fair bit of research on a religious community in Britain. But the main bulk of my notes are character bios, timelines, chapter summaries, etc. I have been referring to many of my notes as I've been writing, so I don't see it as wasted.
  • That's important stuff to get right, Shon. While it's not 'historical', it still holds facts about recent history as well as current information so you do need to have done the research.
  • CarolCarol
    I think it's a fine balance, and each writer has to find what works for them.

    Sometimes you find that something comes along during the course of writing the first draft, and without further research you can proceed and perhaps get something wrong which you have to correct later- but equally you might get it almost right, so there's less work later.

    There's no one perfect system.