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first draft jitters and driving at night


You put together a step sheet.

Perhaps you used tools to help organize your characters and plot [1].

You wrote key scenes to see if it flew. Maybe even a short story or two.


You read: other works that did what you wanted to do. Authors who influence you.

You kept it fluid but did enough ‘real-time editing’ so it didn’t turn into some formless sprawl.

Even so, as you get to where the end of that first draft might be in sight, it all starts to feel, well, just a little bit daunting. And improbable. It’s gotten away from you. Then, in a moment of darkness, you think: what the hell am I doing?

What was I thinking?

That sense of story that you felt so strongly before, that you were so sure of, that instinct, is nowhere to be found. Gone.


It’s all a part of the process.

Make a note in your manuscript and move on. (I use three asterisks *** and something like ‘Fred needs more nuancing’, ‘cut this scene?’), hit ‘ctrl-enter’ and keep going.

E L Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And the second time around, you have a much better idea where you’re going. You can eliminate some of those unnecessary side trips. And run a few stop signs.

I’m a software developer by day and one of the modern rules of programming is ‘iteration’. Don’t try to do it all at once. Get something down that kind of does what you want it to. Then fix it. Or get rid of it. Or redo it. Then build upon it. Iterate. People think I’m crazy when I say that writing fiction is a lot like writing code but both have much in common. Both are creative processes. And both can be iterated until you have something that works.

“With every book, around two-thirds of the way through the first draft, absolute panic sets in.”

I would love to know the source of that quote. Sounds like another Doctorow. But Google failed me. It’s a great quote, all the same:

With every book, around two-thirds of the way through the first draft, absolute panic sets in.

That means I’m right on track.

If you’re jittery towards the end of that first draft, then you probably are as well.

¡viva los autores! 

[1] This time around I used yWriter5  – freeware that helps you flesh out characters, organize locations, scenes and details. People poo-poo these tools but I found it pretty nice to have quotes, songs and memories that apply to a particular character, their ‘below the iceberg’ info, right at hand. (back to post)