Just Let It Happen

Some days I think writers are the most anxiety-ridden bunch of people out there. And we seem to do everything in our capacity to remain that way. In some ways, it’s astounding to watch, but in others, well, it makes me a bit sad. And trust me, I’m no exception. I doubt I’ll ever stop, but I think I’d like to learn to be less harsh. The world out there, including the nature of the publishing business, is more than willing to be hard on us. Maybe we need to give ourselves a bit more understanding.

This post is about judging, but not other people. It’s about the way we judge ourselves. No, it’s not quite the same as my post about doing writing right. I’m talking about judging ourselves internally, and our work. Yes, I know, we’re trying to make our work the best it can be, but there’s a point where it becomes self abuse and makes us miserable. I’m learning that the key to editing is staying on the right side of that line. I should point out here that I’m bad at that. You don’t even want to see the little “love notes” I’ve left myself on first drafts. A few were definitely offensive. I’m working on this.

But editing aside, I’ve seen people do that when they’re writing the first draft, the harsh self-judgement I mentioned. The thing about running all the sprints I’ve been doing lately is that I’ve met a number of new people and seen a lot of comments from them about their writing in process. Often, it’s in a negative light, or at least not positive.

I see people judging the story while they’re still exploring it and getting it all down. They say they wrote X words, but that those words suck, or that the story sucks, or their characters suck. There are variations on these. I’ve seen plenty. But in the end, they come down to the same thing. What I’m in the middle of writing sucks.

I’m going to come right out and remind you of something you probably already know. When you finish writing that first draft, you’re generally supposed to stick it in a drawer (or folder on your computer, for the modern age) and not look at it for a while. That length of time varies based on what works for you, but you need to walk away for a while in order to gain perspective. Yes, there are some people who actually start editing the moment they finish the draft. I’ve met few who that works well for though.

Now, I hope you see where I’m going with this, but in case you don’t, I’ll ask you the question. If you need time after writing a draft to gain the needed perspective, why would you think you have it while you’re writing it? Trust me, you don’t. I doubt anyone ever does, and I’m definitely including me in the don’t-have-it list.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen a friend on Twitter come back to a manuscript she finished a while ago. When she was writing the last several chapters, I vividly remember her insisting that it was a heap of garbage (not her words, as I think hers were less polite). I didn’t believe it at the time, partly because I know her. After a while away, she reread the manuscript that resulted and found it wasn’t as bad as she thought. I know this because she tweeted this feeling. I was jumping for joy when I read it.

I’m glad she finished the manuscript, and that she’s feeling better about it. I’ve seen others go through the same thing many times. However, watching this has led me to wonder how many of us might enjoy writing a little more (and maybe even get more of it done) if we would stop judging the book before it’s written. We might feel free enough to just get it down and see what’s there later, if we’d focus on the one important aspect, that first part.

I want everyone to think about this, about what you expect from your first drafts and whether those expectations are reasonable. Also, whether those expectations are getting in your way. If you can get a handle on this, you might be better able to remember while drafting what it is you love about writing. It’ll keep you going.

I’m not saying you don’t try to make the first draft decent. I’m saying that we need to remember what the purpose of the first draft is. It’s not like it’s the only one you’ll ever do for that manuscript. Remember that you’re among the trees when you’re writing the first draft. You can’t see the forest, and you won’t until you come out the other side. Do yourself a favor and just keep walking, even if you think you’re lost and will never get out. You will and the result of the journey might just pleasantly surprise you. Trust me.

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About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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20 Responses to Just Let It Happen

  1. quix689 says:

    Great advice, as always. This is definitely something that I need to keep in mind. You’re absolutely right that we’re not good judges while we write. I just need to keep pushing forward until this draft is done.

    • Julie says:

      Thank you. I honestly think this is why sprinting works so well, for me at least. There’s no time to judge. You’re supposed to just plunge forward. πŸ™‚

  2. Thank you! I always feel awful when I see someone hating on their first draft. It’s a FIRST DRAFT! It’s the starting point, not the finished product! Editing is where the actual magic happens. Until you finish that draft, though, you don’t have anything to edit! You can’t perfect and hone blank pages, the words have to come from somewhere. Oftentimes for me they come from wibbledyville, where grammar hasn’t caught on yet. I’ll see my horrible sentence construction, and cringe. As long as it conveys my idea to some degree, I’ll leave it. I know when I go back to polish, I’ll cringe again, but then I’ll have time and the proper focus to fix it, instead of grinding my drafting to a screeching halt over it. It was SO FREAKING HARD to let myself move on and not fix everything until the story was all out on paper. I do edit a little as I go along, but I leave the nitpicky things like this for another day.

    • Julie says:

      Lol, where grammar hasn’t caught on. I love it!

      But you’re absolutely right. I’d also add that when you do the first round of edits, you may be cutting plenty of what you wrote in first draft as ideas change or implementation gets reworked. Don’t worry about pretty language in that first draft. You’re not doing yourself any favors by focusing on that so early in the polishing process.

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    Guilty as charged. Great advice that I need to take. πŸ™‚

    • Julie says:

      I think a lot of us have been guilty of this from time to time. I used to be very bad about it. I still watch myself for signs of backsliding.

  4. 4amWriter says:

    I have to say I never really criticized my first drafts. It’s when I rewrite something till it’s done to death that I start hanging myself. When I just can’t get it right, no matter how many times I try. That’s the moment when I get frustrated and wonder who the heck do I think I am.

    • Julie says:

      Ah, yes, I run into something like that, where I’m not sure if I’m changing things just to change them or am actually improving. That’s when I send it off to test readers, because I’ve clearly lost perspective. πŸ™‚

  5. Celtic Forest Dweller says:

    I LOVE the forest analogy. That is so awesome and true and I never thought of it like that.

    You know, you should go back through your posts and collect all your writerly advice and stick it together in a book on writing. I have seen so many good thoughts about writing on here, better than many writing books I’ve read. Seriously. (not that you need another project… *cough*) How do you get it all figured out? Perhaps it’s because you write at such an excelled speed–if you don’t learn quickly you’re doomed?
    πŸ˜›

    • Julie says:

      You know, there’s something ironic about you liking a forest analogy, but I just can’t put my finger on it. πŸ˜‰

      I’d say all the thoughts are more because I’ve made many mistakes on the path to now. I know they happen and will continue to happen though, and so I try to learn, that way I can redeem the mistake. Also, I’ve always been the sort who watches people around her and tries to learn all I can from what they do right and wrong. Also, keep in mind that at almost 35, I’ve lived through a fair number of things. Years will do that to you. πŸ˜‰

      I’ll think about the idea of collecting the posts I’ve made about writing, but there aren’t that many of them. And if they’re different (not sure about better, but thank you), maybe it’s because I rarely talk or give advice about writing in any technical senses. Those posts are usually more about not making yourself crazy and finding your own path. I don’t even feel qualified to tell people how to write beyond that.

      • Celtic Forest Dweller says:

        Okay, so I’m obsessed with forests (and roads). No judging. πŸ˜›

        And you know, that’s what I like so much about what you say. Most of the books on writing I’ve read, the authors see to act as though they know all about writing and like it’s THE way to do it, when some of them don’t even seem to have much experience in writing. You have a TON of writing experience and yet you’re also humble enough to realize that you don’t know everything. Which makes me far more likely to believe in/try out some of your suggestions. Also, I wasn’t exclusively referring to your posts specifically about writing — a lot of times you slip little things you’ve learned into your regular posts, and those can be enormously helpful as well. I just wish I’d been keeping track so I could remember them all. πŸ˜‰

        • Julie says:

          Not judging, though I might be giggling a bit. And I love forests too, which might be why I love that analogy so much.

          You have no idea how hard I blushed when I read this comment… If I have a lot of experience, it’s only because I have made a ton of mistakes. I guess I like to offer my insights when I learn from those mistakes in hopes someone else won’t have to make them. I’ll keep the idea in mind. I mean, I have all the old posts on here still. Hmm, mb something to do if I need to totally switch gears some day for a short while.

          • Celtic Forest Dweller says:

            Yes, you do that. Only if you need to switch gears. The last thing I want to do is rope you into another project when you have so many going!
            Also, question: what’s the “newsletter” subscriby thing on the side??

          • Julie says:

            Oh, you saw that. It’s something I wanted to try out, as a method for announcing stuff, maybe send out the occasional short story or something. I haven’t quite decided yet, which is why I haven’t made any sort of announcement. Can’t sneak anything by you, can I? πŸ˜‰

  6. dex says:

    Well said, and something I needed to hear. Thanks.

  7. Pete Denton says:

    Great post, Julie. I like to leave my first draft a few months before I give it the first read and often it does surprise me in not being as bad as I expected it to be πŸ™‚

    Over the last 18 months, I’ve learnt to keep going and finish the draft, leave it and then go back to it and see what else needs doing. Hopefully, one day, I’ll finish something!

    • Julie says:

      You will finish. I have faith. It’s a process. One of the hard parts is knowing when it’s time to stop revising a piece. It’s easy to go on forever with that.

      • Pete Denton says:

        I am determined to finish this draft. I have my beta readers lined up and have even started to seek out some cover designers.

        The A to Z Challenge has delayed me this month, but I’m 80% through this draft and I do need to stop tinkering then and let someone else read it and tell me what they think. Scary πŸ™‚

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