What I Learned from Finishing a First Draft

I did it. I wrote a book. Granted, it’s more of a novella in size, and granted, I haven’t published it. It’s barely readable as it is: rushed and fairly two dimensional. BUT I finished it, and in two months to boot.

What started out as a fanfiction with less than a chapter turned into a detective novel I wrote and printed up as a Christmas gift for my mom. Like I said, it’s barely readable, but my mom was still impressed. She saw my name on the cover and said “is this a prank?”

The act of finishing a book is a powerful thing. So here’s what I learned from writing a book, start to finish.

1. Once you do it, you know you can do it again.

It’s such a small thing, but even if what you wrote sucks, you know you can sit down and get out all the junk in your head down onto paper (or screen). While it doesn’t make the work of editing or making future first drafts easier, it does make it seem more realistic and concrete. It’s doable.

And you realize that most of what got you to that last page is sheer willpower that trudged along with disgust and just enough motivation (in whatever form) and inspiration to go along with you to the end. Which leads to the next point.

2. You’ve just got to get it out

Despite the fact you might hate what you’re writing and feel completely bored (which can be a guide to spice things up if you’re not just so tired of writing it that you simply can’t muster the enthusiasm), just do it. Just write everything that comes.

Easier said than done.

One of my favorite writing coach bloggers, Kristen Lamb, distinguishes two brains when we write: the Spock Brain and the Kirk Brain (for all those Star Trek fans out there).

Spock Brain is all about rules and perfection. Kirk Brain is all about going in with guns blasting and not looking back. She says when we write a first draft, Spock brain needs to go into the closet. We need to let Kirk do his thing and let Spock clean up later. To quote Lamb:

“Captain Kirk Brain can do its job better—write fiction—when Spock Brain isn’t there saying, ‘But Captain, you’re being illogical. It clearly states in Strunk & White….’

The BEST line in the last Star Trek movie was when Khan says to Spock, “You can’t even break rules, how can you expect to break bones?” So, I’m going to apply this to writing.”

3. First drafts are terrible, and you can tell when you’re writing it

Like I said, disgust at your own work creeps in. If not disgust, at least dissatisfaction. If that doesn’t happen to you and you love your work as you’re writing it, honestly, I’m jealous. I don’t know if that’s the norm or if I’m the norm. I can only speak from my experience.

One of the most comforting things I ever heard in this regard came from a post I found on Pinterest and later found the attribution:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
–Ira Glass

When I saw this, I felt so much relief. Sure, the stuff I just threw up on the page might stink. But the fact that I know and can identify what sucks means I have taste! At least, that’s how this quote allowed me to comfort myself.

4. It really feels like you’re exercising

You start out strong, and maybe you even last awhile before you’re struggling and just barely make it over the finish line. Those last few chapters for me were so rushed, and the word count reflects that (as does the general charm of the characters and narration).

It’s just like when I try to run. I don’t do it consistently, so every time I do, it’s a lot of stopping and to be honest mostly walking with a lot of huffing and puffing.

That’s just for one random run. I once did a 5k with my older brother for Thanksgiving. Just a dinky one in the community where he and his wife lived at the time. I hadn’t been running, and it was cold and terrible and I walked a lot. But I finished, exhausted, sweaty and stinky. And it felt so good to have done it.

The struggle is very much the same for me with writing. Though to be honest, the dissatisfaction with the quality of the first draft largely overshadows the satisfaction of having finished.

But taking every small victory is also an important mind habit to learn. That’s another life lesson altogether.

5. When you finish, you know you still have a long way to go

You’ve reached the last page and typed the last stroke. Captain Kirk is putting his guns away for a cup of coffee. But he can see Spock peaking at him from the closet. The work isn’t finished. Far from it. There’s a lot of cleanup to be done. Polishing. Additions. Maybe even complete overhauls and rewrites.

But it’s something to work with, and that’s a good place to be.

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