Demons of Writing: The First Draft
First pages aren’t as big of an issue, these days. More people are putting their feelings into words than ever before with social media. Content and quality aren’t so important in that venue, but the virtue is in more people using words to articulate their thoughts. Distraction and other physical inhibitions exist in spades, but actually sitting down to write a creative project still means facing a few unique demons. Many of these afflict new writers or students, but they do sometimes stick around even after you have gone around the board a few times.
You’ve got your story, characters, setting, plot, and you’re all set with a new document open (or fresh page pulled out). It’s time! But where do you start? Do you start with “the”? Your main character’s name? Maybe a verb? Do you come in from the side with an intriguing detail? You stare at that page whipping through the options and before you know it, there’s an interruption or you set down the project to try again tomorrow.
“Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph, until you get to page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.”
– Roddy Doyle
There are any number of reasons why those first words may be the most difficult. Some of these reasons may be the next on this list. If that formal open page is too intimidating, these days there’s no law that says you can’t begin your story on a stickie note, legal pad, text message, or on a napkin. You may give this “syndrome” the boot by starting a number of stories all at once, or writing twelve different first lines before continuing your paragraph. They don’t have to be perfect, you just have to fill a page. Start out on the “beginner” setting and make each line quadruple-spaced! At least for the first few pages.
On a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, this was part of what they called “worldbuilder’s disease”. Their point was the necessity of plot and character in idea stories, but the disease (in general definition) is planning so much that the purpose and project drown. While world building is typically an activity for speculative fiction, intensive and extensive planning can delay the draft indefinitely.
“You can’t plan for everything or you never get started in the first place.”
– Jim Butcher, Changes
This isn’t an argument for planning or “pantsing”. Simply a caution to keep the purpose in mind. Are you coming up with the story just to come up with it and mentally explore the possibilities? Or are you using this energy toward a final product, which must have a concrete first version? Know your goals so you don’t get lost in the first steps.
You sit down to that first page and you imagine all the hundreds of pages left to write. Or, you scribble down a couple of hundred words, read them again, and realize it’s likely everything you get down in that first draft will have to be chucked out the window and made better. The minutes, hours, cups of coffee for this whole thing are staggering! Then the thought comes, “Best just to let it go until I feel up to it.”
“Start before you’re ready.”
– Steven Pressfield
Writing a book, or even a short story of any depth, is a beastly task when considered as a whole. Before you try, you don’t realize how much effort is required, let alone how many steps. Recall the quote by Creighton Abrams, US General, “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” Another excellent take on battling this particular demon comes from Anne Lamott, “…all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” Each sentence, each paragraph adds up to full manuscripts, if produced consistently.
Perfectionism (Stage Fright)
This demon has a new angle to it. Traditionally, this is more about getting it right the first time; writing a bestseller from mind to sheet. Some people struggle with this kind of perfectionism (it can be debilitating!) while others have set themselves up to carry a heavier load. In these days of online promotion, marketing, self-publishing, and social media platforms, many young authors are setting themselves up for sales before they have a product to sell. There’s something to say for preparation, for sure, but this means people know about the project. They know your timelines, concept, sometimes even your characters. The perfectionism of just being accountable to your own idea now can be multiplied out to being accountable to a fan base.
“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
—Allen Ginsberg, WD
This isn’t an issue for some authors; in fact it can be a great encouragement! But, if this does slow up production or stall the project completely, consider keeping more secrets. If you’re concerned about a fan base, practice a little patience wait until the work is completely finished before setting a release date. Set it far enough out to develop that hype. As an extra bonus, you can spend that time nourishing up a good start for your next project without people nosing about it.
Where the traditional perfectionism is concerned, this is one frequent quote on the matter:
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
– Shannon Hale
Take comfort in the revision process and first get the story out. You can be nit-picky later. If it helps, make notes as you go on things you’d like to change, note where you decided this, then push ahead as though you’d made the change. It gets messy, but at least the draft is getting done.