Abandon Fear and Perfectionism and Finish That First Draft
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” - Stephen King
Now, you must finish that story. That’s easier said than done. It’s like a Holy Grail to finish that first draft. Once you do, you feel a great sense of accomplishment. You have a raw story to work with!
But fear can prevent you from finishing that draft. Is it good enough? What if no one likes it?
Your perfectionism might get in your way. You keep agonizing over that one sentence. Every sentence needs to be quotable like Oscar Wilde. WRONG.
In this article, I’ll help you get there and finish the first draft of your story.
A Shitty First Draft
“You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft - you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft - you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.” - Anne Lamott
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open,” Stephen King said. You need to do exactly that. Write that first draft just for you. Pretend no one will read it. Ignore your spelling or grammar errors.
I always write like this. And boy my first drafts are shitty. Not necessarily the story or the idea. Coherence is usually an issue, grammar surely too, there’s rusty dialogue, inconsistencies, etc. But that’s ok. The words are out! I’m writing, not doubting. I can rearrange, rewrite and polish later in a second and third draft. Some authors write about seven or more drafts. That’s fine, do what works for you.
Don’t let anyone or anything interfere while you first channel and write down your story. Let it come to you on its own without judgment, without even looking through a particular lens. Be objective. Then, when you’ve finished the first draft of any story, it’s time to put on different glasses and rewrite with an open mind.
For my short stories, I usually do one intense polish that turns my second draft into a decent story. Mind you, there is still much room for improvement. Just accept that. Depending on how shitty that first draft was, I might have another go before I sent it out for people to edit (more on that in a later post).
“When you’re writing a story, you’re telling yourself a story. When you rewrite, you’re taking out all the things that are not the story.” - Stephen King
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. […] Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force. Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground - you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip.” - Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott is right, perfection your enemy when it comes to finishing that first draft. Vonnegut said, "When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth." So go ahead and make mistakes. Don’t look back on what you’ve written. Or at least, don’t try to improve it yet. Produce that rough diamond first and once that’s finished, start carving and polishing.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve made a mess, at least you have something to clean up. Besides, as Lamott says in the above quote, once you write without perfectionism, a certain playfulness comes to the surface. You might surprise yourself in getting those words on paper without judgment, just as they come to you. Use that to your advantage.
The second draft is for editing and improving. Mind you, a “perfect” story doesn’t exist. Strive to be as best as you can be and finish. After all, people read finished stories, not perfect drafts that never see the light of day.
The Threats That Might Prevent You From Finishing
Well, perfection obviously is one of the biggest threats that might prevent you from finishing that first draft. However, there are others.
Closely related to perfectionism is self-editing or polishing up. Successful fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson warns aspiring writers to be careful not to revise along the way and make new versions, because then you may enter a loop. That way you’ll never finish a story. Again, leave editing for the second draft. I did this with a couple of my first short stories. Whenever I started writing, I first read what I’ve written only to keep changing things. It takes a lot of time and it stalled my progress.
Another beast that any writer is familiar with is fear. You might fear that your story is horrible or that your style lacks elegance. You may think that no one will read your story or that people will post hateful comments. Perhaps some of your friends say to stick with your regular job and to let go of your creative aspirations. Fear comes disguised as many different demons. Try to look them in the eye and say: “You know what, I’ll just try and see what happens. What have you done for yourself?”. Add some sass to it and do it.
“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation, Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sort of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad’, is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.” - Stephen King
The last thing I noticed that stood in the way of me finishing a story, were other ideas that came to mind. Ideas for other short stories, my novel or blog posts. Have you ever had that feeling of an idea coming to mind that you just can’t let go of? Same. Pin it and finish first. Make lists of your ideas and structure them. You can always come back to them later. And if you still feel inspired when you get back to that idea, you know what your next project is.
How Do You Get to That First Draft?
The best way to finish that first draft is to develop a writing routine. Make writing a daily habit. Set goals for yourself. Do a bit every day and in a few weeks you’ll be able to finish a story.
Let’s say you commit to writing 300 words a day on a short story. My stories usually average 6,000 words. So that’s one short story every two weeks! That’s good.
Stephen King is very structural when it comes to writing. His schedule is brutal. But hey, you don’t become Stephen King by slacking. He sets himself the goal of writing 2,000 words a day. Every day. That way, he argues, he can finish a 180,000-word book in three months. Just by cramming the story on the pages. Without judgment, with the door closed, only writing for himself.
These goals are ambitious and not manageable for everyone. Most of us don’t have the luxury to write full-time. Set goals that fit your schedule and lifestyle.
By making writing a habit and returning to your story every day, you’ll be able to stick with your plot and characters. If you don’t have a habit and say, write every three to four days, you’ll lose track.
“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.” - Stephen King
This is so true! It happened to me a lot. And it still happens. Because you know what? Sticking to a routine is difficult. But I know it works, and when I’m off track I come back to it. And when I do, I’m able to finish my first drafts quickly and with confidence.
People read stories that are finished. No one reads a story that’s stored on your hard drive and almost perfect.
You have to write for yourself first and get that story out. Make writing a habit. Face your fears and finish anyway. Polishing comes later.
Editing your story into something beautiful (and perhaps close to perfection) is the next step. I’ll come back to editing soon in another post.
Thanks for reading! What helps you to finish that first draft of a story?