A version of this post originally appeared on the YA Buccaneers group blog.
Have you ever started a first draft and gotten stuck revising (and revising…and revising…) 30 pages in? This post is for you—and it’s for me.
Hi, I’m Kathryn, and I sometimes have a problem with my Inner Editor.
A little background: When I started seriously trying to write a book, I was coming out of several years as a full-time magazine writer and editor. I still write articles in a freelance capacity. For short-form writing (and obviously for copyediting), my Inner Editor is a huge asset. It (she?) helps me quickly turn out polished, professional prose. But writing books is, well, another story.
I worked on my first novel through most of grad school, and because I didn’t really know any other way to write, I approached the drafting process in small chunks. I’d polish and polish each chapter or section, and only when I was completely happy with it would I move on. (The writing workshop structure didn’t help in this regard, since I had to submit 20ish pages every few weeks.) It’s not that I wasn’t making forward progress. I was! I was actually writing a book! But wow, was I drafting slowly. Not to mention the fact that I got to the climactic scene near the end only to realize—whoops!—I didn’t have a bad guy. And this was the kind of book that required a bad guy.
I’d spent so much time on the individual trees that I’d lost track of the forest.
Fast forward a few years (and a few revisions and querying cycles with that manuscript). When I started my next book—which became THE DISTANCE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND—I took a different approach from the get-go. I wanted to draft fast. I wanted a sense of urgency and momentum in the plot from Draft One, even knowing that I’d have holes and character inconsistencies and yeah, probably some terrible sentences and clunky dialogue. I started writing in May 2012 and had a finished draft by the end of July. It was a mess—but I was so proud. (And then the real work began…but that’s another conversation for another post!)
How did I pull it off? A big piece of the puzzle was quieting that Inner Editor that wanted everything to be perfect before I moved on. Here are some Inner Editor–quieting** tactics that worked for me. Maybe they'll work for you!
**Note: “Quiet,” not “kill”—I don’t advocate violence toward your Inner Editor! You need him/her!
READ BACK TO WRITE FORWARD
When drafting, I try to start each writing session by reading over the last few pages I wrote. Reading—not editing. (Or trying not to…) That puts me in the right headspace to move forward. Not only does knowing where I am help me know what I need to write next, rereading what’s there also lets me jump into the voice and writing style more smoothly than if I just sat down and started hammering away at my keyboard. The more “in” the story I am, the less likely I am to get caught up tinkering on the sentence level.
MAKE NOTES, NOT EDITS
Obviously, as you write forward and continue to solidify the plot/characters in your head, you’ll realize that changes need to be made to what you’ve already done. But do you have to make those changes now? Sometimes you do; writing out a new scene to reflect a change can be just what you need to move forward. But in other cases, you can give yourself and your Inner Editor peace of mind by simply going back and adding a note. My early drafts are peppered with comments to deal with later. “Why exactly is she mad at him in this scene?” (I know they have to fight; I’ve written the fight; I’ll figure out the motivation later.) “From this page on, she plays tennis, not soccer.” (I can change all prior mentions of my character being a soccer player in Draft 2.) “Does anyone still use this word?” (My Inner Editor has a friend, the Inner Researcher, who would rather spend hours looking up minutiae online than write the scene with a placeholder.)
What I keep telling myself in this phase is, it’s not that I’m ignoring the problems. I’m acknowledging them, jotting down a detailed reminder or question to myself, and then going back to today’s task: writing forward.
LET IT GO—FOR NOW
This is hard, because this is the mental part of the equation: realizing that it’s okay for your draft to be messy, or inconsistent, or to just plain suck. I don’t like rereading something I wrote, even in a first draft, and feeling like it’s not good. I doubt anyone does. Sometimes it's a struggle to trust that I'll be able to fix problems down the road. So I have to turn to other writers for inspiration:
"IF I WAITED FOR PERFECTION, I WOULD NEVER WRITE A WORD."
"ALMOST ALL GOOD WRITING BEGINS WITH TERRIBLE FIRST EFFORTS.
YOU NEED TO START SOMEWHERE."
"YOU MIGHT NOT WRITE WELL EVERY DAY, BUT YOU CAN ALWAYS EDIT A BAD PAGE.
YOU CAN'T EDIT A BLANK PAGE."
Are you a champion first-drafter? What do you do to keep your Inner Editor at bay? Share your suggestions in the comments!