This is the follow up post – the second in a #writementor series exploring mental health, particularly anxiety, in the context a writing career or creative life.
In the first post I described my experiences as I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depression (capitals deliberate) just weeks after my debut book was released. This one is more light hearted!
Writing did not cause my illness or ongoing condition (I’m now well and happy but anxious forever), but there are pressure points in a writing career that can exacerbate it.
Today let’s chat about The First Draft.
Ode To First Draft
Oh First Draft
What Art Thou Saying?
Where art thou hiding?
I don’t like the first draft. I love finding new ideas, researching and planning. These are probably the only part of writing that gives me pure joy without angst. But the first draft is the part I personally enjoy the least. My magic does not appear first time round. For me, first draft is like blocking out the moves in the theatre for an amateur dramatics production. No one is dressed right for this rehearsal, it takes far too long and the whole cast is bored and just talking through the lines without expression. Someone didn’t turn up, most people have a hangover, the director has developed a nervous twitch.
I do think part of the reason I struggle with the first draft is to do with the way my mind works, related to anxiety. I don’t simply have the traditional ‘monkey mind’ of racing thoughts: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-empowerment-diary/201709/calming-the-monkey-mind
I have full-scale widescreen 4D cinema planet of the apes scene. Probably one with guns and horses. The sort of flow, immersive creativity required to make up new things from nothing… accentuates it.
Everything is always happening at once in my mind. I find it extremely difficult to practice mindfulness but I still do…often. I look out of the window and see trees, weather, listen to the birds. Nostril breathing. Then back to it. Once I do get into it, I can be super productive. But it’s not easy for me to join the flow.
A stream of consciousness script of me drafting for one hour:
Mindfulness – window, birds, nostril breathing. Now concentrate. Chapter 1. Write first line. No, that wont work, doesn’t matter, never know the first line right away (thoughts about kids, my school work, my mentees, a blog post) checks twitter. Why am I checking twitter? Supporting others is what being an author is - this is work. Retweet good news. Sees authors posting word counts. So much time wasted today already you loser, look at your measly word count compared to those real authors. Should I tweet about doing some writing sprints? No. Write the book. Buy a book I’ve just seen recommended on twitter even though I am a) skint b) have at least 400 books on TBR pile. Give self a shake. Nostril breaths. Block twitter.
Just write. ANGRY WRITES for 20 – 40 minutes. Gets into flow, hunched over keyboard, frantic, stabbing keys, mouthing words, all looks quite painful to any spectator. Grins.
An actual chapter. See – I can do this. Only how many chapters to go?…Oh don’t think on that now you donut. I have an idea for the end! It’s brilliant! Notes it down. And another for that scene in the middle. And a new book, maybe a trilogy, no a series. Is it too different from this book? Are there any books like it out there? Researches. Yay, it’s an original idea! Oh no, original is bad, no-one will buy it. No, original is great! This could be my break-out idea! What would I call my MC? Researches historical names from 1810. Clicks on the name Persephone and researches Greek myths and classicism in the Industrial Revolution…then child labour in textile factories, coal mining, the first oil rigs, climate change…No! This is not even research for this book! Drafting time! Start to reread what’s written. What am I doing? First rule of first draft club, don’t read the first draft until the end. That isn’t even a thing.
Suddenly exhausted. Yoga break.
Sorry – that wasn’t fun was it? And this is probably only the half of it. On and on. For 4 - 6 months.
Good thing about first drafting – I get so many ideas for other books.
My first draft tips for the Anxious Author or any of the monkey-minded crew:
- First draft is for you. Only you. It’s clay, clawed fresh from the ground claggy and stuck to your fingers — someone lend me a spade already? — not even close to being molded. It’s a word spew, it’s mind vomit, it’s the nothing before the big bang. It’s not good, but it’s groundwork. Sprinkle your first draft metaphors liberally. It’s only for you, anyway, so who cares as long as words are on screen. Put words on the screen.
- Set incredibly easy targets. Then make them even easier. Reward yourself for reaching them because maintaining your self-esteem is everything. I think about my WIP every day when I’m first drafting just to keep it ticking. Most writing goes on in the mind anyway. I can’t write every day because I have many other aspects to my life that will immediately rip me from my desk if I even attempt it. Weekly word count goals are good. I try for 3500 in a week. 500 a day. That’s a short MG novel in 10 weeks. I can do this now as I only teach two days a week, I’m very lucky (and skint). Unless I get ill, the kids get ill, someone needs me, birthday season, funeral season, holidays, kids in general etc. That’s why 4 – 6 months is more realistic. Aim for little but achieve it. You will get there.
- Word by word Be proud and accept. You are writing a book and it is supposed to be difficult. You are creating something out of nothing, out of electrical pulses in your unique brain, characters will spring and they will affect readers lives, forever. It is magic. The majority of people – even those that desperately want to, will never achieve this magic. Let this be difficult.
- Comparison is the enemy of contentment. Comparing your progress to others can be motivating but I’ve learned it is generally unhelpful (for me). Some authors take years to write a book. Nanowrimo can be an amazing thing for some But I ‘won’ it in 2016 50K in a month and never even edited that mess of a book because the word count pressure was not ultimately productive – for me.
- Respect your own process I am not fighting the stream of consciousness you see above, even though I would love to bodyslam it, frequently. I do what I can to keep on track, but don’t berate myself any more. That process produces books I’m proud of — eventually —it’s not my favourite part but I go with it. Means to an end, it gets me to rewrites and edits where my personal magic happens.
- It does not matter how you do it. Ignore all advice that stops you writing. Everything can and will change in edits anyway. Just get it done, little by little.
- Consider cutting caffeine a little Controversial! Ignore at will. As you can see from the above – I personally don’t need stimulation. Caffeine affects my sleep and then I get more frantic and the monkeys have a rave. I used to survive on it but now drink good quality decaff then herbal tea and tons of water. It really helps with my focus. The withdrawal headaches pass quickly. I only mention as it made a huge difference to me.
- Save your work. In two different places daily with a different date on each one – one a reliable cloud storage. Email to yourself weekly or more often. Trust me on this. Paranoia is fine in this instance. You do not want to lose a word of this hard won-word spew.
Would love to hear your first draft tips. And if you just love to first draft, it all flows well, and you can easily concentrate…I hate you. Not really.
P.S. I couldn’t write at all when I was very ill. I needed help first. Please reach out, talk (to anyone) if your thoughts and feelings make your life difficult. There is help out there I promise you.
I started here:
Lindsay’s first book The Secret Deep came out in the UK in 2018 and the next is to be published in early 2020. She writes YA, MG and has adult and younger fiction works in progress. She reads in all genres and loves to edit, she is an experienced mentor plus a critique partner of published authors.
Lindsay came late to writing, self-taught, after a career teaching which is now part time. She is a slush-pile (talent pool!) conqueror who came from nowhere and had no contacts and – although it took a while – had the first ever book she wrote published by the excellent Chicken House.
An experienced teacher, Lindsay’s workshop style is upbeat, constructive and focuses on the practical. She is sensitive to those at different stages of their writing journeys and the courage it takes to share work. Her workshops have a positive supportive atmosphere, intended to empower writers. All questions are welcome.
She is also leading weekend workshops in Brighton.
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