What to do when the fire of your first draft has gone out

January 23, 2015 | By | 21 Replies More

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”  -William Goldman, Princess Bride

You know the feeling.

sallywolfe2The words come tumbling out, fast and sure, faster than you can write or type. You feel the passion and power of your voice. The rock-bottom certainty of your insights. The current is strong and it’s all making sense at last! When you’re spent, you’ve got a thousand, maybe 1500 words on the page. And there’s this triumphant feeling that you’ve finally nailed it.

You transcribe it. You read it over. The feeling is still there, though not as strong. You see the sentences that will work, the ones that won’t. Yes, of course, you’ll need to change the structure a bit, develop a point here and there. No problem, you think.

You begin revising. This is the danger point. Why?

Because the fire of the first draft has gone out and you’re no longer held aloft on wings of inspiration. You may even doubt that the inspiration ever happened! You’re a creature of earth again, crawling around on the ground.

The Demon Enters

Girl-with-an-FThis is where judgment, aka Self-Doubt, takes its cue. Waving its red pen, it swoops down and slashes across your cherished pages, all the while telling you how boring or irrelevant or just plain bad your work is. You are tempted to believe this voice for two very good reasons:

  • The feeling of being enamored has passed.
  • The flaws, the holes, the lack of logic—the Chaos—is all too apparent.

The hard fact to face is that the inspiration you felt while writing isn’t necessarily there on the page now. Or it got transferred in bits and unrecognizable pieces that aren’t making the sense you were so confident in while you were in the flow. It doesn’t mean the raw gold isn’t there, but it still has to be mined, fired, and shaped.

The Good News

This is where the battle is won or lost. This is where the work starts. And it is good news. You have to lose the glow. It’s a very necessary stage. Without it, you can’t begin to really shape the silkworm spit into silk. But first, before you begin to revise, you need to deal with this intruder.

You can’t just ignore it. It’s not going to go away.

Enter the ring with a 3-point strategy.

  • Recognize it
  • Respond with speed
  • Face it directly

Recognize and unmask it.

As writers, we can never eradicate self doubt. It will fade in and out, sometimes with noise and aggression, but more often in the form of a whisper. The key to overcoming it is to recognize its appearance on the spot. Notice the words and phrases it uses; write them down. Knowing the words prepares you to deal with self-doubt on a daily basis, especially when you are at the beginning phase of a new work. My recurring favorites: I can’t possibly do this! and Why bother?

Here’s the kicker: This voice is masquerading as you. It is pretending to be you—that is its secret weapon. By naming it you draw a line between You and Self Doubt. The thinnest of lines is all that’s needed.

The line is sacred. It deprives self-doubt of its power. You are on one side and it is on the other. You are affirming and practicing your Authorial Presence.

The Perilous Pause

The second you recognize it, object! Refuse to consider its allegations. If you delay, self-doubt will get the upper hand or derail you completely.

You have to do more than object. Replace the words of self-doubt with your words of encouragement and affirmation. My favorite: I can do this! I’m a writer and I’m going to write this! Nothing is going to stop me. Period.

What you have done is to choose to believe in the value of what you are writing. Self-doubt cannot stand in the light of that.

Face it directly.

Self-doubt doesn’t play fair. It often hovers sub-verbally. Give it your full attention. Call it out. Stop trying to write. Instead, turn and face it directly. Don’t just flick it away like an annoying fly. You have to go after that f** fly with your full awareness.

What about the days when we just feel pummeled? When the demon has seemingly taken over? Then it’s time to shake things up a bit. Interrupt. Disrupt. Here are some of my successful tactics:

  • Get angry and rage about it out loud
  • Call a writer friend and rage about it
  • Walk or run around the block
  • Vacuum (surprisingly effective!)

What you may discover is that although the fire has gone out of your draft, the coals are still red hot

Sally Wolfe is an author, book coach and editor. Her novel Consolations was published in 2014 by Luminis Press. She is currently working on her second book: “Wish You Were Here: Tales of Courtship and Separation.”

Find out more about her on her website:  http://www.bookmanifesto.com/

Follow her on Twitter: SWolfe_Editor

Follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BookManifesto


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (21)

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  1. A.J. Smith says:

    Boy did I need this right now!!!
    So, one for the social media camp.
    Thank you

  2. Emily Arden says:

    Wonderful article – thanks Sally! I seem to lurch from hours (days) of inspiration and enthusiasm, followed by the trauma of reading it through with a critical eye and wondering whether it was as good as I thought it was. And hardest of all, whether anyone else will think it’s worth reading. It is a painful process, but the imagery of hot coals works for me. Eventually the sparks will set something off… (As long as we can avoid the bucket of water).

    • Sally Wolfe says:

      Hi Emily, so glad it was helpful! I know the feeling, the rollercoaster that is the condition of every author’s life I think. The coals are the vision, what drives us to keep writing, to keep telling our stories. And I see by your website, you have been telling quite a few. 🙂

  3. Mary Ellen Latela says:

    Sally, sorry I don’t believe that the Demons of self-doubt exist, unless we want to personify our limitations. Of course, there may be a rush of excitement when a page spills out (though I can’t remember the last time it happened to me!), but it can’t last or we’d just dance around and never sit down again. Emotions come and go. They are not bad or good; they just ARE. Self-doubt is like a thorn which makes us wonder how we could possibly create something new and wonderful… it’s not permanent. What is the worst that could happen? We might be embarrassed (although public humiliation only really works on reality TV), but no one ever died of embarrassment. I do think that taking regular breaks, no matter how it’s going, makes sense … whether we’re flying along or acting like a tortoise. Try to focus on the page, not on the writer. After all, a perfect character doesn’t give us much, so a writer who is imperfect – human – is just right! Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Kayla Moore says:

    Wonderful advice!
    I find myself in and out of this state of mind a lot. A tip that I’ve found that helps me is to not let myself go back over scenes right away. I find that I will pick them apart terribly if they are too freshly written. I give them a few days to settle and then, only if I need help picking up the mood or flow from them for a session of writing, do I let myself go back. Basically, don’t let yourself edit while you are trying to write. GET THE STORY DOWN, then go back later. Sounds simple but for me its a struggle not to re-read, re-edit, and revise a single scene for an hour instead of just moving forward with the story.

    • Sally Wolfe says:

      I know, Kayla. Isn’t it true–the temptation to tinker is almost irresistible! But yes, writing and editing are two totally different animals. When I honor that, I am more productive and have more fun writing. Thanks so much for reading and sharing!

  5. Mary Rowen says:

    Wow, this is a terrific article. I a RIGHT at that point now, beginning major revisions on a novel and asking myself “why did I even start this?” But when I walk away and think about it, I believe there’s a good core there. It’s going to take some hard work, but I will bookmark this post and come back to it when I need it. Thanks so much for writing and sharing it!

  6. Anina says:

    This is great. you rock!

  7. You hit on my favorite way to slay the demon: the vacuum. Normally not my favorite activity, the sheer physicality of it blows (or sucks) the demon away, at least for a bit. Bonus: less dog hair on my keyboard. Thanks for the advice!

  8. Hi Sally. Thanks for this article, I can relate to this! Something I’m grappling with however: how do you know when to listen to the inner critic, and when to silence it? It’s easy when the voice is telling you ‘this is all rubbish, give up now’ (then you tell it to get lost), but what about when that wheedling voice is actually giving you useful info, albeit cloaked in abuse and unpleasantness? For example, ‘god, this chapter is so tedious. You’re terrible at plotting. You definitely took a wrong turn back there. You should scrap all this nonsense and rethink.’ Somehow you have to keep your self-esteem intact enough to avoid becoming blocked, but the inner demon might actually have useful information for you. Wouldn’t you be foolhardy not to listen and engage with the criticism? I’d be interested to hear your strategies for distinguishing between useful doubts and unhelpful ones. Happy writing!

    • Sally Wolfe says:

      Yeah, that inner critic. IS it offering me wisdom or garbage? Here’s what works for me. I try to separate my WRITING from my EDITING process. When I’m writing, I just want to let it flow, whatever’s coming, get it down. Later, I will look at the work from the editor point of view. That voice I trust to evaluate, to offer suggestions, to delve. But if the voice has a tone of abusiveness, is in anyway demeaning, like calling me names, I know that’s not an editor. That’s a critical voice I don’t need or want.

  9. Ntathu Allen says:

    Love it!! Can identify with the adrenalin rush of words tumbling carelessly on the page and then…… the gremlins of self-doubt slip in through the spaces on the page. Nice tips and suggestions to help us keep keep our focus, self-belief and passion for writing. Thank you

  10. Lovely post! I enjoyed the fine-grained description of the creation process.

    It’s so important to come to grips with the process of writing (with all its up and down), otherwise you end up with a cupboard full of half-written pieces…

  11. Your article was published at the perfect time for me! Thank you!!

    I love how you said that “we can never eradicate self-doubt.” Your advice about replacing those “doubtful” words with “encouraging” ones is incredibly helpful. I used to cower in my self-doubt, but now I see that I can face it head on and it will run for the hills all by itself!

    Being in the middle of writing the second draft of my novel, your words were incredibly helpful to me as I lost some steam these past few weeks. Now I have gone from “you’ll never finish this book” to “you are completing this book one day at a time.”

    • Sally Wolfe says:

      So wonderful to hear Melinda. I remember how difficult the second draft of my novel was. So many times I wanted to give up and start something else! Thanks for sharing.

  12. This is a wonderful post. I’ve always been good at taking self-doubt head on when I recognized it. But sometimes I had kicked myself to the curb for days before I realized what the problem was.

    Now there’s a place and time to be on the lookout and attack self-doubt that floats in quietly and surrounds me like fog — at the point of revision.

    OK. Here it comes. I’m ready.

  13. T.O. Weller says:

    Thanks for the great advice, Sally.

    I find self-doubt infiltrates my perspective in a very insidious way (alongside fear and overwhelm). I don’t always recognize it for what it is.

    You’re right, calling it out, exposing it, is like turning on the light in a dark room — it will lose its power.

    I have a first draft of a novel to get back to, and it’s been haunting me. Perhaps I should go vacuum now. 🙂

  14. Great article! It’s so important to face the doubt rather than shy away from it. I’ve noticed that my desire to procrastinate is usually either the result of either not having a clear idea of what I need to write next or my inner critic saying things that I’m trying to ignore. The thing that usually gets me unstuck is writing down what my inner critic is saying, then reframing it. Once I’ve done that, it’s a lot easier to go back to the planning stage and figure out what the next section or scene could be about.

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