November 20


How to Embrace the Imperfect First Draft of Your Book

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

November 20, 2018

#authors, #authorskills, #books, #businessbooks, #ebooks, #freewriting, #writers, #Writing, #writingmistakes, #writingskills

It can be hard to get that first draft of your book down. New and wanna-be authors often struggle to complete a first draft. Heck, experienced authors can find it a challenge too. We'll talk about some tips for creating the right environment and setting bite-sized daily goals that will help you get there. But first, I want to address what I believe are the biggest barriers to getting that first draft done: perfectionism run amok and unrealistic expectations.

First Drafts and Perfectionism Run Amok

The first draft of your book is supposed to be imperfect. Embracing and accepting this concept of imperfection will actually help you glue your butt to the chair and keep your fingertips tap-tap-tapping.

A first draft is not a finished book, and it's not supposed to be. It's just the first draft. And no one but you has to read your first draft.

Your book won't appear until you and likely one or two or even three other editorial professionals have worked it through. And that's not because you're a beginner. Every writer starts with a cruddy first draft.

Every writer you know writes really terrible first drafts, but they keep their butt in the chair. That's the secret of life. That's probably the main difference between you and them. They just do it. They do it by prearrangement with themselves. They do it as a debt of honour. - Anne Lamott, American poet and novelist

First Drafts and Unrealistic Expectations

Good writing takes practice. And it takes time. Good writing is almost never produced in the first draft. The first draft of your book is like the skeleton of your eventual book. It's just bones. It provides the frame, the connections, and a shape that helps you see what the finished book might look like.  

You want to know there's a beginning, middle, and end to your story, but even these don't have to feel finished. You want to see that it can deliver on the purpose you've set for your book, especially if you're writing nonfiction.

Think of your first draft as the next step forward from the outline. Now, not all authors start by writing an outline, and that's fine. The concept here is to give yourself permission to let the first draft behave like a more detailed version of an outline. There will be missing pieces. There will be errors, and typos, and gaps in your research. It will be awful, and that's how it is supposed to be. Embrace all this imperfection!

The biggest barriers to getting that first draft done? Perfectionism run amok and unrealistic expectations. #amwriting #keepwriting #iartg #writingskills

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Getting It All Down

It's hard to get it all down. It's hard not to keep editing the previous paragraph, and the previous chapter, and it's hard not to re-read what you wrote yesterday before you start your writing for today. I admit that I succumb to these temptations more often than is good for my productivity. Ugh. 

You must make yourself move forward with your first draft, in whatever way makes sense for you. That might mean writing your story chronologically, start to finish, in the order in which significant events occurred. Or it might mean you take the biggest parts of the story and write those first, then fill in the blanks with the other stuff that you need for the story to make sense. It might mean starting with an outline, and you write what strikes your fancy from that outline every time your butt hits the chair.

Whatever your approach, here are some tricks to help you get to the finish line of your first draft.

Set a Daily Word Count

It doesn't matter what it is. Five hundred, 1500, or 5000 words. But set a daily word count and then stick to it. Religiously. You can figure out what you want your word count to be by estimating how many words your book will be when it's finished, then picking a date when you want the first draft finished, and dividing.

An Example...

The historical based-on-a-true-story fiction I'm in the process of writing is going to end up between sixty and seventy-thousand words. 

  • I'd like the first draft finished six months from now (because I have other personal books on the go, a business to run, other author clients to work with, etcetera). 70,000 divided by 6 = 11,667 words per month. 
  • I'm committing to writing on this project five days per week, so 11,667 divided by 20 (the number of days I'll write per month, which for me is Wednesday through Sunday) and I get 583. 
  • So, on this historical fiction project, I just have to sit down to write five days a week and produce 583 words each of those days in order to hit my target. (I have other nonfiction books in progress and I set similar goals for them, too. So, ya, I will write more than 580 words a day, but it won't all be on one project. Call me crazy.)

You might want to write more, or less, or produce your first draft faster. That's fine, just do your math, set your goals, create your targets and get on with it. Keep the commitment you're making to yourself and your book. Every day.

Set Separate Times to Do Your Research

The problem with lumping research time in with writing time is that it can easily eat up every minute you set aside to get actual writing done. This is true whether you're writing a nonfiction business book, or something like my historical fiction project. A memoir, where you're writing purely from your own experience, isn't quite the same, as most of your material already resides within.

What works for me is to set an hour a day aside for research. On my historical fiction book, for example, I like to get my 583 words down, and then spend one hour conducting the research I'll need for the next day's 583 words. So I always have enough research in hand to complete the day's word count.

However, you can also forgo research altogether until your first draft is done. This is the idea stage, not the detail stage. 

Unplug From the Internet and Turn Off Your Phone

Distraction from dings and desktop alerts and the social media rabbit hole are incompatible with the focus needed to overcome the challenges of the first draft. Specifically of getting it done. You may have the best of intentions, or the most iron-clad focus and determination and willpower, but I promise you leaving those bells and whistles open and your favourite Internet search engine easily accessible is a recipe for not getting sh*t done.

I love Scrivener for its composition mode, which silences all those other alerts and fills your screen with nothing but your work in progress.  If you don't already have and use Scrivener, you can buy it for yourself by clicking this link if you're a Mac user, and this link if you use a PC (windows). We love Scrivener so much that we've become affiliates, which means that you buy using our links, we get a tiny little bit from the proceeds of your purchase. (Thank you!)

Set a Timer

The purpose of this one is two-fold. It honours the body's need for movement and the brain's need for a break. Choose 30-, 40-, or 60-minute intervals. Set your timer, and when it goes off, get up out of your chair, do a couple downward dogs, walk around a bit, shake out those busy fingers, do some shoulder rolls, and get back to writing with a new timer set.

The break only has to be two minutes to be effective. For me, if I break longer than two minutes, I risk getting distracted by something urgent—like putting in a load of laundry or wiping down the blinds—and my writing goals are gone out the window like the dust I've just removed from those blinds.

Don't Self Edit

Don't do it! You'll want to. Oh, you'll want to, badly. But don't. Changing the order of subject and verb in this sentence.... trying a different opening for that chapter... adding a bit more dialogue over here... and POOF, you'll eat up your next 30-minute focus session and you won't have written a new thing at all. There will be lots of time for self-editing, AFTER you've completed your first draft.

Now, get back to your writing! Embrace the imperfect first draft of your book and recognize it for what it is: a big differentiator, setting you apart from all the wanna-be authors out there who can't get their first draft done.

What do you think?

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