Vision 80


How to Fight First Draft Blues


S.E. Batt

Copyright © 2015, S.E. Batt, All Rights Reserved


With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) coming around the corner, many a writer will be looking forwards to the thirty days of novel-making madness. Among them with be a few new faces who want to try out the wild world of writing a novel-length piece of work in the space of a month.

One element of novel writing -- which new writers get a crash course in when they partake in NaNoWriMo – is self-doubt over the quality of your writing. Given that you’re squeezing the creative side of your mind for all of the juices within for thirty days, it can take a toll on you. The thoughts begin to creep up in the minds of those who’ve never done this before; am I writing a story here? Or is this all just absolute garbage?

If you find yourself feeling this way during NaNoWriMo, the first thing to realise is that you’re not alone. Many writers – including those who have made millions with their work – will attest that the First Draft Blues are very real, and affect everyone from the novice to the master. But realising that you’re not alone won’t help you cross that 50,000 word goal line during November, will it? What you need is some advice as to how to go about fighting it.

Unfortunately – as is a repeating element when it comes to fiction writing, you’ll soon discover – how you go about fighting this monster is very dependent on what kind of writer you are. Also unfortunately, you have to actually write to figure out what kind of writer you are. You may have a vague idea as to how you operate optimally beforehand, but nothing brings out your true colours like writing 1,666 words every single day for a whole month.

So let’s picture the scene. You’ve gotten a few thousand, maybe even ten-thousand, words under your belt. For some reason, the story that you loved so much yesterday has become a mound of unrecognisable, irredeemable mud in front of your eyes. You feel like giving up, but we both know that surrender is not an option. What do you do?

Here are your choices: either go back and edit the story, or don’t touch it at all.

Which one is right for you? You have to work that one out for yourself. Perhaps the most direct way of learning this is to leave the problematic area alone and keep writing. How far into the story do you get before your mind starts screaming bloody murder about the atrocious scene you’ve just left behind? Does it even faze you? Could you quite happily continue the story with knowledge of said scene and not worry about it?

Thankfully, there are paths you can take depending on which camp you fall into. Here’s some ways of shaking off those first draft blues and getting back on point.

Edit Before Continuing

You can’t do it. No matter how hard you try, the offending part of a story jumps in the way of any forward progress you’re trying to make, and demands to be fixed before you continue. If you want to finish this story, you’re going to have to banish this demon first. So, how do you manage this while keeping on top of 1,666 words a day?

The first method is more direct – set aside some time every day to go back and fix problem spots. Once you’ve sweated out your daily word count, take a break and come back to the particularly nasty spots which jabbed you in the side during writing. Take a moment to think about why, exactly, you have a problem with these areas, and then take the steps accordingly to fix it up. Perhaps write seven days-worth of fiction in six days, and then leave the seventh day as a ‘clean-up’ day, where you go through the work you’ve written over the week and tweak the spots that need it.

Here’s another idea. You’ll probably find yourself returning to previous scenes before settling down to write, to remind yourself as to where (or even who!) the characters are, what they’re doing at this current time, and what the best course of action is for the next session of writing. Why not use this time to edit, as well? Adopt a more cyclic approach to your editing by spending the first part of your day reading over what you wrote the day before. Take this time to remind yourself where the hell the story is going (because trust me; this gets lost much easier than you think), but also don’t be afraid to reach in and change the parts that need some TLC. Then, knowing the scenes you’ve written are nice and tidy, you can continue writing in peace.

In either case, you probably notice that the advice being given separates the editing part of the process from the writing part. Generally, stopping your writing momentum to go back and change a piece of your prose can end up really tangling up your mind, blocking the flow needed to get the 1,666 words done. It’s ideal to get your word count sorted no matter the cost – once that’s out of the way, then you can go back and solve the little troubles within the prose. Otherwise, you might end up jamming on the first 100 words of the day and have some catching up to do tomorrow.

Continue Without Editing

Some people, however, don’t need to go back and edit a story in order to keep writing. If you feel this is more your style, here’s some tips to get the most out of your NaNoWriMo time.

One of the key elements you need to keep in mind is that a bad scene is just that – a bad scene. It is a single bad egg in a box full of perfectly good ones, the bad student in a class of hard workers. Try not to let a single bad scene bring the rest of your story down. If you can, try to imagine your story not as a single continuous flow, but as several points on a timeline where each point is a scene. If poison gets into a water flow, it tends to mess up the rest; if a single point on a timeline doesn’t read well, however, it just affects that point. If a scene isn’t as funny, shocking, dramatic, revealing, or heart-warming as you intended, lock that scene up in its own little box and keep going as if it were the best scene you’ve ever thought of. In short, keep it modular; accuse a single module of going bad, instead of a whole story.

Just because you can power on with a story, doesn’t mean the internal critic is going to shut up. You’ll have thoughts about bad scenes, that it’s not how you wanted it. It tends to not fall silent until you’ve noticed it, so here’s something you can do; if you notice that you really dislike something in your story, make note of it for later and continue writing. For myself, I have a separate note file for each story where I write down all the issues I have for each scene, and save it for the editing process. If I have a problem with a specific line but not sure how to fix it, I use my word processor’s highlighting tool to flag it for my editing phase, and continue writing.

What you have to realise is, with this method of writing, you’re not currently writing the prose that will be seen in the final product. You know how artists, when they draw something, they tend to have a rough sketch done first? If you’ve ever seen one of those time-lapse videos which shows an artist working on a picture, you’ll probably see that the rough sketch shifts around a lot as the picture reaches its final form. You’ll be doing a similar exercise with your own fiction, where you’ll work out a ‘base sketch’ for your story and then add to it later on. This ‘later on’ part is known as editing. You’ll get real familiar with that later.

Your goal isn’t to write a publishable, award-winning story. Your goal isn’t even to write a readable story. Your goal at this moment is to write a story. Start it off, go through all the scenes that you want to, write the ending, and finish it off. It’ll read like garbage, characters will spontaneously appear and vanish throughout the story, and your plot doesn’t quite know where it is – but it’s done. And finishing a story is the hard part. All that’s left is to do the edit passes to tidy it up and make it presentable.


When people approach the topic of editing, people usually have conflicting opinions. People will say that failure to edit as you write will simply mean more editing to do later on. Others will state that if they had to edit as they write, they’d probably fail to make it through the first draft; at which point, how much they’d have to edit later on becomes moot. Whichever camp you’re in, make sure to blast through the first draft blues, either by strategic editing to keep the story on track, or by locking up the problematic parts, making a note of what went wrong, then powering on to the final goal.

Regardless of what route you take, remember; NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun. It’s not something you need to remind yourself on the first week, but when you’re twenty days into the event and wondering why on earth you do these things to yourself, it’s good to remind yourself that there are others out there in the same boat as you, trying to get as much enjoyment out of self-imposed insanity as possible. Why not catch up on the NaNoWriMo forums, chatrooms, or local meetups in your area, and find other people who you can relate with? Who knows – you might find someone who hits the same brand of wine as you when the going gets tough.

And don’t forget; National Novel Editing Month is in March!