|photo: Tim Walker|
So I got this great question in an email, and it felt so universal to me that I thought I'd answer it here. It's been a while since I posted about writing. Here you go!
My question is this: how do you keep going when you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing?
I’m working on the second draft of a MG novel I just finished. I loved writing the first draft – as difficult as it was to do – but now, everything I do seems wrong. The writing seems terrible to me and I can’t figure out how to get it right. I feel like I’ve lost my character’s voice and I suddenly have absolutely no idea what in the world I’m doing.
I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about what to do when writing the first draft, and most of the advice is along the lines of “Don’t worry about the quality of the first draft, it’s meant to be crap, and you can always fix it later!” But I hardly see any good advice on how to “fix it later.” What do you do when the manuscript you spent a year or more of your life on seems like a putrid mess… but you can’t give up on it? What do you do when you feel as though you can’t ever make your piece as good as you want it to be?
So, in essence: what do you do when you’re hopeless?
I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling hopeless. Please know that you are not alone! Let’s focus on the positive: you finished a draft! That’s HUGE. So many would-be writers never make it that far. I really think that finishing is the hardest part, especially the first time. If you have it in you to finish a draft, I think you’re going to be okay.
So, what to do now??
First, I need to tell you: for me, first drafts are 90% misery, 10% blinding joy. 90/10. So I can’t relate to your loving writing the first draft. If only! And yes, the prevailing advice on first drafts is indeed: don’t worry about quality. Just get the story down, then make it better.
Doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it. I keep trying it because it sounds great! Even on my current book, my eighth, I made a plan that sort of involved a fast first draft. I haven’t been able to stick with it. (Well, I did once. For NaNoWriMo years ago I forced myself to write and finish a fast first draft and the exercise murdered all interest I had in that book.)
Fast first drafts don’t fit my brain. It’s like trying to shove an American plug into a European outlet or something. Like: you can try to force it, but nothing good will come of it, and you might even hurt yourself. I need to love every chapter before I can move on. As soon as I sense that something’s gone wrong, I need to fix it. It can feel crazy slow, but the result for me is that my “first drafts” are much closer to a finished draft, and the revision process is the great, fun work of taking something you love and making it stronger, versus the hard, daunting work of turning a “putrid mess,” to use your words, into a book.
I’m not saying that you should work the way I do. If you really loved writing your fast first draft, that may indeed be the right method for you, and your second drafts will be the place, maybe, where you’re 90/10 misery/joy. It just might be that way. As much as I would love it if writing were a generally fun and delightful pursuit, for me it mostly isn’t. I’m sorry to say it. The 10% is really, really great though, and the satisfaction of the finished book makes up for everything. So if any of your hopelessness is predicated on the idea that it’s supposed to be easier and more fun, dispel that. For some of us, it’s just not. But it’s still worth it.
This still doesn’t tell you what to do. I can’t really tell you that. A fast first drafter might have tips for you on how to tackle those kinds of revisions. But it sounds to me like you could use a break from this manuscript. Put it away for a while. Write something else. If this sounds defeatist, it isn’t. I always advocate putting a first draft away if you can possibly can, to give yourself distance and be able to come back to it with a fresh perspective.
Also, you know what happened when I put that NaNo draft in a drawer and wrote something else? Daughter of Smoke & Bone.
So yay! I mean, I had a good outcome because I ended up writing a book I was passionate about and that was successful, but the crucial thing is this: beginning something new revived my passion for writing. Morale was really low after that NaNo draft (my “ballerinas in space” book!). Writing felt like such a chore. I could no more have tried to revise that thing than…[insert terrible unpleasant labor here, something involving outhouses maybe]. So I set myself the challenge of writing something new and fun, to try to fall in love with writing again. On my blog at the time I called it the “new, weird thing.” It worked. That book brought me joy. It wasn’t 90/10, even. Maybe more like 50/50. I wish it was always like that!
—Put your draft away for a while. Maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months.
—Write something for fun. A short story maybe. Or a new novel. What do you have to lose?
—Go back and look at your draft later. Read it like somebody else wrote it. What’s working? What do you love? When writing a second draft from a messy first draft, you may end up picking out the good things and starting mostly from scratch, versus “revising” what you have. That sounds hard and horrible, but it’s also freeing. Revising is the opportunity to make something more awesome. Embrace it.
You can do this. Just keep going. Figure out what works for you. If it feels like it’s harder than it should be, don’t despair. Adjust expectations and keep working. Consider finding a critique partner or group. Joining an organization like SCBWI can help you build a community (and if you possibly can, go to their conferences!)