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3 things which are NOT signs you should give up on your messy first draft

The last scene you wrote was TERRIBLE OMG SO TERRIBLE. Sure, the other day you wrote something that seemed okay, and the day before that you wrote something you suspected might be quite good, with some editing. But that last scene you wrote? You’re fairly sure it was actually the worst scene that anyone has ever written in the history of writing. In fact, you are convinced that if anyone were to read it they would end up critically injured from laughing so hard at how bad it was. (Unless you’re writing comedy, in which case they’d be curled in a foetal position and miserably crying miserable tears of miserable misery.)

For a start, the mood you were in when you wrote the scene can have a lot of bearing on how you feel about that scene. It might have been that you didn’t get much sleep the night before, your computer started playing up, some neighbour was busy doing angry things to their hedge with a chainsaw, you weren’t quite caffeinated enough, you got interrupted six times by cats and small children and someone trying to sell you life insurance – in which case it can be very hard to approach writing (or anything for that matter) without feeling ever so slightly enormously grumpy with it. It might be that you go back to reread the terrible scene in a few weeks’ time and discover that it was, in fact, perfectly fine. The terrible thing was just your mood.

Also, while you’re in the throes of producing a first draft it can be easy to feel that you’re only as good as the last thing you wrote. This is not true. Even if the last thing you wrote really was the most terrible thing ever written, this is not true. You are as good as the beautiful shiny finished novel which doesn’t exist yet, the one which has been sent to kind hearted beta readers and edited and rewritten and polished until you can see your own face reflected back in it. Right now you just have to keep going so that final version can exist. And when it does exist, what will one measly scene from a first draft prove? Nothing.

Someone in publishing said that your genre is a really hard sell/oversaturated/not their cup of tea/only ever written by drunken gorillas and a complete waste of resources.  And let’s just say that someone was an editor you adore, or an agent high up on your list of dream agents. Is this depressing? Yes. Is this a reason to give up? Absolutely not. It might be worth doing some research and finding other publishing people to follow whose tastes align more closely with yours. It’s also worth remembering that people’s feelings sometimes change, and what’s popular or unpopular will always change.

And sometimes it can be a good idea to restrict your intake of publishing information. Not completely. Just slightly. Because, let’s face it, there are some details you just don’t need to know while you’re trying to write a first draft. Of course, if you’re currently planning on, say, subbing your 200,000 word fiction novel about the adventures of a pair of talking toilets, and you’re thinking you might even put the query in magenta comic sans so that agents are more likely to notice you – then, yeah, it might be worth doing quite a lot more research. But if you’re close to knowing all of your dream agents’ blog posts off by heart, if you like to keep track of every single deal that ever takes place, including ones for novels which sound incredibly similar to yours so that you can then start panicking about how no one will ever want your novel? Calm down. You’re probably fine. Also, it might be time to turn the internet off and, you know, do some writing.

You are reading a book which is impossibly good and your book will never ever in a million years be this good. The thing about good books is that they’re seamless. They create the illusion that they’ve always been the way they are right now, as you’re reading them, with their compelling stories and memorable characters and gloriously beautiful language. But were they always this wonderful? No. Even the best writers produce messy first drafts. I love these posts by Laurie Halse Anderson and Kristin Cashore where they share the rawness of early drafts of Wintergirls and Bitterblue, then show how they edited and tweaked until they’d shaped that rough material into awesomeness.

You can make awesomeness too. But for many of us first drafts are only the start of the journey, and most of the beautiful, shiny stuff isn’t visible until we’re right at the end. All we have to do for now is ignore the fear and keep making the journey, day by day, word by word, until we can uncover it for ourselves.

Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. Wonderful post! Thanks for the extra dose of encouragement. :)

  2. This post is SO timely, you have no idea. I definitely needed this after the awful word-vomit I had last night. Time to shut off that inner editor/critic and keep writing! Thanks, YA Highway, for knowing exactly what to say at exactly the right time! :)

  3. Fun to read AND encouraging. Thank you! I sometimes have to slow down on how many agent/publishing information I read, or it's overload and I'm sure my book will never sell. ;)

  4. Exactly what I've had to do. What a journey in faith. Thanks so much for this.

  5. Haha! My inner critic could have composed this list (and I'm only laughing because it's stopping me from crying, haha :-))

  6. Amazing post!!! It's so easy to forget to stay calm and to keep on moving forward when you're in a business as subjective as publishing. All we can do is keep moving forward and to never give up.


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