First Drafts

writer's notes

The previous post about blogging received a record level of traffic and an unprecedented response, given this blog’s short life span, so I’ll come back to it and write more on the topic soon. It is clearly a subject that people feel strongly about and I had not realised the level of passion and dedication behind so many blogs.

First drafts is the issue I’d like to tackle today.  I am in the stage of the first draft of my next novel and I have been thinking about the changes through each stage of writing up to final publication. There is something unique about a first draft; a freshness, an expectation, a certain level of hope.

The first draft is the place of mountain peaks and valleys, it is the place of the Eureka moments and the what ifs, it is the place of ‘first thought’ excitement and of apprehension, the place of originality and of doubt.

In writing your book for the first time, before you go through rounds of editing and rewrites ad infinitum, there is an enthusiasm about where you will take the reader, in fleshing out your characters and plot, in travelling to new places. There is also an apprehension surrounding your words; questions, doubts, fears. Will I be able to keep up the tension and the pace? Will people want to read it? Will I be able to finish it? Is it going to be too long/short? Did I choose the wrong topic/genre/setting? Do the scenes link up? Is there enough cohesion and consistency?

There are endless questions that seek to counter balance the moments where you get lost in the the sentences, your fingers running away with themselves, tapping furiously at the keyboard and you forget to eat.

What is it about first drafts that make them so enticing, yet so difficult to wrestle with? Give an artist a blank canvas and paints, give a singer a microphone and close them in to a sound proof recording studio, give a dancer a stage and a preview audience. There will always be fears surrounding your ability, your audience’s reaction, the longevity of your career (if you are thinking long-term). All art forms are highly subjective, creating a range of responses. I recently scanned some well promoted and popular books, only to find a great and confusing diversity of reviews. This, I think, reflects the fact that no two people will love the same books, music or art. Although there are varying levels of skill among writers, the result, as the publishing industry well knows, can be unpredictable.

How, then, do you wrestle with the first draft to produce your best work? I have struggled with nagging thoughts of what people will think when they read it, much more so now than with any of my short stories or my first novel. I think it is partly down to the fact that there is more pressure with each book that you write to make it better than the last, to keep up reader interest, and to prove that you want to be able to keep writing. There are several people in publishing who are waiting to read my current novel and, whilst it is encouraging, it is also nerve-wracking. When I self-published my previous novel I had complete control over the process and the outsourcing; the deadlines, the cover design, the editing, and it felt safe in many ways. Now I feel a sense of pressure and, sometimes, of impending doom. I have felt paralysed by the need for the first draft to be perfect and to be commercially viable. The truth is no first draft will ever be perfect and nobody can predict what will sell.  Whilst I have been surprised by the sales of my first book, I am under no illusions about the state of flux in which different types of books remain.

My response  to these doubts when they creep up on me, as they always will, is to write as though noone will read it. That’s it. It’s really that simple. Write your book without wondering how good it will be or if it will sell. Imagine that it will never be read and write it for yourself. You do need to be aware of your audience when planning, but I have found that since I made the decision to stop thinking about reader response and beyond, I have moved from writing around 500-800 words a day to up to  2,000 or 3,000. I know it won’t happen every day but it is liberating and freeing. So, here’s to days of carefree writing before you apply a scalpel to the parts that you won’t need, before you carve and sculpt your work. Here’s to writing for the love of writing.

Photo credit: A Leonardo da Vinci notebook with diagram of a potter’s wheel, c. 1508-1509. Flavorwire


  1. Vicky Newham says:

    What an interesting topic. I’ve just read and commented on Rebecca Bradley’s post about writing her second book, and you’re discussing your feelings and experience around the first draft of your second book. I know the situations are different but it reminds me how much anxiety there is in writing, and how much pressure we put on ourselves. Then self-doubt creeps in. You have much more experience in writing than me but I can imagine the pressure that you might feel when your first book, and stories, have done so well. And knowing that people are keen to see your second one is scary. It’s judgement time. But – both things can also give you confidence, no? It’s all part of the process. You’ve done it before so you can do it again. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising.

    As for first drafts themselves, I love them. It’s such an exciting stage of the writing process. However, like everyone, I’m sure, I find myself going off on tangents and into cul-de-sacs! This seems to happen regardless of how much I plot. I like the idea of not self-censoring when writing a first draft, and perfectionism is a real hindrance to first drafts. That said, I don’t have a huge amount of experience from which to comment. I’m writing the first draft of my second novel now. I’ve had to forget the first one temporarily, until I can get formal, professional feedback on it. I guess I have the worry that I might be repeating mistakes from book 1. I don’t have the pressure of a successful first novel hanging over me, but I do have other pressures. You’ve said above that your feelings fluctuate, and mine do too. But I think that’s entirely natural. We just have to be kind to ourselves – and each other – when they do! (In my opinion!)


    1. fcmalby says:

      Wise advice. I think writers generally all have fluctuating feelings surrounding their work. Self-doubt will obviously creep in when you know your work will eventually reach the public. I have been surprised by the response and encouragement of my first novel and, as you say, it gives you the confidence to keep going. It’s all a process and your write naturally evolves. I can see developments already in my writing as I put pen to paper, or fingers to the keys, with this one. The cul-de-sacs will happen regardless of how well you plan your mind will always wander off track. It is like a long walk: you know the destination, but the journey is variable with different choices of route, scenery and mood. Wishing you all the best with your first novel, Vicky. It’s a very exciting time!


  2. Hi, my first draft is done and I seem each day to go through peaks and troughs with it. I can easily feel positive first thing in the morning only to feel negative about it in the evening. Keeping in touch with friends and family and promising that you won’t talk about the book too much with them, helps. I think the publishing side of things is the hardest part, I know that it is incredibly hard for a completely new writer to get published. That’s part of the reason why I’m going to use an indie publisher. I wouldn’t cope well with years of rejection. At least when I write my next book, I’ll have learnt more, and the next book after that etc.


    1. fcmalby says:

      You learn so much and it’s important to just keep going. I don’t tend to talk to friends and family about writing. Keeping in contact with other writers online is a great support. The rejection process can be long and arduous. I decided to avoid it and have had a great experience with self-publishing. It’s hard work but really rewarding. Your feelings about your own writing do vary and I think, for writers, this is often the case. It is good to keep challenging yourself to move forwards.


  3. Well said! I always had a hard time shutting out the readership during my writing, because I’d grown from posting fanfiction online and there was an unavoidably large audience base. Although I loved it, I would feel that pressure sometimes, knowing that I couldn’t take what I wrote back once it was out. Perfection just has no place in first drafts. I’ll remember your advice as I continue wrestling with chapters. Rather than just write for myself, I think I’ll also think of writing this for one of my friends, the first person to listen to me talk about my novel 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. fcmalby says:

      Fanfiction is a whole different issue. I can imagine the pressure. The thought of not being able to take back what you have written, in blog posts as well as in books, is difficult to reconcile. Perfection should not come in to first drafts but it’s amazing how much pressure you can put yourself under. Have fun with your chapters.


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