So, let’s say you’re about fifteen thousand words into your story when you realize, “Holy cow, I hate everything I’ve written. This is horrible. Everything about this is horrible. I can’t write, I don’t know what to do, I’m—”
Stop. You’re freaking yourself out.
But trust when I say that this spot you’ve hit is totally, completely normal. Writers, both published and unpublished, fall to this low point all the time whether they’ve finished zero books or fifty books.
Like most problems, the “my story is horrible” breaking point has a multitude of causes, not just one. The little point at the tip of the iceberg sets you off, but that might not even be the biggest problem – it’s the enormous hunk of ice beneath the surface, something that has collected over time, and something we can’t see unless we look deeper.
When you get to this tipping point, the best thing you can do is set the story aside, give yourself some time to breathe, and then figure out what exactly brought you to this stage of breaking apart. Dissecting what’s wrong takes the big wad of frustration and makes sense of it, and when we understand why we feel a particular way, we can find the right antidotes as well.
Here are a few common causes of first draft blues:
- Writing it has been a struggle. Sometimes every single word in your present cumulative word count felt like absolute torture to pull out, and when writing is a struggle, it’s easy to believe the writing reads just as horribly as it felt to write it. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it isn’t. We are, after all, our own harshest critics.
- The story feels like it’s dragging serious hind quarters. Writing is a slow process. Whether you’re a writer who pushes out a few hundred words a day or a few thousand, the writing process is slow. Sometimes this feels, by consequence, like the actual story is also slow, that the pacing drags. Our sense of time passing in the story is disjointed, so it’s not always a wholly accurate grasp of the pacing.
- The story lacks a clear middle. Whether a detail-oriented outliner or a pantser, hitting a point in the story that has no clear direction can kill the momentum, the drive, and the interest. And, sometimes, laboring through the middle can feel like we’re leaving a serious mess in our path instead of the cohesive, consistent story we originally imagined.
- The story is no longer interesting to you. After the beginning is written, the story loses that shiny newness that made it intriguing. All that potential and exploration evolves into commitment and duty, which can then evolve into a chore, like homework. A requirement. It’s no longer as fun as it had been in the beginning. The only cure for this is to push through and write anyway.
- The story didn’t turn out the way you thought it would. Planning and outlining can only tell us so much about a story before we dive in. Largely, we really can’t be sure what we’re going to get until we finish that final word. Some things often can’t be planned for, such as development in characters or plot, and sometimes that feeling of “I’ve lost control of this story” gets us.
- The story feels like it genuinely sucks. It might be because we’re stuck in a highly critical mode and seeing the tiniest flaw in everything. It might be that we see too many of the same stories on the shelves already. It might be the plot, the characters, everything. But the case is often that we’re over-analyzing a work of art before it’s finished.
- The writing isn’t good enough. Sometimes we want and expect the first draft to look as perfect as a final draft, or our most favorite piece of fiction. We have trouble “uglying it up” and letting ourselves write cringe-worthy prose. But writing cringe-worthy prose brings us closer to writing the awesome stuff, while writing nothing leaves us with just that: nothing.
- You reread what you had. Some writers do this to stay motivated, or to get back into the writing mood, and it works for them. For other writers, rereading before the story’s completed can kick out the knees because we turn on the critical mode prematurely. This means we see everything that’s wrong as we’re rereading, and that can get seriously overwhelming.
If you’re stuck in the first draft blues, some of the above things might have hit home with you. They’re all legitimate feelings, and while writing through one or two or even a few is possible, but an army of bad feelings can conquer us.
If you’re feeling close to conquered, don’t give up just yet. Check out these articles from us and our fellow writing blog friends:
- On habits and taking care of yourself
- Steps to becoming confident in your writing
- Troubles with focusing on only one story
- Write for yourself
- Ego versus Insecurity
- The inner critic and ways to fight it
- Writing a story that’s doomed to suck
- Originality: when writing, don’t overthink
- Guide: what to do when your story stalls
- A few tips when your story starts to sound bland
- When your writing sounds bad/bland
- You will change as a writer