Last night, I hit 11,300 words in my new novel. (Asking yourself what happened to Eleanor? See this post).
Writing a first draft is always a weird process for me. On one hand, the first draft is probably my most exhilarating draft. It is raw ideas splashed across a page. It is something created from nothing. How cool is that?
On the other hand, I haven’t had time to revise any of my writing, and I know that there are clumsy scenes and character inconsistencies and blah sentences. I jot these problems down on a notepad, grit my teeth, and keep moving forward—meanwhile all those problems are coalescing into a monster in the back of my brain. By the time I’ve finished the first draft, I am convinced that it is trash.
Recently, I interviewed three other writers, and they described similar feelings towards their first drafts, so I know I’m not alone.
But why? Why the vehemence? Why do we dislike our own writing so much?
1) The story is real to us.
In his Newbery medal acceptance speech, Neil Gaiman said, “I wrote [books] because I was interested in the stories, because there was a maggot in my head, a small squirming idea that I needed to pin to paper…”
All writers, I think, share that quality. We have vivid, squirming ideas in our head, and we want to bring them to life. But at the end of the day, no matter how rich our writing is, we have to be satisfied with ink and paper.
There’s part of every story that readers never see, and it is that elusive, inexpressible depth which frustrates writers.
2) We have good taste.
Kate Dicamillo (who just won her third Newbery medal) cautions us that, “You have no business wanting to be a writer unless you are a reader.”
Fortunately, most writers are readers. Avid readers. Worshipful readers, even. Of course, all that reading teaches us what we like, what we don’t like, what’s expected of a book, what’s unexpected and delightful…
But it can also become an impediment, especially when we try to compare ourselves to our idols. Our good taste means that we have high standards, and sometimes, especially as beginners, we just can’t live up to those standards.
Maybe it’s because we couldn’t afford a professional editor. Maybe it’s because we didn’t have as much time to pour into our book as we wanted. Maybe it’s because this is our first book, and we are just cutting our teeth on pacing and dialogue and the beauty of a creative analogy.
Whatever the reason, our good taste makes us wrinkle our noses at our own amateur writing–and instead of seeing potential, we see failure.
3) We are our own worst critics.
In a NaNoWriMo pep-talk, John Green informs us that he keeps a folder on his hard drive called “follies.” Inside that folder are the final drafts of Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and An Abundance of Katherines, all three of which are bestselling novels.
I think the idea that “we are our own worst critics” puts a finger on the narcissism that lies at the center of most human existence. In a universe full of beauty and horror, we pay a hugely disproportionate amount of attention to ourselves.
Let’s put this into perspective. In 2016, I spent more time in turmoil over Eleanor than I did the expansion of Isis. On the day of the Miami shootings, I spent just as much time fretting over a tricky mother-daughter relationship in my book as I did grieving over the senseless human carnage 900 miles away. (I spent a lot of time doing both).
We magnify our mistakes and our errors. Often, we put them on the same scale as global events. So it’s no wonder, really, that a problem-riddled first draft fills us with revulsion.
All that said, it’s a beautiful thing to see a writer who is happy with her book. And many writers do reach that point, maybe not with a first draft, maybe not even with a first book, but with patience and determination, yes. We’ll get there.